Detroit Lions vs. Green Bay Packers: Scouting report, prediction

Dave Birkett
Detroit Free Press
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Sep 25, 2016; Green Bay, WI, USA; Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers runs for a first down before being tackled by the Lions' Brandon Copeland (51) and Tahir Whitehead at Lambeau Field.

Free Press sports writer Dave Birkett breaks down the matchups for Sunday night's NFC North title game:

Detroit Lions (9-6) vs. Green Bay Packers (9-6)

When: 8:30 p.m., Sunday.

Where: Ford Field, Detroit. 

Line: Packers by 3.

TV/radio: NBC, Channel 4 in Detroit; WJR-AM (760).

Live blog: Join us at 8:30 p.m.!

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Injury report

Lions

Out: RB Theo Riddick (wrist); Doubtful: C Travis Swanson (concussion); Questionable: LB DeAndre Levy (knee), CB Darius Slay (hamstring), WR Andre Roberts (shoulder), OT Riley Reiff (hip).

Packers

Out: RB James Starks (concussion); Questionable: WR Randall Cobb (ankle), CB Damarious Randall (shoulder), LB Joe  Thomas (back), OL JC Tretter (knee), LB Jayrone Elliott (hand).

Three storylines to watch

Won or done?

The Lions’ season comes down to this: If they beat the Packers on Sunday at what should be a raucous Ford Field, they’ll win their first division title in 23 years and host a playoff game, likely next week. If they lose, there’s a good chance their season will be over and they’ll have blown a two-game division lead with three games to play.

From the Lions’ standpoint, this is the biggest game in the history of Ford Field.

“I can’t wait,” receiver Golden Tate said. “I’m excited for this team, I’m excited for this city. We have a great opportunity to do something that hasn’t been done in a long time. I think the last time we won (the division) was (1993). We have a chance to do something special.”

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Caldwell watch

If the Lions lose and miss the playoffs, immediately the focus will turn to the future. And the biggest question as it relates to that is what becomes of coach Jim Caldwell?

The Lions have overachieved in a lot of ways this year, and Caldwell deserves credit for keeping the ship steady after a second straight rough start. But a three-game losing streak to end the season is never a good thing, and there’s no telling what first-year general manager Bob Quinn – who inherited Caldwell as coach – will do.

No one from the Lions is talking yet. But if the season ends Sunday, they’ll have decisions to make.

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Table manners

It wasn’t long ago that it was popular to bash Aaron Rodgers. But after a slow start to the season, the Packers’ all-world quarterback is playing as well as anyone in the NFL once again.

Rodgers has completed 71.4% of his passes with 11 touchdowns and no interceptions during the Packers’ current five-game winning streak. He said in late November he thought the Packers could run the table and win out, and he’s one victory away from making that happen.

“He’s still dangerous with his feet, he’s dangerous with his arm, he can make every throw, he’s a great leader,” Caldwell said. “He’s extremely accurate. So I’m not certain what all of the naysayers were talking about. He’s still just as effective as he’s always been.”

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Know the foe: Packers (9-6)

Coach: Mike McCarthy (121-67-1 overall, 121-67-1 with Packers)

Key players: QB Aaron Rodgers, WR Jordy Nelson, RB Ty Montgomery, LB Nick Perry, S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix

Last game: Beat the Vikings, 38-25

Last meeting: 2016: Packers won, 34-27

The buzz: It has been a little over five weeks since Rodgers said he thought the Packers could “run the table,” and he’s one game from being proven correct. The Packers have won five straight games to get back into a first-place tie atop the NFC North, and a victory Sunday will give them their fifth division title in six years. Rodgers has played his way into the MVP discussion with an excellent second half of the season. He has 36 touchdown passes against seven interceptions this season and hasn’t lost a turnover since Nov. 13. It looks like the anterior cruciate ligament injury that cost Nelson last season is finally in his rear-view mirror, and Montgomery has helped a running game that lost Eddie Lacy to injury. The Packers still have their issues on defense, but they have 12 takeaways in the past three games. Perry, a Detroit native, leads the way with 10 sacks. Julius Peppers (7.5 sacks) is still playing at a high level a few weeks shy of his 37th birthday. And Clinton-Dix (five INTs) was voted to his first Pro Bowl.

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Scouting report

Lions run offense vs. Packers run defense

The Lions got a few big series' out of Zach Zenner at the start of Monday night's loss to the Dallas Cowboys, then turned into the same one-dimensional team we’ve seen most of the season. They rank 30th in the league in rushing entering Sunday’s game and aren’t expected to have top rusher Theo Riddick (wrist) for the fourth straight game.

Zenner, who ran for a career-high 67 yards on 12 carries in Dallas, deserves another start after a good showing. He’s not the most explosive back, but he’ll get what’s available to him on any given play. Rookie Dwayne Washington has home-run capability, but he’s averaging a paltry 2.9 yards per carry.

The Packers are ninth in the NFL in rush defense at 95.9 yards per game, but they’ve shown cracks, allowing more than 120 yards in four of the past seven weeks. They held the Lions to 50 yards rushing in the first meeting, when they jumped to a huge lead early, and have Clay Matthews back on the field now. Edge: Packers

Matthew Stafford is sacked by  the Packers' Kyler Fackrell at Lambeau Field on Sept. 25, 2016.

The lack of a running game has taken a toll on the offense in general as Matthew Stafford has not thrown a touchdown pass the past two games. Stafford is still playing with a finger injury on his throwing hand, and he has do a better job taking care of the ball after committing five turnovers in the past 11 quarters.

Marvin Jones erupted for 205 yards and two touchdowns in the first meeting against the Packers, but he has gone over 75 yards in a game once since, as teams have found ways to limit him at the line of scrimmage. Given the way the Packers try and trap passes with their cornerbacks, look for the Lions to try to get Jones loose deep again.

The Packers have a Pro Bowl safety in Clinton-Dix and generate good pressure out of a front seven led by Perry (10 sacks) and Peppers (7.5), but their secondary leaves plenty to be desired overall. Starting cornerback Randall was benched for part of last week’s win over the Minnesota Vikings. Edge: Lions

Packers run offense vs. Lions run defense

The Packers have maintained some semblance of a running game despite losing running backs  Lacy and Starks to injuries. Montgomery has changed positions from receiver to running back. He’s not polished as a running back, but his versatility is a challenge on defense.

Lacy ran for 103 yards on the Lions in the first meeting, and McCarthy has at times over-committed to the run in his career. That wasn’t the case last week, though, as Green Bay ran the ball just 15 times.

After five straight games holding opponents under 100 yards rushing, the Lions have allowed a whopping 278 yards over the past two weeks. Haloti Ngata and A’Shawn Robinson are playing well at the defensive tackle position, and the linebacking unit has been better since Levy’s return. But big plays have hurt the Lions in the run game. Edge: Lions

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Packers pass offense vs. Lions pass defense

Anyone think Rodgers is struggling now? Rodgers took some heat for his play early this season, but he has worked his way into the MVP discussion. He’s fourth in the league in passing, has 36 touchdowns and seven interceptions and hasn’t thrown a pick in going on two months.

Nelson has re-emerged as Rodgers’ favorite receiver – he leads the league with 14 receiving touchdowns – and Davante Adams is closing in on 1,000 yards receiving and is one of the league’s most improved players. No. 3 receiver Cobb is questionable to play with an ankle injury.

The Lions have their own injury problems in the secondary as Slay is questionable to play because of a hamstring injury that has nagged him much of the season. Slay sat out the Cowboys game, but practiced on a limited basis all week. If Slay can’t play or is hobbled, the Lions are in a world of hurt in a secondary that would be down to Nevin Lawson, Johnson Bademosi and Asa Jackson at cornerback. Edge: Packers

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Special teams

The Lions played an uncharacteristically bad game on special teams last week, as Matt Prater missed a field goal, Sam Martin struggled punting and return man Roberts got hurt. Roberts is questionable with a shoulder injury after he missed practice all week, but there are no concerns about Prater and Martin.

The Packers have allowed one kick return touchdown earlier this year, but have been relatively solid in the special teams department otherwise. Jake Schum is netting a modest 39.3 yards per punt since taking over for Tim Masthay, while Mason Crosby is 25-for-29 on field goals with no kick longer than 50 yards. Micah Hyde has three punt-return touchdowns in his career. Edge: Lions

Prediction

Lions 27, Packers 24: The Lions and Packers appear to be heading in different directions, with the Lions losing two straight games after opening the season 9-4 and the Packers as hot as anyone in the NFL. Rodgers has been unstoppable lately, and Green Bay is an impressive plus-13 in turnover margin during its five-game winning streak.

For the Lions to stop their skid and win their first division title in 23 years, they’ll have to get make life tough on Rodgers. That means limiting Green Bay’s running game, keeping Rodgers in the pocket and cutting off the big play. The offense can help matters by controlling the clock, and Stafford must play turnover-free football.

Logically, the Packers should win this game, though the teams are fairly evenly matched. The wild card is Ford Field, where the Lions should enjoy a tremendous homefield advantage thanks to the stakes of the game and the electric atmosphere that awaits. That will be just enough to propel the Lions to victory and a home playoff game next week.

Contact Dave Birkett: dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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