Entering just the fifth week of the 2013 season, the Green Bay Packers (1-2) already face the possibility of falling three games behind in the win column in the rough and tough NFC North.
The division leading Detroit Lions (3-1) have stormed out of the gates with three wins, including two victories in two tries inside the North. A third division game brings Detroit to Green Bay, where the Lions haven't won in over two decades and a span of 22 games.
The Chicago Bears (3-1) can also get a fourth win by defeating the unbeaten New Orleans Saints at home Sunday.
A three-loss Packers team would still be plenty capable of overcoming the three-win deficit, especially over a 12-game finish that features five more division games after Sunday. But the NFC North is once again proving to be one of the NFL's best divisions, and a home loss to the Lions would further complicate the Packers' quest of keeping the crown for a third straight year.
Here’s five important questions that the Packers need to answer against the Lions in Week 5:
1. Is Aaron Rodgers Ready to Bounce Back?
Rare is the game when a majority of blame for a loss can be placed on the shoulders of quarterback Aaron Rodgers. One such case came in Week 3, when Rodgers tossed two second-half picks and then failed to engineer a late scoring drive as Green Bay fell in Cincinnati. The Packers quarterback finished the contest with a very un-Rodgers-like passer rating of just 64.5, his worst since October 2010. A week of mental rest and the potential of Detroit being without starting cornerback Chris Houston should help fuel a bounce back performance for Rodgers, but the Lions haven't made things easy on him in recent meetings. Over two games against Detroit last season, Rodgers averaged just 204 passing yards and posted a passer rating of 94.3. The Lions have also improved significantly against the pass in 2013, and they currently rank fifth in the NFL in opposing passer rating at 69.4 (down 22.3 points from 2012). There's no tangible reason to worry about one of the game's best players, but this is still an important week for Rodgers.
2. Will Nick Perry Finally Show Up?
For the first two weeks, Packers outside linebacker Nick Perry could claim the containment of mobile quarterbacks as the overlying reason why his impact as a pass rusher had been scarce. No such excuse was available in Week 3, as the statuesque Andy Dalton offered little in terms of pocket mobility. Yet Perry was still a non factor against the Bengals because he couldn't beat powerful right tackle Andre Smith with bull rushes, which currently represents his only move as a rusher. The former first-rounder has been strong setting the edge to start 2013, but he clearly has a long ways to go as a pass rusher. The Packers desperately need him to be better Sunday, as Clay Matthews is dealing with a hamstring issue that could limit his effectiveness. The Lions have also been surprisingly effective in protecting Matthew Stafford, who has been the least sacked quarterback in the NFL this season. This is a game where Perry finally needs to make an impact rushing the passer. His first nine professional games have been underwhelming.
3. Can the Interior Offensive Line Hold Up?
Through three games, the Packers have successfully dealt with Justin Smith and Geno Atkins, two of the game's most dominant inside defenders. The two combined for five total pressures but no quarterback hits or sacks, and neither was a game-changing force in the running game. The Packers interior offensive line will get another stiff test Sunday. Ndamukong Suh is having the best start to a season in his four-year career, and he leads all defensive tackles with 28 total pressures. For context on that number, consider that the Packers defense as a whole has just 38 total pressures in three games this season. Dealing with Suh would be difficult enough on its own, but fellow first-round pick Nick Fairley is another defensive tackle capable of disruption against both the pass and run. Overall, the Lions duo combined for 15 total pressures over two games against Green Bay last season. A reshuffled line of Josh Sitton, Evan Dietrich-Smith and T.J. Lang will have their hands full Sunday, and any failures in containing Suh and Fairley could have game-changing consequences.
4. Will the Packers Continue Winning on First Down?
The Packers are second in the NFL in first downs per game (23.0, trailing only Denver) in large part due to the offense's effectiveness on first down. Green Bay is averaging 7.26 yards on first down, which is best in the NFL and over a third of a yard more than the next best team. Also, only four offenses have a higher percentage of first-down plays covering four or more yards than the Packers' 53.5. Better production in the running game could help explain Green Bay's dominance in these situations, as the Packers are surprisingly second in the NFL in yards per carry (5.3) just a year after finishing a distant 22nd (3.9). Only the Philadelphia Eagles are averaging more yards per rush this season. The Lions will come into Sunday's as the NFL's best third down defense (10 of 47, 21.3 percent), which should put an increased emphasis on Green Bay winning on first down and setting up more manageable situations on third. If the Packers get behind the sticks against Detroit, the offense might have trouble staying on the field.
5. Is There an Answer for Calvin Johnson AND Reggie Bush?
Detroit made one of the more underrated moves of the offseason when it signed running back Reggie Bush to a $16 million deal. That money spent has already paid off handsomely, as Bush has accumulated 433 total yards (254 rushing, 179 receiving) this season despite missing the better part of six quarters due to injury. He's been a perfect fit for the Lions offense, and an ideal complement to all-world receiver Calvin Johnson. With teams dead set on taking away Johnson, Bush has made quick work of short-handed fronts in the running game and soft coverage underneath in the passing game. His presence has forced defensive coordinator to pick their poison in a way. One has to commit to taking away either Bush or Johnson, but no defense has successfully done both in a game this season. The Packers have been effective in stopping the run in 2013 (93.3 yards per game, 3.7 yards per rush), but Green Bay defense has also allowed opposing No. 1 receivers to catch 25 passes for 397 yards and three touchdowns this season. You also can't discount rookie Gio Bernard's 99 total yards (49 receiving) against the Packers in Week 3. It is difficult to envision Green Bay taking away both of the Lions' offensive weapons Sunday.
Prediction: Green Bay 34, Detroit 27 (2-1)
Zach Kruse is a 25-year-old sports writer who contributes to Cheesehead TV, Bleacher Report and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He also covered prep sports for the Dunn Co. News. You can reach him on Twitter @zachkruse2 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.