Winner-take-all finale suits Packers-Lions
So it all comes down to this.
The NFC North. A 23-year-old winning streak. A first-round bye. It all will be up for grabs this Sunday when the Green Bay Packers host the Detroit Lions at Lambeau Field, a rivalry that's been historically one-sided when played in Wisconsin.
Of course, the conversation starts with the health of quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who strained his left calf muscle early in Sunday's 20-3 win over Tampa Bay. He stayed in the game, but battled tightness and discomfort for the remainder of the game.
The Packers altered their schedule in light of the holiday week. While coaches reviewed film, players came in for a re-gen workout, team meeting and reintroduction to Lions. The team will practice Tuesday and Wednesday before taking Thursday off for Christmas.
Rodgers said after the game it would "definitely take a lot to hold me out of this game," but it remains to be seen if he'll be limited at all this week in practice.
"Aaron worked today; he's obviously sore," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "I know he's sore. Frankly, I'm worried about the whole team as much as the amount of reps (Tuesday). He told me he wants to work, but we'll see what the medical... I really haven't talked to the medical staff about his specific injury. But he was very upbeat and positive about it."
The Packers will need all of their bullets to topple the NFL's second-ranked defense, a task they fell short of during the teams' previous meeting on Sept. 21 at Ford Field. The Packers had their health, but not their offensive rhythm in managing only 223 total yards in the 19-7 defeat.
Afterward, Randall Cobb admitted he was frustrated with his play. Eddie Lacy said he didn't know whether to "be more patient or speed up." The high-powered offense everyone anticipated was disjointed.
Like every NFL season, teams evolve throughout the course of a campaign. Adjustments were made, beginning with the Packers placing the ball back in Rodgers' hands after teasing a run-first mentality in the first few weeks of the season.
Three months later, the Packers have jumped 22 spots to sixth in total offense (386.7 yards per game) and second in points (456). The running game has reemerged with Lacy eclipsing the 1,000-yard mark for the second consecutive season with 99 more yards against the Buccaneers.
"I think everybody's offense is different today than it was in September," McCarthy said. "And going back to the first game, playing up there in the dome, we didn't run it as well as we would have liked and really didn't get things going on first and second down, and I thought we really played uphill on third down a bunch. So that was our biggest (problem). ... It was clearly not a very good day for us offensively."
The Packers started looking at Lions film on the way home from Tampa. Statistically, there doesn't seem to be much change. It's been nearly impossible all season for anyone to run against the defensive line of Ziggy Ansah, Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and Jason Jones.
The role of former Wisconsin linebacker DeAndre Levy also can't be overlooked in a run defense that's allowing a league-low 63.8 yards per game. They've gotten the better of Lacy to this point in his career, holding him to an average of 3.4 yards per carry in three games.
Lacy exited early in the fourth quarter against the Buccaneers with a cramping issue, but McCarthy said Monday indications are he'll be fine.
"Strength and conditioning (staff) said he probably had one of his best workouts of the year, just going in and checking in with them," McCarthy said. "Yeah, I have no concerns about Eddie."
The Packers' defense held up its end of the bargain against the Lions in the first meeting. Dom Capers' unit forced Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford into three turnovers (two interceptions, one fumble) and didn't surrender a touchdown. Its biggest gaffe was the inability to stop the Lions' four-minute offense.
McCarthy likes the change that's been made to the structure of division games, which has the Packers playing for a division title in the last week of the regular season for the second consecutive year. A year ago, Rodgers returned from a broken collarbone and hit Cobb on a 48-yard touchdown to turn back Chicago 33-28 for Green Bay's third consecutive NFC North crown.
McCarthy said he hasn't thought much about that encounter, but you always draw back on your past experiences. The more pressing issue is sharpening up on an opponent the Packers haven't seen in three months.
"This has been a different year," McCarthy said. "If you look at playing the division games early, playing the Lions early, being a new staff, playing the Vikings early, a new staff, and then not playing the Vikings again until November, so obviously a lot of things changed during the course of that time, but even more importantly with the Lions, so … just really it's more film study."
Several first- and second-year players on the Packers' roster weren't even alive when the Lions last beat the Packers in Wisconsin, a 21-17 loss on Dec. 15, 1991. The Packers currently are a seven-point favorite to continue that trend.
It's not difficult to see why. The Packers are 7-0 at home this season and averaging more than 40 points per game. Rodgers has been exceptional, owning a 132.6 passer rating in his backyard off 144-of-218 for 2,108 yards with 23 touchdowns and zero interceptions.
The Packers' offense could be limited in what it's able to do if Rodgers is hampered at all by the calf. As well as the offensive line has played, the Lions' stingy defensive front is going to want to keep the pressure on.
The stakes are high. A win would allow the Packers a first-round bye for the first time since 2011. A loss could force them on the road against a seven-win team from the NFC South. If the Packers are fully immersed in a playoff-mentality, however, what better way to start than against the Lions?
"Byes are valuable. That's why you fight like crazy to be a No. 1 seed or a No. 2 seed," McCarthy said. "Any time you have a chance to get that week off, I think it's important. I know some people believe in keep playing. We've done both. I think the bye is very beneficial, regardless of the outcome of the week after. It gives you a better chance to get your team ready. At the end of the day, best preparation usually leads to a better performance."