The Green Bay Packers (6-3) will put both a four-game overall winning streak and eight-game division streak on the line Sunday when they travel to Detroit to take on the Lions (4-5).
Green Bay hasn’t lost since blowing an 18-point lead to the Indianapolis Colts in Week 5, while the Lions remain the last team from the NFC North to beat the Packers, a feat they accomplished in Detroit back in Dec. of 2010.
A win Sunday for Green Bay would set a new franchise record for consecutive wins against the division (nine). Previously, the Packers won eight straight division games in both 1996-97 and 2001-02.
Here are some other things you could watch Sunday:
Three Keys to Unlocking the Division Door
On Wednesday, Packers head coach Mike McCarthy made it known that his formula for winning games against the NFC North (McCarthy is 28-9 since 2006) is far from complicated. Win the battle of turnovers, third downs and penalties, and good things happen.
The Packers have mostly followed McCarthy’s plan against the NFC North, especially recently. Over the current eight-game win streak inside the division, Green Bay is plus-10 in turnovers, slightly behind the opposition in third down conversions (.367 to .396) and guilty of half the total penalties (35 to 70). The Packers will need to again be sharp in all three areas Sunday to run the win streak to nine.
Emotions Run High
While Packers-Bears and Packers-Vikings might be better overall rivalries, emotions seem to run higher when Green Bay plays the Lions. Most can recall Ndamukong Suh’s stomp on Evan Dietrich-Smith last November, but former Packers cornerback Pat Lee was ejected from the same game for throwing a punch on a punt return. With the Lions playing at home with their playoff hopes on the line, expect another emotional contest Sunday.
However, that emotion has occasionally meant an abundance of penalties, especially from Detroit. Over the last two games against Green Bay, the Lions have committed 21 penalties for 183 yards—with a bunch of the 15-yard variety. Remember, Suh’s stomp turned a likely field goal try into a Packers touchdown last season in Detroit.
The Lions are still that chippy, after-the-whistle football team, so playing with composure will again be a must. The Packers can’t join in on any self-destructive behavior Sunday, no matter the circumstance.
No Clay, No Problem?
The Packers will be playing without linebacker Clay Matthews (hamstring) for just the third time in his four-year career, and the results haven’t been pretty in those previous contests.
With Matthews sitting out because of a hamstring injury in 2010, Dolphins quarterback Chad Henne completed 10 passes to Brandon Marshall for 127 yards and wasn’t sacked in a 23-20 overtime win for Miami. Matthews then rested in the season finale in January, and the Lions scored 41 points as Matthew Stafford threw for 520 yards and five touchdowns (244 yards and one touchdown going to Calvin Johnson).
Sunday should present another difficult challenge.
The Lions come into Week 11 as the No. 1 passing offense in the NFL at over 300 yards a game, which only compounds the production missing from Matthews in the pass rush. According to Pro Football Focus, Matthews has totalled nearly a third of the team’s total quarterback disruptions and nine of the team’s 28 sacks. How successful defensive coordinator Dom Capers is in generating pressure with a combination of Erik Walden, Dezman Moses and Frank Zombo may determine whether this is a classic slugfest (like in Detroit in 2011) or another wild shootout.
Changes Up Front
After starting the first nine weeks of the season with the same five offensive linemen, the Packers will head to Detroit with two positions featuring different names. In response to Bryan Bulaga (hip) going on IR, left guard T.J. Lang shifts to right tackle, and Evan Dietrich-Smith, who started two games at right guard last season, takes over at Lang’s spot. Both players have experience at the new position, but it’s an adjustment regardless.
The inside of the line—Dietrich-Smith, Jeff Saturday and Josh Sitton—might face the biggest test. Suh and 2011 first-round pick Nick Fairley are big, destructive forces. According to Lions coach Jim Schwartz, both are also coming off their best performance of 2012 against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 10. And while the Packers held their ground against the Lions defensive line last season, former center Scott Wells played well in each game. Can Saturday (more of a finesse player) replicate how Wells handled the two, especially with Dietrich-Smith to his left?
There was a time not so long ago when the Packers self-destructed time and time again inside domes. Those days are long gone, and quarterback Aaron Rodgers playing indoors may just be the trump card for the Packers Sunday.
The numbers for Rodgers in controlled environments are downright silly. In 19 career starts in domes (including the postseason), Rodgers has completed 434 of 602 passes (68.7 percent) for 5,691 yards, 47 touchdowns and seven interceptions. His passer rating of 117.0 indoors is the best mark in NFL history.
Want more numbers? Rodgers has thrown for 300 or more yards in 13 of those 19 games in domes, and only four times has his passer rating finished below 110. You can pick the hyperbole to describe his play recently. Over his last eight games indoors, Rodgers has 25 touchdowns and just one interception, good for a passer rating of 127.9. In seven of the eight, Rodgers finished with over 300 yards and a passer rating over 100.0.
These two are familiar opponents, and that typically lends itself to the defensive side of the football. However, coordinators Dom Capers and Gunther Cunningham will have to come up with masterful game plans to keep this from being a shootout. Not having Clay Matthews is a killer for Capers, and there isn’t a defensive coordinator in football that can figure out Rodgers in doors over the last couple of seasons. Both offenses should be trending up, too; The Lions can now run the football with Mikel Leshoure, and the Packers are getting back Jordy Nelson at close to 100 percent. The difference Sunday will be one forced throw from Stafford, while Rodgers avoids the game-changing mistake. Packers win a 72-point thriller.
Packers 38, Lions 34 (Season record: 4-5)
Zach Kruse is a 24-year-old sports writer who contributes to Cheesehead TV, Bleacher Report and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He also covers prep sports for the Dunn Co. News. You can reach him on Twitter @zachkruse2 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.