Sunday, January 08, 2023

2022 NFL Week 18: Packers vs. Lions Preview & Prediction

The Packers took care of division opponent Minnesota at Lambeau Field last weekend to keep their slim — but increasing! —playoff hopes alive. And they did so in fine fashion: a kickoff return (a kickoff return!) and a pick-6 interception return. Getting 14 points from special teams and defense always comes in handy, doesn't it?

Anyway, it set things up for tonight's regular season finale at Lambeau vs. the surging Detroit Lions. While both teams are sitting at a traditionally mediocre 8-8, the league decided the implications of this game were so good — and ... Packers! — that it decided to flex the game to the last slot on the weekend schedule. Let's take a look, shall we?

The Packers will be looking, as usual, for QB Aaron Rodgers to help
lead the team to the NFC Playoffs with a win over the Lions tonight
at Lambeau Field.
(Photo by Lon Horwedel, USA Today Sports)

The Preview

Why would the league put this game between two 8-8 teams in primetime? Because — Packers! — it's possibly a win-and-in game for Detroit, if the lowly Rams can somehow beat Seattle earlier today AND the Lions can beat the Pack, as they did in Detroit earlier in the season at Green Bay's low point. And because, regardless of how the Rams vs. Seahawks game turns out, if the Pack can beat the Lions Green Bay will secure the final wild card spot for the playoffs. In short, there's a lot on the line for both teams. Especially for the Packers. And, sorry Lions fans, this primetime coverage is happening precisely for that reason. You're along for the ride.

Given where the Packers were sitting just a bit ago, 4-8 and on life support, to having control in their own hands for making the playoffs ... wow. Nothing short of remarkable.

Since hitting rock bottom at Detroit, the Packers have gotten their offense more in sync with a balanced run-pass game and trending upward in average points-per-game since they began their winning streak. QB Aaron Rodgers has more confidence in his young receivers, rookie WR Christian Watson has provided the ability to stretch the field and open up other aspects of the game, and returner Keisean Nixon has become the league's leading returner and a legitimate threat to take it to the house every time he touches the ball. Defensive coordinator Joe Barry's defense has, astoundingly, rounded into shape, becoming more physical and covering receivers so at least they are in the same zip code together, thereby creating turnovers. Unimaginable a month or so ago.

But let's not forget that Detroit is bringing a lot to tonight's party, too, having won 7 of their last 9 games. The team has taken up head coach Dan Campbell's toughness. QB Jared Goff can cause problems if given time to throw (his last INT was against the Pack, by the way). And Packer fans recall all too well what RB Jamal Williams can do if given room to run. While Detroit boats the number 4 offense in the league, they do not score as well on the road as at home in a controlled environment, i.e., dome. Tonight, that offense will have to perform on the road, in 23-degree weather (at kickoff), on a slick turf to which they are not accustomed. Advantage Packers.

A Packers defense that was seen as a liability has been getting key stops and takeaways that have changed the outcome of games. Advantage, too, in that the Packers defense has been a turnover machine during the current four-game winning streak. If the defense can generate one or, better, two key turnovers this evening that bodes well for the final outcome. And special teams, aside from a minor hiccup or two (blocked punt/FG, etc.), with Nixon's emergence as a returner, has become a real strength of this team ... something we haven't seen arguably in decades.

The Prediction

The Packers are getting hot at the right time. Detroit has been on a roll, as well, no denying that. But with the playoffs so close — and all they've had to overcome to get in this position — it's hard to see the Pack laying an egg tonight. The oddsmakers apparently feel the same way, installing the Pack as 5-point favorites at the time of this posting.

We're calling this one Packers 31 - Lions 20.

Go Pack Go!!!

Sunday, January 01, 2023

2022 NFL Week 17: Packers vs. Vikings Preview & Prediction

The Packers did what they had to do last week in Miami: come away with a win to keep their slim playoff hopes alive. Now sitting at 7-8 after a 3-game winning streak, the Pack roll into the last 2 weeks of the season with games at home against division rivals. First up today, the NFC North Division winners, the Minnesota ViQueens, and concluding the season — depending upon happens at Lambeau Field and elsewhere today — in what could essentially be a playoff game against the Detroit Lions. Yowza.

Let's jump in with a closer look at today's game, shall we?

The Preview

Today, we must hope that the past is not the prelude when it comes to this game. Specifically, the Packers cannot let WR Justin Jefferson do what he did in the first game of the season in Minnesota, i.e., go off.

The Packers saw this little TD dance from ViQueens receiver, Justin Jefferson,
in the first game of the season. This scene cannot be repeated today.
(Photo by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

The ViQueens, as especially their fans are wont to remind the world, are the winners of the NFC North this season, currently sitting with a record of 12-3. They have won 11 of those 12 games by one score and a season-long point differential of +5. So not really blowing any team out, just winning close and often and late. Now is that all luck? Or do they make some of their luck? As the saying goes, good teams win close games. So do some lucky ones. We can come to the conclusion that the 'Queens are better than we'd like them to be, but perhaps not quite as good as some Purple People would have you believe. Still, given the option of being 7-8 and fighting for your playoff lives and being 12-3 and winner of the NFC North, I think we know where Packer fans would rather be. 'Nuff said about that.

Today, with good early January weather expected at Lambeau Field for a 3:25 CT start time, the only thing that Minnesota really is playing for today is keeping the Packers out of the playoffs be dealing Green Bay a loss. That is incentive enough for the 'Queens.

Minnesota has quality performers on both sides of the ball. Offensively, QB Kirk Cousins has receiving and running weapons around him, as we know all too well. If the Packers defense is unable to make Cousins uncomfortable in the pocket, and Packers defensive backs let Jefferson and company wander as freely as they did in the first game, this game could become ugly. Thankfully, Green Bay's defense has been performing better of late, most notably in the second half of games. The trick is not to let an opposing offense jump out to a big lead before half or the Packers may have a tough time coming back. That was not the case last week, but the Dolphins are not the 'Queens.

We need to have the Packers defense step up in a way they really haven't all season and play a 4-quarters game. They need to continue to generate turnovers, as well. They likely won't get 4 as was the case last week, but a couple timely takeaways could definitely turn the tide of the game. The Packers young defenders, in particular, along with veterans Kenny Clark and Preston Smith, need to come up big.

In terms of the Packers offense, they should be getting David Bakhtiari back at left tackle today. That would be helpful if he is really ready to go. But it's still unclear at the time of this posting as to whether rookie WR sensation Christian Watson will be ready to go today. He was basically a non-entity, according to reporters, during practice this past week after sustaining an unspecified hip injury in last week's game that saw him unavailable the entire second half. If he can't go, that certainly limits that Pack's offense and also changes the way Minnesota's defense will play.

It's also the case that RB Aaron Jones' ongoing ankle issue is still something that is limiting his availability during not only practice but especially during the game. Do fans really think that, if Jones was healthy, the Packers would only be putting the ball in his hands 6 times as was the case last week? Not a chance. It is the reason why they elevated and started using Patrick Taylor in spot duty and why they late this week elevated RB Tyler Goodson. Now, in the latter case that might also be a signal that Packers exceptional breakout kickoff returner Keisean Nixon might not be ready to go today. Nixon was dealing with a groin injury going into last week's game in Miami and came out of it in no better form. You hate to lose Nixon's explosiveness and take-it-to-the-house potential but you also want to have him available if the season continues.

QB Aaron Rodgers will have to really be in command today, of himself as well as his weapons, if the Pack is to stay in this game and win it down the stretch. Part of that process is converting red zone opportunities, which he and the team have been horrible at over the course of the season. Case in point: last week's game. A couple deep opportunities and instead of coming away with touchdowns they had to settle for field goals. That can't continue and especially not today. Each red zone opportunity needs to result in 7 points not 3.

One other player was elevated late this week from the practice squad and it caused a raised eyebrow or two: kicker Ramiz Ahmed. Does that mean, fans and pundits wondered, if K Mason Crosby's team-record consecutive games streak was coming to an end for some reason? Or, just that the Packers will have Ahmed handle kickoffs? As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel notes, Ahmed was active "for one other game this season, against the Dallas Cowboys. In that game, he had five kickoffs: two were touchbacks, three were returned and two of those were kicked within the 3-yard line. Ahmed's elevation allows the Packers to aim for more touchbacks against dynamic Vikings returner Kene Nwangwu. Nwangwu is second in the league (behind only Green Bay's Keisean Nixon) in kickoff returns, averaging 26 yards per return, with a 97-yard touchdown." We're betting Ahmed handles the kickoffs today while Crosby takes care of field goals.

Managing player resources, particularly in such strategic situations as today's game, will be key to a Packers victory.

The Prediction

The Packers are anywhere from 3 to 3-1/2 point favorites over Minnesota today, basically the home field advantage. Many pundits don't see the Packers defense as being able to handle the 'Queens offense, much as in the first game, and are predicting a Minnesota win.

Reminder: this isn't the first game of the season. Granted, the season has not gone the way the Packers or their fans have expected. But the team seems to be playing better now than before. So there's that. As usual, there are a lot of "ifs" that will impact this game. But 3 wins in a row, combined with a defensive performance we haven't seen in a while, also would tend to make the Packers players believers in themselves. With their entire season in the balance, and playing at Lambeau Field, we also are believers today.

We're calling it Packers 27 - ViQueens 24.

Go Pack Go!!!