The teams: The Green Bay Packers (8-4) vs. the Detroit Lions (4-8).
The time: 7:20 p.m. CST Sunday.
The place: Lambeau Field, Green Bay.
The TV coverage: NBC – WTMJ (Ch. 4 in Milwaukee), WMTV (Ch. 15 in Madison) and WGBA (Ch. 26 in Green Bay).
The announcers: Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth.
The coaches: Green Bay's Mike McCarthy is 76-40 (including 5-3 in the postseason) in his seventh season as the Packers' coach and as an NFL head coach. Detroit’s Jim Schwartz is 22-39 (including 0-1 in the postseason) in his fifth year as the Lions’ coach and as an NFL head coach.
The series: The Packers lead the all-time regular-season series 92-65-7. The Packers have won 13 of the teams’ last 14 meetings. The Packers have won 21 straight games against the Lions in the state of Wisconsin (including a 1994 playoff game).
The rankings: The Packers’ 16th-ranked offense is No. 20 in rushing and No. 11 in passing. Their 15th-ranked defense is No. 15 against the run and No. 17 against the pass. The Lions’ second-ranked offense is No. 21 in rushing and No. 1 in passing. Their 19th-ranked defense is No. 19 against the run and No. 18 against the pass.
The line: The Packers are favored by 6.5 points.
The injury report:
THE BREAKDOWN: FIVE THINGS TO WATCH
Owned: The last time the Lions won in the state of Wisconsin was on Dec. 15, 1991. Not a single player on the roster – not even 42-year-old kicker Jason Hanson, who was a rookie in 1992, when the Lions’ futility streak in the state began – has ever won a game on Wisconsin soil as a member of the Lions. (Defensive tackle Corey Williams, who spent 2004 through 2007 with the Packers, was on the winning end of four Packers-Lions games.) Of those 21 consecutive Packers victories (including one playoff game), 18 were played at Lambeau Field and three were at County Stadium (1992, 1993, 1994). The streak is the longest of consecutive road losses by one team to one team in NFL history.
How long has it been? Four current Packers players were 1-year-olds (Randall Cobb, Terrell Manning, Greg Van Roten and Jerel Worthy), McCarthy was a 27-year-old quarterbacks coach at the University of Pittsburgh and Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers was coaching defensive backs for the New Orleans Saints, a few years removed from working in the USFL.
And while there’s little carryover from 20 years ago to today, the streak is significant, considering McCarthy and the current Packers have won 12 of 13 meetings between the teams.
Even Schwartz himself was a bit overwhelmed by the streak, saying that the Lions hadn’t won in Wisconsin since “1981” before correcting himself.
“It’s not an oddity,” Schwartz said. “That’s a place we have to win. It’s a division opponent. If we want to get our franchise to where we want it to go, that’s a place that, No. 1, we have to be able to come out with wins at Green Bay. To get one there would go a long way to giving us the confidence to be able to do it in the future.”
One oddity, though: This will be the second time the teams have met in a one-month span, as the Packers came from behind to win, 24-20, at Ford Field on Nov. 18. According to Packers offensive coordinator Tom Clements, playing a team again so quickly allows the coaches to go back and use some of the things they wanted to do in the first meeting and didn’t get to.
“You still study the film, but you have a pretty good recall of the film you’ve already studied, plus you have a few extra games to look at,” Clements said. ‘Plus, you’ve played them once already, so you kind of have an idea (of how they’ll play you). You see what’s successful or unsuccessful and try to make sure correct the unsuccessful things and change around the successful things.
“When you play a game, there’s a lot of things in your game plan that you don’t always get to, so you have a head-start as far as that’s concerned. You just don’t use the same plan; you revise it.”
Let it snow: The weather forecast calls for snow Sunday, starting in the morning before tapering off right around kickoff. According to The Weather Channel, the area can expect 2 to 4 inches of the white stuff to fall, most of it coming before the game. So folks hoping for a redux of the Packers’ victory over the Seattle Seahawks in the 2007 NFC Divisional Playoffs – folks like Packers safety Morgan Burnett – are likely to be disappointed.
Burnett remembers seeing highlights of that game on TV and wishing he could someday play in such conditions.
“I never really had a chance to play in an all-white snow game. Me coming from the South, that’s something I really look forward to,” Burnett said. “I’ve never experienced anything like that. If we do get that, that would be pretty fun. When we’d see that back home, you know, we don’t get snow like that in Atlanta, so we’d always wondered what it’d feel like. And the little bit (of snow) we do get, we were quick to run outside and play in it. So if we do get snow, it’d be like being a little kid going outside.”
Of course, snow brings with it the question of who’s got the advantage. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers has always insisted that the offense has the edge because its skill position players know where they’re going while defenders must react. Burnett, a defensive player, said the opposite.
“Rain, sleet or snow, you’ve got to go out there and play. If it’s snow, it’s more of a defensive advantage because the offense has to do a great job of protecting the ball,” Burnett said. “In snow, in cold weather, that ball can slip out a little easier.”
For the record, Capers said he was unlikely to alter his game plan for the snow, saying his adjustments would be based on “how the game is going.”
One play away: The Lions were 4-5 the last time these teams met at Ford Field, with the Lions kicking off a three-game homestand that included a Thanksgiving date with the Houston Texans and last week’s game against Indianapolis. A three-game winning streak would have put them in the thick of the NFC playoff conversation. Instead, they lost all three games, despite leading in the fourth quarter in all three.
“We’re one play away from winning each of those games,” Schwartz said in a conference call with Wisconsin reporters. “We’ve just got to find a way to make that play during a critical time of the game.”
That’s the well-known “Loser’s Lament” in the NFL, as the Packers’ last two least successful coaches – Lindy Infante and Ray Rhodes – found out when they tried to use that argument shortly before being canned. It will be interesting to see how much fight the Lions have in them Sunday night given the death spiral their season is in. Perhaps they see this as a way to ruin a rival’s playoff contention and will rise up. Or, if the Packers get up on them early, perhaps they mail it in.
“Obviously our record is not where we want it to be, and in the NFL you are what your record says you are. And we understand that,” quarterback Matthew Stafford said in his conference call with Wisconsin reporters. “We've been in a lot of close games and haven't been able to come out on top for one reason or another. Got to try to play good enough this week to get a win.
“(Last year), we were winning some of those close games. The ball was bouncing our way a little bit in some of those games; that's what it takes some time. At the same time, we were making some plays that we may or may not be making this year.”
‘The Don’: The Packers did not make a roster move on Saturday, so they must feel that Lang can at least serve as an emergency backup on the offensive line. In a best-case scenario, they’d have to make a decision on whether to start Lang at his customary left guard spot and rookie Don Barclay at right tackle, or put Lang back at right tackle – where he was when he suffered his sprained ankle last Sunday against Minnesota – and continue to play Evan Dietrich-Smith at left guard. Given the way they practiced all week, though, the smart money would be on Barclay getting the nod.
While Barclay committed two penalties (one was nullified) and allowed three quarterback pressures against the Vikings after Lang went down, he’s had an entire week to prepare and should fare better than he did when he was thrust into the lineup – and it’s not as though he was bad in that stressful scenario.
“He went through the first couple series (and made some mistakes), like anyone probably would,” offensive line coach James Campen said. “You’ve got to get into a rhythm with the guy next to you, and I think he did that. He came out in the second half and made the corrections on the fly, which is a good trait to have, and adjusted well on the sideline. He did a good job.
“He was confident when he went in. It will continue to build if he’s asked to play. With each situation and every snap, it’s human nature for any of us to get more confident and I would expect him to do that.”
The Packers particularly like Barclay’s run-blocking work, as they ran behind him frequently against the Vikings. While he may not have the offense down perfectly yet, he can give a boost in other ways, Campen said.
“Donny, even when you don’t have pads on, he’s a physical presence. He’s displayed that from Day 1,” Campen said. ‘He goes 100 mph in one direction and that’s how he is. It’s a nice thing to see. He doesn’t get fooled too much by scheme or overwhelmed by situations, overwhelmed by a playbook. He’s the kind of guy who embraces his opportunity and goes get it.”
Cornering the market: Out since suffering a high ankle sprain on Oct. 14 at Houston, Shields is set to return. As he does, he’ll do so without the starting job he held at the time. But if there’s any validity to the age-old coachspeak cliché of something being “a good problem to have,” it’s the Packers’ cornerback situation.
While Shields was sidelined, rookie second-round pick Casey Hayward took over as the starter, and against the New York Giants on Nov. 25, second-year man Davon House got the nod over Hayward, who worked as third cornerback in the nickel instead. Hayward was back to starting against the Vikings, but now the Packers have three young corners all ready to play. Capers said Shields would get re-acclimated slowly and made no promises about who’ll start down the road.
“We use many different personnel groups. He’s just coming back, so we’ll gradually work him back in,” Capers said. “I think he’s had a pretty good week of practice but he hasn’t played since the Houston game. … He looks like Sam out there. It’s the first week he’s really been able to go out and do the things that you ask him to do. He’s got fresh legs.”
The Lions’ wide receiving corps are a mess. Ryan Broyles was lost for the season to a knee injury in last week’s loss to Indianapolis; Titus Young Sr. was also placed on injured reserve, although that appeared to be for his insubordination – he intentionally lined up in the wrong spots and ran the wrong routes before getting into a sideline screaming match during the Packers-Lions game last month – than anything else. That leaves Mike Thomas, Brian Robiskie and ex-practice-squadder Kris Durham to play opposite Calvin Johnson, who’s having a monster year despite getting little help.
In his last four games, Johnson had 12 receptions for 207 yards against Minnesota, five catches for 143 yards against the Packers, eight catches for 140 yards against Houston and 13 catches for 171 yards against Indianapolis. He comes into Sunday with 86 catches for 1,428 yards, giving him a legitimate shot in the final four games of breaking Jerry Rice's NFL single-season receiving yardage record of 1,848, set in 1995.
“Calvin is a great player and is in the midst of a great season, but we can get more production (from other players),” Schwartz said. “We can get more production out of our running backs, we can get more production out of our tight ends, and there’s going to be tremendous opportunity for the wide receivers that are on the field to prove that they can make a play.”
There were those predicting a backslide for the Lions after their NFC Wild Card playoff berth last season, and the Lions have delivered. What a mess they are. Schwartz took a historically bad team that had gone 0-16 before his arrival and built it into a playoff team., but as his undisciplined crew has shown this season, such behavior does not reflect well on the coach. Since the Ford family tolerated Matt Millen for forever and a day as their general manager, there’s no reason to think they’ll make a change after the season is over. But they should at least consider it, as it would take a Herculean effort – starting with a stunner at Lambeau Field – to reverse the tide. The guess here is that it doesn’t happen. Packers 34, Lions 17. (Record: 6-6)
– Jason Wilde