Sunday, January 01, 2017

2016 NFL Week 17: Packers vs. Lions Preview and Prediction

Happy New Year, Packers fans and those who wish they were! (And, yes, even though the headline says 2016, hopefully you woke up realizing that we are now in the year 2017. Just for a point of reference for those of you who perhaps aren't quite sure right now.) Oh, and in case you were wondering, the Pack beat Minnesota last weekend to set up tonight's division battle. Now that we have that bit of housekeeping taken care of, let's move along, shall we?

The NFL schedule makers really pulled one out of their ying-yangs when they set the final weekend schedule with the Green Bay Packers facing the Detroit Lions, didn't they? Yes, division games have been going on for the last few weeks, but they could have scheduled the lemming-like Minnesota ViQueens or that semi-pro team from Illinois. Instead, the league rolled the dice and set a match between the Pack and the Lions.
Packers and Lions head coaches, Mike McCarthy and Jim Caldwell,
prepare to dance, at least metaphorically, tonight.

Photo by Rick Wood, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

A Refresher of Sorts
You'll remember at the start of the season that the Packers were one of the odds-on favorites to go to and, in some quarters, win the Super Bowl. They were favored in virtually every game of the season...before the season began, that is. Detroit was projected to be a playoff team by some, perhaps even a division championship contender and maybe even a Super Bowl contender (a stretch, c'mon). But then teams have to play. The Packers, due to a rash of injuries at key positions, the inability of the offense to find an identity by mid-season and that of the defense to stop big plays particularly late in games, found themselves sitting at 4-6 at their low point after four consecutive losses.

As for the Lions, they were one of the early surprises of the season. Behind in seemingly most of their games, they somehow managed eight fourth-quarter comebacks in their nine wins, an NFL record. With the Pack stuck in the mud, the 'Queens fading after key injuries of their own and Da Bearz still sucking as usual, Detroit jumped out to a two-game division lead for a few games. But coupled with their own two-game road losing streak in Weeks 15 and 16 along with the Packers' resurrection and five-game winning streak down the stretch, the Lions now find themselves tied at 9-6 with the Pack going into this final regular season game...although technically, the Packers have the tie-breaker at this point because of their 34-27 September win at Lambeau Field.

Tonight's Game
Contrary to what some surmise, this is not a "winner-take-all" game, although the build-up to it certainly makes one view it that way. And, perhaps, that's the way the teams and fans should look at it. Winning, for either the Packers or Lions (eeeeewwwww!) gives that team the NFC North Division Championship and a guaranteed home playoff game. But even with a loss, it's possible that that team could still grab a wildcard spot depending upon whether Washington wins or loses today. With a Washington loss, both the Packers and Lions can grab a spot in the playoffs regardless of whether they win or lose. But a win is just so much better, don't you think? Especially if it is the sixth win in a row, led by an offense that is really clicking and a defense that, while suspect, can do just enough to keep an opponent from outscoring the offense. We are, of course, talking about the Packers taking this game for the NFC North Division Championship.

The Packers have gotten healthier over the last several games, especially QB Aaron Rodgers, TE Jared Cook and LB Clay Matthews. Yay. WR Randall Cobb is expected to be in uniform tonight but he may not play much or at all as he's still nursing his injury from a few weeks ago. If the Packers do make a playoff run, a healthy Cobb would be an asset. In his stead, the receiving corp may see more play from rookie Geronimo Allison, who is a big target and caught several passes in last week's win against the ViQueens. It appears as if he and Rodgers are starting build a chemistry and that bodes well short and long-term.

The biggest absence for the Packers this game, as it has been all season, is CB Sam Shields. The secondary has really not had anyone step up to come close to replacing him in terms of consistent pass coverage and closing speed ability. Plays have been made in the recent wins, particularly by Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. But neither of the second-year players, Damarious Randall or Quinten Rollins, has lived up to year-two expectations. Randall, by the way, is questionable for tonight's game. If there has been one constant in the secondary, and generally an overlooked one at that, it has been the play of LaDarius Gunter.

The question mark for the Packers tonight and into the playoffs is their secondary. They have made fourth quarters a Pepto Bismol time for Packer fans everywhere most of the season, playing soft and giving up big plays particularly over the middle. Lions QB Matthew Stafford, despite his recently dislocated middle finger on his passing hand, and the Lions generally proving to themselves and others that they can come from behind late to win games, can take this game down to the wire; he's done it before against the Packers and others.

If the Packers don't put up points early -- and throughout the game -- the defensive question mark as the game goes into the fourth quarter becomes more of a concern. You don't want to keep the Lions hanging around, as the saying goes. The Packers should be able to force Stafford into making at least one turnover somewhere during the game and that may be the difference. Getting a turnover or two in games has been key during the Packers' winning streak, and it may be so again tonight.

Conversely, Detroit can also put up points with Stafford and his receiving corp. The running game doesn't count for much at this point, but the Packers will need a consistent pass rush to pressure Stafford into a bad throw or two. If you give him time, he has the arm to make you pay for bad coverage or an ineffective pass rush. The Packers' front seven needs to really bring it tonight.

Defensively, however, the Lions should be able to be exploited by the Packers offense, particularly if Detroit's top defensive back, Darius Slay, is slowed by his hamstring injury. He'll probably try to go and, if so, look for the Packers to test his coverage ability early. Without Slay, Rodgers should be able to take advantage of that secondary. The Lions linebackers are nicked up, too, so that should open up the middle if the Pack decides to spread things around. Based upon recent history, that's a reasonable expectation today.

Also look for RBs Ty Montgomery and Christine Michael to keep the Lions off balance with a solid rushing game. During the Packers stretch run, the balance between the number of rushing plays and pass plays called by McCarthy has been part of the formula. On a fast track of indoor turf, it would be great to see what Christine Michael might be able to do if he gets loose. We think even the Packers coaches are interested in seeing what might transpire in that regard.

The Prediction
We view this as a high-scoring game. The Packers are favored by 3 points at the time of this writing. We see the Pack going up in the first half and then holding on in the fourth quarter for the win. These are the recent trends for both teams. We'll go with that.

We're calling it 38-34 Packers.

Go Pack Go!!!