Save the best for last. The NFL has done it again folks, with one game remaining in the 2016 regular season the NFC playoff race has made itself the focal point of the week. In particular the Green Bay Packers traveling to the motor city to compete in the de-facto NFC North division title game against the Detroit Lions. All set up by Aaron Rodgers and his confident statement we’ve all heard a million times just a few weeks back about running the table (5-0 since then), and the Lions two game losing streak, the NFL has flexed the game into the final game slot of the regular season to Sunday night footballs prime-time time slot, and should prove to live up to the hype. Given the magnitude of such a game, here are a few of the top story lines out of Detroit to keep in mind heading into Sunday nights match-up at Ford Field.
HOME FIELD ADVANTAGE
After being hired as the Detroit Lions new president in November of 2015 and watching his team finish with a 9-7 record, Rod Wood didn’t waste much time in trying to build as many relationships within the league as possible. His first first meaningful off season business trip was to the leagues front office in New York. One of the relationship building meetings he set up last February is proving to give his team a slight, but important to most, advantage in this years final regular season game against the Green Bay Packers.
This meeting was with senior vice president of broadcasting Howard Katz, the league’s longtime scheduling mastermind. During this hour long meeting Wood pointed out to Katz that the last four seasons the Lions had ended the year on the road, and in 2014 they ended the season on a two game road trip. When Katz was asked about this meeting earlier in the week his statement was:
“We began scheduling only division games in week 17 back in 2010 and yes, Rod certainly pointed out to us back in February that the Lions had played their week 17 division game on the road in four consecutive seasons,” Katz wrote. “So while we’re unable to address every scheduling request that Clubs make, this was an anomaly that we felt had to be addressed from a competitive standpoint. As such, it was most definitely a factor that was given a considerable amount of weight as we put together the 2016 NFL Schedule.”
Why is this relevant you may ask? Well the Lions have won six straight home games and are 6-1 at Ford Field this season. The Packers have lost two of their last three games in Detroit with the one win coming on a Hail Mary pass with no time on the clock. Where this match up is played seems to matter more now than ever. In a perfect storm, Sunday night represents the biggest game of the season for both teams and, because of Wood and his efforts last February, it will be in the comfort of there home field. Advantage Detroit.
Although Matthew Stafford cant quite seem to “put his finger on it” (pun intended), he continues to suggest the injury to his dislocated finger in week 13 against the Bears is not a contributing factor to his recent downward spiral. While Stafford was one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the league for more than half a season, he just simply hasn’t been the same since the injury.
Prior to his injury he had a TD:INT ratio of 3:1, since the dislocation its plummeted to 1:4, and hasn’t thrown a touchdown in two games. Regardless of how Stafford wants to explain his poor play over the last few weeks I think its safe to say the struggle is real and the finger injury to his finger on his throwing hand IS a factor. Lets hope we get the 1:4 struggles from the Lions QB.
Reports out of Detroit that Slay was back on the practice field Thursday, and during the twenty minute session open to media participated in all individual drills and was seen cutting at full speed, suggest he will be ready for the Sunday night match-up. After being hurt early in the second quarter a few weeks ago against the Giants (hamstring) and held out last week versus the Cowboys, Slays return back to practice is a great sign for a defense that has struggled without him. Since being drafted in the second round of the 2013 draft, Slay has developed into the No. 1 cornerback for the Lions. After missing two weeks earlier in the season with the same hamstring injury, it will be something to keep an eye on all night. His return is encouraging for Lions supporters but most likely will not be 100%.
Injury aside, it is important to note that Slay is still an effective pass defender. This holds true even more when the Lions are playing in the comfort of home. Slay has only recorded two interceptions on the season, but both come inside of Ford Fields Stadium. His passes defended on the year are over double at home compared to on the road as well. It will be interesting to see if the Lions Defensive Coordinator Teryl Austin will match up Slay with the hot handed receiver for the Packers in Jordy Nelson, or if he will try to eliminate other options with Slay and double cover Nelson with another combination of players. I like Jordy’s chances in either scenario.
A lot of teams are banged up this time of year but for the most part the Lions are on the right track to having most of there key pieces healthy enough to give it a go on Sunday. That being said, running back Theo Riddick (wrist) and receiver/return specialist Andre Roberts (shoulder) were still missing from practice Thursday.
Center Travis Swanson returned to practice Wednesday and felt well enough again Thursday to make it two straight days and appears likely to return to the field this Sunday after missing the last three games with a concussion.
Wide receiver Anquan Boldin also participated in Thursdays practice but was clearly nursing the ring finger on his left hand that was injured last week at Dallas. He wore a splint on that finger while practicing and caught a few passes with only his right hand during offensive drill sessions, but was later seen running routes without the ball even being thrown, which is uncharacteristic for him.
Boldin has been a favorite target for Stafford all season on third downs as well as in the red zone. Boldin ranks second on the team in receptions with 63 and first in touchdowns with seven. Boldin’s effectiveness catching the ball is something to keep an eye on as game day approaches.
It doesn’t get any better for a regular season finale now does it? NFC north title on the line in the final game of the season for the fourth straight year, Packers offense spitting straight fire for the last few weeks incapable of doing much wrong, the defense forcing turnovers like mad, and the Lions cooling off as of late partly due to poor play from starting quarterback Matthew Stafford and I feel pretty good about this weeks match-up.
Offensively, the Lions have no running game and the Packers don’t seem to need one with Rodgers at the helm. With what I see becoming a pass happy match up that brings me to my key aspect of the week. The Packers pass rush will win this game. Ill give them four quarterback sacks on the day, but more importantly Clay, Perry, and Peppers will put pressure on Stafford all day hitting him on a consistent basis. Stafford will need to resort to his hop, skip and jump side arm throws throughout the game, while being responsible for at least three turnovers. Packers go up big early with the Lions getting a few scores late to make it look close. Final score, 34-27 Packers. Go Pack!