Here’s a preview of what to watch for when the Green Bay Packers visit Detroit for a 7:30 p.m. kickoff Sunday.
1. The Packers need to survive the initial surge of energy from the crowd.
The Packers' season seems to have been pointing toward Sunday night’s game for months. Fans have been emailing me, tweeting at me and chatting on Facebook that this game would be for the division crown as far back as September. While it’s always best to let things play out, letting them do so has led us to the exact scenario fans envisioned back at the start of the season.
It's winner-take-all for the NFC North title. The loser will receive a wild-card playoff berth if Washington loses at home to the New York Giants (who are locked in as the No. 5 seed). If Washington wins, the Packers-Lions loser is out. In the unlikely event the Packers and Lions play to a tie, Green Bay would win the division (by virtue of beating Detroit in Week 3) and the Lions would be a wild card.
There’s little doubt that the start of Sunday night’s game will be absolutely electric. Lions fans have a chance to watch their team win their division for the first time since 1993. The Packers will be walking into a buzzsaw of noise and emotion the likes of which they haven't seen since probably Week 2 in Minnesota.
In that contest, the Packers’ defense was able to keep them in the game, but the offense never really got on track, mostly because of issues up front handling the noise and staving off a pass rush that was able to pin its ears back due to not having to worry about Aaron Rodgers being able to use a hard count.
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Things will be similar early on during Sunday night’s game. The crowd will be at a fever pitch and the offense will need to work on a silent count early on. Rodgers and the line will need to do a much better job coordinating protections and generally getting the ball out of the quarterback’s hand to combat a Lions front that is a different animal indoors on carpet.
If the Packers can survive that initial surge of energy and emotion, they will be in a great position to be productive against a Lions defense that has struggled overall during the last month.
2. The Packers' pass rush needs to show up without big pressure calls.
Dom Capers has been caught needing to dial up extensive pressure throughout the 2016 season because his front four hasn’t been able to get home. Clay Matthews and Nick Perry being out for an extended time hasn’t helped, but even when they have played, for the most part, opposing quarterbacks have been able to operate pretty much free of worry that any Packers player will come screaming off the edge.
While the sudden reemergence of Matthews against the Vikings was a welcome development, it came against one of the worst offensive lines in the league, at home. On the road against a quarterback who knows how to get the ball out of his hands quickly, Matthews will need to step up his game even from what he flashed Saturday.
Of course, it’s not all on Matthews. Perry and Julius Peppers need to make the most of their opportunities as well. What the Packers can’t afford to have happen is Capers needing to resort to heavy pressure calls that leave his cornerbacks singled up one-on-one with guys like Marvin Jones and Golden Tate.
The Packers' defense never will be the strong side of the ball for this 2016 team, but the unit very much needs to pull its weight and that starts with the guys up front getting home.
3. Now more than ever, the Packers have to avoid trying to do too much.
All things being equal, the Packers are the better team heading into Sunday night’s game. They’ve beaten the Lions once already this season and are riding a five-game winning streak.
The Lions, on the other hand, have lost their last two games and have looked less than ready for prime time while doing so.
If the Packers play their game and don't get caught trying to do too much, they should win. However, this can be a pitfall that bites a team that uses so many young players in key situations and positions.
Look no further than how the Packers exited the playoffs last year. It was a blown coverage by then-rookie Damarious Randall that all but sealed the Packers' fate. The year before that, it was second-year tight end Brandon Bostick trying to do too much that ensured what should have been a trip to the Super Bowl turned into overtime and heartbreaking defeat.
The Packers, to a man, just need to do their jobs. That sounds easy, but in the pressure-filled situation they’ll find themselves in Sunday night, it can be hard to fight the temptation to do just a bit more. That “bit more” can often spell disaster. The Packers need to execute the game plan on both sides of the ball. Do that, and they’ll be hosting a playoff game the next weekend.