Okay, we all know the scenario heading into the final regular season game on the NFL schedule. If the Green Bay Packers win, they claim the golden ticket, the seventh and final invitation to the NFC playoffs. And by the time the game kicks off, the Lions will know if they have a chance at the prize or if they are merely playing the role of spoiler.
As I wrote here, I believe the Lions will play hard regardless of their situation. However, I think we can all agree the NFL did the Detroit Lions and Seattle Seahawks no favors by moving this game to the prime-time island (in the league’s defense, their options were limited).
This marks the first time the Packers will close the regular season at home since the 2018 finale, a 31-0 shutout by Detroit over the DeShone Kizer-led Packers that put a wrap on Mike McCarthy’s tenure in Green Bay. Throw out that game, and the Packers are 28-2 over the Lions in Wisconsin over the last 30 years.
Throw that the Pack is 10-0 in the regular season in December-January under Matt LaFleur and that Jared Goff is 0-4 lifetime in games played in sub-freezing temperatures, and you can see why the Green & Gold optimism is off the charts.
This unlikely four-game winning streak that incredibly put the Packers in control of their own destiny has had very little to do with the offense. Sure, getting their preferred offensive line on the field, finally, last week was huge. But the resurrection of Joe Barry’s defense, finally a ball-hawking, aggressive, we’re-on-the-same-page unit, has been the biggest difference. Nine interceptions and three fumble recoveries during this four-game stretch — and a unit that tightens the screws late in games. They hadn’t allowed a fourth-quarter score in a month until garbage time last week.
Then there’s Keisean Nixon‘s emergence and amazing impact on special teams. Five returns of over 50 yards and, of course, the 105-yard beauty that jump-started the Pack on their way to gutting the Minnesota Vikings. I’m still getting used to the Nixon factor. I’m so accustomed to closing my eyes and holding my breath whenever a kick or punt is heading toward the arms of a Packer returner. This will take some getting used to.
Detroit’s offense will try to make things easy for Goff, testing the Pack’s run defense on the edges with D’Andre Swift, slamming Jamaal Williams between the tackles, and moving their best playmaker, Amon-Ra St. Brown, all over the place; he’ll constantly be moving pre-snap to make sure Jaire Alexander can’t jam him at the line and follow him everywhere. (An aside: what would the Pack’s offense look like if they had drafted St. Brown to join his brother instead of Amari Rodgers…nah, let’s not go there.) The Pack must stay disciplined and not allow him to run wild after the catch.
In the first meeting in early November, the Packers held the Lions to under 200 yards of total offense — their worst home performance of the season. And they’ve been far less productive on the road, getting shut out in New England and, most recently, laying an egg against the Carolina Panthers. If the Pack can get Goff into tough third-down situations, they’ll be poised for a few more takeaways.
The Pack has to be looking at Carolina’s box score and drooling. The Lions gave up 320 yards on the ground to that Canton-bound duo of D’Onta Foreman and Chuba Hubbard. The game plan has to involve Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon getting 30-40 touches between them. In last year’s game at Lambeau, Jones hit paydirt four times.
The Lions’ run defense should get a shot in the arm with the expected return of safety DeShon Elliott, who’s missed the last two games with a dislocated shoulder. He’s their second leading tackler and has been very vocal about his disdain for Rodgers and the lack of respect he feels No. 12 has for Detroit. After the first meeting, a 15-9 Lions win where the Pack vomited all over themselves in the red zone all day, Rodgers said, “We can’t lose a game like that against that team.” Detroit was 1-6 leading into that game.
The return of Elliott and the emergence of rookie pass rusher James Houston give the Lions’ defense some bite. Houston, a sixth-round pick out of Jackson State, has eight sacks in his last six games (he got three against the Bears’ sieve-like offensive line last week). He and talented top pick Aidan Hutchinson give the Lions a very productive, athletic pair of young pass rushers, but facing David Bakhtiari, Yosh Nijman, and the interior of the Packers line is a different story.
Still, Rodgers needs to be sharp, on time, and in rhythm and should be able to use pay action effectively. He won’t be throwing two picks from inside the five-yard line this time. And we can only hope Romeo Doubs won’t be lost to injury after his first catch like he was in the first matchup. Only Brett Favre has thrown more career touchdown passes against the Lions than Rodgers — his passer rating of 105.8 is second all-time against them.
After dropping seven games in an eight-game stretch, the last thing we expected was a chance at a win-and-in scenario, but here we are. Do you believe the Packers are going to drop the ball here? Do you believe the Lions will go on the road, in Green Bay, in prime time, with temperatures in the mid-20s, and end the Pack’s season? Me neither. But it won’t be as easy as last week.