The long standing tradition of the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions playing on Thanksgiving Day will add another chapter Thursday.
No two teams have played on the holiday more than the Packers and Lions, who will face off on Thanksgiving for the 21st time overall and the fourth time in the last seven seasons. This latest meeting will have serious playoff implications.
Without Aaron Rodgers, the Packers (5-5-1) have slumped to a 0-3-1 record over the last four games. Once a 5-2 club with aspirations of running away with the division, Green Bay is now fighting to keep its head above water while Rodgers rehabs his fractured left collarbone.
The Lions (6-5) have since taken over the lead in the NFC North, but Detroit might be kicking itself down the road for losing two winnable games—against the 3-6 Pittsburgh Steelers and 2-8 Tampa Bay Buccaneers—in the past two weeks. A golden opportunity to create separation from the Rodgers-less Packers was wasted, and now the Lions could see themselves jumped by Green Bay in the standings with a third straight loss Thursday.
The Packers played their first professional game on Thanksgiving in 1923, when Green Bay beat the Hammond Pros, 19-0. In 1951, the Packers began a 13-year stretch of playing the Lions every season on the holiday.
Since 2007, Green Bay and Detroit have played on Thanksgiving every other season. The Lions haven't beat the Packers on the holiday since 2003, having lost all three of the previous meetings, including a 27-15 decision in 2011.
Overall, Green Bay is 14-18-2 all-time on Thanksgiving. Only the Lions and Dallas Cowboys have played more times than the Packers' 34 appearances.
Speaking of which, Detroit has more appearances (72) and wins (33) on Thanksgiving than any other team in NFL history. The Lions sport an overall 33-37-2 record on the holiday, with their last win coming in 2003, a 22-14 win over Green Bay.
Detroit's first ever Thanksgiving Day game came in 1934, when the Chicago Bears beat the Lions, 19-16.
Currently, the Lions have a nine-game losing streak on the holiday.
Injury Report for Packers
|QB Aaron Rodgers||Collarbone||OUT|
|RT Don Barclay||Knee||Probable|
|TE Brandon Bostick||Concussion||Questionable|
|RB Johnathan Franklin||Concussion||OUT|
|DL Johnny Jolly||Groin||Probable|
|LB Jamari Lattimore||Quad||OUT|
|LB Mike Neal||Abdomen||Probable|
|RT Marshall Newhouse||Shoulder||Probable|
|OLB Nick Perry||Foot/Ankle||Probable|
|CB Sam Shields||Hamstring||Probable|
|LG Josh Sitton||Back||Probable|
|DE C.J. Wilson||Ankle||OUT|
Matt Flynn will start for the injured Aaron Rodgers, who practiced this week but hasn't been cleared to play. The Packers will likely return Sam Shields, Don Barclay, Johnny Jolly and Nick Perry, four starters who missed Sunday's tilt with the Vikings. All four are probable, which gives them a 75 percent or better chance to play.
Injury Report for Lions
|CB Chris Houston||Foot||Doubtful|
|WR Calvin Johnson||Knee||Probable|
|S Louis Delmas||Knee||Probable|
|S Glover Quin||Ankle||Probable|
|DE Israel Idonije||Knee||Probable|
The Lions are relatively healthy. Chris Houston is unlikely to play, and if he can't, rookie Darius Slay would likely start at cornerback. The other four players on the list, including Calvin Johnson and both starting safeties, are probable.
Can the Packers Actually Win a Game Without Aaron Rodgers?
After enjoying the greatest health and longevity at the position over the NFL's last two decades, the Packers are now preparing to start their fourth quarterback of the 2013 season. Matt Flynn will likely get the call Thursday, joining Rodgers, Seneca Wallace and Scott Tolzien as starters since Nov. 4.
He'll attempt to snap a four-game stretch in which the Packers haven't tasted victory minus Rodgers.
While the rapid regression of the defense has certainly played a part in that collapse (see below), losing Rodgers—one of the game's rare elevators of those around him—has affected the Packers from top to bottom.
Running the football has become an every-down chore, as teams consistently stack the box to stop Eddie Lacy. Conversions on third down and in the red zone have become increasingly harder to come by. And the defense is playing more snaps and spending more overall time on the field, which has hurt its ability to make big stops late in games.
Flynn isn't Rodgers, and the factors that have added up against the Packers will mostly remain Thursday. But he showed enough moxie in rallying Green Bay last Sunday that it's probably safe to declare him the quarterback most likely to win a game for the Packers while Rodgers heals.
To keep their playoff hopes alive, the Packers need to get a win without Rodgers. It's on Flynn to mask some of the obvious deficiencies that have risen to the surface over the last month.
Will the Real Packers Defense, Please Stand Up?
The decline of the Packers defense, which before Rodgers' injury was playing as well as any in the NFL, is hard to pin down.
From Week 3 to 8, or a span of five games, the Packers allowed just 280.4 total yards per game and only 77.4 rushing. Despite giving up 34 points to Cincinnati (thanks to four giveaways) and 31 to Minnesota (kick return for a touchdown included), opposing teams were averaging just 20.8 over that five-game span. And these numbers were posted mostly without the help of Clay Matthews, who was out for the better part of four of those games.
* Rodgers hurt in Week 9
The recent collapse has been swift and difficult to explain.
Counting the game in which Rodgers was hurt, the Packers have since allowed almost 27 points and 409.5 yards per game, all losses. The run defense has imploded, as teams are averaging 171.3 yards over the last four games.
Even more worrying, Green Bay's four-game slide hasn't come against top offensive teams. Detroit's offense is ranked seventh in points and fifth in yards, and it also possesses a quarterback-receiver combination without many equals.
The Packers defense will be heavily stressed to begin its bounce back. The Lions could make Green Bay's quarterback dilemma a non-issue by blowing away a defense that has struggled to regain its footing.
What Happened to Matthew Stafford?
The month of November hasn't been kind to Matthew Stafford.
Over three games, the Lions quarterback has completed just 49.6 percent of his passes (ranking 32nd of 35 quarterbacks who have attempted 30 or more passes) for 878 yards (6.91 average per attempt), eight touchdowns and six interceptions. His passer rating in November is just 73.5, which would place him 25th out of 35 quarterbacks this month.
His inconsistency has cost Detroit, especially the last two weeks.
In Pittsburgh, Stafford managed just 35 passing yards in the second half as the Lions watched the Steelers capture a 10-point win. And last week, his four interceptions helped the Buccaneers hold off the Lions in Detroit.
The Lions now need the Stafford that finished six of his first eight games with a passer rating over 90.0.
Against this Packers defense, a strong performance should almost be a given for a quarterback of Stafford's ability. Over the last four games, Green Bay has allowed an opposing passer rating of over 100.0, including a 149.3 mark to Nick Foles and 103.9 to Christian Ponder.
If there's any game for Stafford to get his season back on track, it's this one.
Turnovers, Turnovers, Turnovers...
The Lions have done a near complete 180 in the turnover category.
After starting the season with 13 takeaways in the first six games, the Lions have just one over the last five games. DeAndre Levy's interception of Jay Cutler in Week 10 represents Detroit's lone takeaway since Oct. 13. That's a considerable span of time without getting impact plays on defense.
The lack of turnovers wouldn't be as big a factor if the Lions offense was taking care of the football. That hasn't been the case.
STAT: Turnovers almost always the culprit. In their last 4 gms, #Lions are -12 in the TO ratio with a 2-2 record.— Detroit Lions (@DetroitLionsNFL) November 26, 2013
Detroit has 13 turnovers over the last four games, including two contests with four or more. The Lions were minus-8 in the turnover category in losses to the Steelers and Buccaneers.
Winning football games often times involves playing clean on offense and forcing the opposing offense into mistakes. That's especially true in division games, and regardless of whether a backup quarterback is captaining the other side.
The Lions need to get back to the formula that helped fuel a 3-1 start. Losing the turnover battle against the Packers is certainly one way to let a struggling football team regain the confidence needed to win a road game.
Most Important Matchup for Green Bay: Packers Offensive Line vs. Lions Defensive Line
Two situational scenarios could make it very difficult for the Packers to beat the Lions.
One: if the running game doesn't gain some traction, and two: if Detroit is consistently pressuring Matt Flynn. Both factors depend on the Green Bay offensive line.
Lost in Detroit's recent slide has been its ability to stuff the run. Over the last five games, the Lions are allowing just 43.8 rushing yards a game—the best mark in the NFL over that span. The Buccaneers were only able to manage 22 yards on 24 rushing attempts in Detroit last Sunday.
The Lions also have the man power to make things difficult for Flynn in the pocket. Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley have a case for being the NFL's best interior pass-rushing duo, and rookie defensive end Ziggy Ansah is coming off a two-sack performance in his first game back from an ankle injury.
It would be demanding a lot of Flynn, especially on the road, if the Packers can't run the football or keep him clean in the pocket. Green Bay's offensive line probably needs to play its best game of the season Thursday for the Packers to have a chance.
Most Important Matchup for Detroit: Reggie Bush vs. Packers Defense
In the first meeting, the Packers' then rock-solid run defense ganged up on a Lions offense that was lacking Calvin Johnson. Running back Reggie Bush was held to just 44 rushing yards, his third lowest total of this season, and his receiving efforts totaled just 25 more.
The Packers won't have the luxury of daring the Lions to throw Thursday.
Johnson and Nate Burleson will both be back, which should open up things considerably for Bush and the Lions running game. The Packers have struggled stopping the run of late, too.
Three times in the last four games, Green Bay has allowed 170 or more rushing yards, including two games over 200. Adrian Peterson and Toby Gerhart teamed up to rush for 232 yards last Sunday. Continuing those struggles will go a long ways in helping Detroit snap its Thanksgiving drought.
The only way to envision the Lions struggling to score points is if the Packers force Detroit to become one-dimensional on offense. Bush, with Megatron back in town, should have an opportunity to make the Packers worried about all aspects of the Lions offense.
Tale of the Tape
Packers 5, Lions 5
The Lions get the edge at quarterback with Rodgers on the sidelines. Running back, receiver and offensive line were all close calls on offense. The Lions take receiver thanks in part to Nate Burleson's return and the fact that Randall Cobb remains out. At running back, Eddie Lacy and James Starks can be a handful, and the Packers offensive line is more well-rounded in terms of pass and run blocking.
Defensive line was a solid win for Detroit, but the Packers take linebacker because of Clay Matthews' impact and defensive back because of the Lions' continued struggles at the back end.
Green Bay's special teams have been a mess, especially in the return game. Mike McCarthy's Super Bowl ring and overall record makes the coaching call an easy one.
Prediction: Detroit 31, Green Bay 23
Matt Flynn might provide some needed stability at quarterback, and getting back Sam Shields, Don Barclay and Johnny Jolly will provide Green Bay a boost. But nobody is stopping the run better than the Lions right now, and Matthew Stafford is the best quarterback the Packers have faced since losing Rodgers. At home, and on a short week, the Lions should do enough to keep their place atop the NFC North.