The Detroit Lions were able to achieve one of the goals the team set heading into this season, but there's still very elusive one they'd very much like to reach.
After finally ending a playoff absence that lasted more than a decade, the still-hungry Lions now have their sights zeroed in on claiming their first win at Lambeau Field in 20 years. The NFC Wild Card recipients will try to accomplish the feat in Sunday's matchup with the conference-leading Green Bay Packers, who'll be entering the regular season finale with a different objective after securing home-field advantage throughout the upcoming tournament.
Detroit obtained its place in the NFC playoffs by virtue of last Saturday's 38-10 dismantling of visiting San Diego, but the Lions don't seem about to rest on their laurels after vanquishing a postseason drought that had gone on since 1999.
"We are going to try to win the game," said Detroit head coach Jim Schwartz in reference to Sunday's test. "Any game they put in front of us, we are going to try our best to win."
The Lions do have some incentive as well, as a victory over the defending Super Bowl champion Packers would give the club the No. 5 playoff seed and a presumably less-strenuous road date with the NFC East representative, either the New York Giants or Dallas, next weekend. If Detroit loses on Sunday and Atlanta defeats lowly Tampa Bay, Schwartz's squad would be the sixth entry and forced to travel to one of two double-digit winners, New Orleans or San Francisco.
Detroit fell to both the Saints and 49ers earlier on in its breakthrough campaign, but bested the Cowboys in Dallas in a 34-30 thriller back in Week 4. The Lions have not faced the Giants this season.
Schwartz also addressed the importance of sustaining momentum for the playoffs, which the Lions have after prevailing in their third consecutive contest a week ago. He used last season's Packers and the 2007 Giants, both of whom had to fight their way into the postseason but wound up winning the Super Bowl out of a Wild Card slot, as examples to that point in his weekly press conference.
"If you look at those teams, it wasn't just what they did once they made it to the playoffs, it was where they were at the end of the season," he stated. "Green Bay last year needed to win their last two just to get in, and that's why it puts a little more importance on games like this."
Halting a painfully-long lack of success against the division-rival Packers on the road would be a worthwhile endeavor as well for Detroit. Including a 1994 playoff setback, the Lions have dropped 20 straight bouts with Green Bay as the visitor since a 21-17 triumph at Lambeau on Dec. 15, 1991.
The Packers will likely take an alternative approach to Sunday's showdown after wrapping up the NFC's top overall seed with a 35-21 home decision over sliding Chicago on Christmas night. The result would enable head coach Mike McCarthy to rest several nicked-up players if he so chooses in preparation for the more significant games that lie ahead.
"I'm not going to stand here and tell you we want to give away opportunities to win a game," said McCarthy. "We're going to play to win the game [this] week. I'm not real excited about a division opponent coming in here and thinking we're not going to do everything we can to get to 15-1. But health is an issue for us. I think that's stating the obvious."
Green Bay has already ruled out Pro Bowl wide receiver Greg Jennings due to a sprained knee, while tight end Jermichael Finley (knee), running back James Starks (ankle), offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga (knee) and rookie receiver Randall Cobb (groin) are all candidates to sit as well.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers is expected to start for the Packers, but it's believed he'll give way to backup Matt Flynn at some point in the first half. The team also plans on playing veteran offensive tackle Chad Clifton, who's missed the last 10 games with a torn hamstring.
This will be the first encounter between these clubs since Green Bay's 27-15 win in Detroit on Thanksgiving Day, a game best remembered for Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh stomping on the arm of Packers offensive lineman Evan Dietrich-Smith and later drawing a two-week suspension by the league as punishment for the incident.
The series between the Lions and Packers dates back to 1930, with Green Bay holding an 90-65-7 regular-season advantage in addition to its lengthy home winning streak over Detroit. Green Bay has also taken 13 of the last 15 overall meetings between the storied foes following its Thanksgiving Day result at Ford Field, and the Packers had ousted the Lions 10 consecutive times prior to Detroit's 7-3 verdict in the Motor City during Week 14 of last season. Green Bay had swept its home-and-home set with the Lions four straight years before the teams split their two 2010 encounters.
The longtime rivals have squared off only twice during the postseason, with Green Bay winning a 1993 NFC First-Round Playoff matchup in Detroit and also besting the Lions in an opening-round game at Lambeau Field the following year.
McCarthy sports a 10-1 career record against Detroit, with last season's setback the lone blemish, while Schwartz is 1-4 against both McCarthy and Green Bay during his tenure.
WHEN THE LIONS HAVE THE BALL
If there's one certainty about this game, it'll be that the Lions will be airing the ball out early and often come Sunday. Only New Orleans has tried more passes than Detroit this season, and young quarterback Matthew Stafford (4518 passing yards, 36 TD, 14 INT) has established club single-year records for passing yards and touchdown throws in a breakthrough campaign. The 2009 No. 1 overall draft choice has been especially good over the course of the team's current win streak, completing 66.7 percent of his attempts with nine scores and no interceptions over those three games, and followed up a splendid 391- yard, four-touchdown performance against Oakland in Week 15 with a 373-yard, three-score display against the Chargers. Standout wide receiver Calvin Johnson (85 receptions, 1437 yards, 15 TD) has also been on a tear, with the Pro Bowl honoree abusing the Raiders for a career-best 214 yards and two touchdowns on nine catches and gaining 102 yards and a score on just four grabs versus San Diego. He's the indisputable headliner of a pass-catching corps that's also gotten solid seasons out of tight end Brandon Pettigrew (76 receptions, 5 TD) and wideout Nate Burleson (67 receptions, 3 TD), while rookie Titus Young (44 receptions, 4 TD) has shown flashes while serving as the No. 3 receiver. At running back, midseason pickup Kevin Smith (321 rushing yards, 18 receptions, 6 total TD) has been a capable fill-in for injured starter Jahvid Best, but is questionable to go this week due to a lingering ankle sprain. Veteran Maurice Morris (303 rushing yards, 26 receptions, 2 total TD) and newly-signed Joique Bell could get the bulk of the backfield work in that scenario for an offense that's just 29th in rushing yards (96.7 ypg).
Stafford should be able to further pad his numbers against a Green Bay defense that ranks 31st overall against the pass, having permitted an average of 286.3 yards per game through the air, though he'll have to be careful in his decision-making. The Packers lead the NFL with 29 interceptions and picked off the Lions' signal-caller three times in the Thanksgiving Day win, and the secondary's large yardage totals are in part the product of opponents having to play from behind on a regular basis. Playmaking cornerback Charles Woodson (74 tackles, 2 sacks, 16 PD) is tied for tops in the league with seven interceptions this year and was one of three Green Bay defenders named to the NFC Pro Bowl roster, with relentless outside linebacker Clay Matthews (50 tackles, 6 sacks, 3 INT) and nose tackle B.J. Raji (21 tackles, 3 sacks) also getting nods. Inside linebacker Desmond Bishop (109 tackles, 5 sacks) made a case for inclusion as well as the leader of the team's run-stopping effort, though the unit is coming off a subpar showing last Sunday in which the Bears rushed for 199 yards. The Packers did play that contest without valued veteran end Ryan Pickett (32 tackles) because of a concussion, but he hopes to be cleared in time to participate in the final playoff tune-up.
WHEN THE PACKERS HAVE THE BALL
Green Bay has fielded one of the most prolific offenses in football during its record-setting season, leading the entire NFL in points scored (34.3 ppg) and ranking third in passing yards (297.0 ypg) and fifth in total yards (395.5 ypg). Whether or not the outfit has its usual potency this week may depend on how McCarthy decides to play his hand. Rodgers (4643 passing yards, 45 TD, 6 INT) should get in some work in his final audition for league MVP voters, but the well-regarded Flynn figures to see plenty of snaps as well on the afternoon. Even without Jennings (67 receptions, 9 TD) and likely Finley (48 receptions, 7 TD), there won't be a shortage of quality targets for either quarterback to throw to. Leading receiver Jordy Nelson (59 receptions, 1101 yards, 12 TD) is averaging nearly 19 yards per catch in a breakout year, fellow wideout James Jones (32 receptions, 7 TD) demonstrated his big-play ability by hauling in a 65-yard score from Rodgers in the Thanksgiving win over Detroit, and 12-year pro Donald Driver (35 receptions, 2 TD) remains a savvy veteran from his post in the slot. With Starks (578 rushing yards, 1 TD, 29 receptions) appearing certain to rest as well, two-time 1,200-yard rusher Ryan Grant (511 rushing yards, 2 TD, 18 receptions) will handle much of the ball-carrying duties with help from little-used rookie Brandon Saine. Rodgers, who has thrown for a league-best 45 touchdown passes and compiled 307 yards on a sharp 22- of-33 completion rate in the first meeting with Detroit, was one of four Packers chosen to the Pro Bowl on offense, along with Jennings, center Scott Wells and popular fullback John Kuhn (13 receptions, 2 TD).
The Lions will attempt to combat Green Bay's dangerous aerial assault by generating pressure from a host of outstanding pass rushers. Unheralded end Cliff Avril (36 tackles, 11 tackles, 1 INT) has put together a Pro Bowl-caliber year in his fourth professional season, tying for the league lead with six forced fumbles and coming up with four sacks over his last four games, while the experienced Kyle Vanden Bosch (32 tackles, 8 sacks) has also been very productive on the opposite side and 2010 Defensive Rookie of the Year Suh (35 tackles, 3 sacks) has earned a reputation as a disruptive interior force in spite of his tendency to lose his composure at times. Their knack for creating havoc has helped Detroit amass 20 interceptions on the year, the fourth-most in the NFL, and the sound play of cornerbacks Chris Houston (52 tackles, 5 INT, 14 PD) and Eric Wright (71 tackles, 4 INT, 15 PD) has certainly contributed to that high amount as well. The secondary will be without stabilizing safety Louis Delmas (51 tackles) once again this week, however, as the Pro Bowl alternate continues to battle a knee injury he sustained in the first matchup with the Packers. The Lions have had some problems in defending the run, having yielded a lackluster 131.3 rushing yards per game (26th overall) and 5.1 yards per attempt for the year, though that wasn't an issue last week with the Chargers forced to go pass-heavy due to a sizeable early deficit.
KEYS TO THE GAME
McCarthy's strategy. Obviously, how Green Bay chooses to employ its personnel in an essentially meaningless contest will have a huge bearing on the outcome. The Packers' regulars didn't have much trouble handling Detroit on the road earlier this season, but the possibility of difference-makers such as Rodgers, Woodson and Matthews seeing only limited snaps could easily tip the scales in the Lions' favor assuming Schwartz wasn't bluffing when he said his team would be going all out this week.
Rattle Rodgers. Green Bay's MVP-contending quarterback was able to expertly dissect the Detroit defense on Thanksgiving Day, and the Packers' front line did a quality job of providing him ample time to survey the field. That could very well be the case once more for as long as he's out there on Sunday if the Lions' array of pass-rushers aren't making an impact.
Slow down Stafford. Detroit's rising star has been exceptional during his team's recent surge, but his three interceptions in the initial game between these combatants were definitely a factor in the Lions' loss. It's no secret that Detroit plans on throwing the ball extensively on Sunday, and how a Green Bay defense that's allowed a lot of passing yards this year and may not be fielding all its starters performs this time around will help decide whether the reigning world champs can complete the season sweep.
The Packers really have nothing to gain from this game other than trying to stay sharp for the postseason, but that's hardly the case for their opponent. While garnering a better playoff seed should be enticing enough, the Lions will also be out to show the world they belong in the NFL's upper crust, and a victory over the league's best team through the regular season would serve notice regardless of whether or not Green Bay doesn't use its full arsenal of players. It's hard to imagine the Packers coming close to hitting their season scoring average with Rodgers and a number of their main offensive cogs either inactive or having a reduced role, while Detroit won't find too much resistance in its quest for points as long as Stafford can maintain his excellent recent form.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Lions 28, Packers 17