Print and Go Back ESPN.com: NFC North [Print without images]

Wednesday, November 23, 2011
Five things to watch: Packers-Lions

By Kevin Seifert

We have been discussing the Thanksgiving Day showdown for three days under the "Thanksgiving Feast" tag, but here are some final thoughts on the fast-approaching game between the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions:

Respect for Packers: The last time an undefeated team played on Thanksgiving, it lost to the Lions. That team happened to be the 1962 Packers, a coincidence that has served as one of several narratives fueling national discussion about the Lions' chances Thursday. Las Vegas does not agree, however. The Packers are a strong favorite on the road, up to seven points based on ESPN.com's composite review of betting lines. I'm among those who think the Lions match up well with the Packers, but facts are facts. The Packers are one of four teams in NFL history to win the first 10 games of a season by at least six points. Not even that 1962 Packers team, considered one of the best in pro football history, managed that feat. This year's team has been remarkably consistent, with a close call or two but no real scares on the way to 10-0.

Aaron Rodgers and Landon Johnson
The Lions defense sacked Packers quarterbacks four times in their Week 14 matchup last season, knocking Aaron Rodgers out of the game.
Revisionism: There is no doubt that the Lions defense beat up the Packers offense in last season's 7-3 victory at Ford Field. They sacked quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Matt Flynn four times, knocked Rodgers out with a concussion late in the first half and held the Packers to a season-low 13 first downs. That performance has served as the template for those who think the Lions have a credible chance win Sunday. But let's also remember that the Packers missed on two golden opportunities in that game for touchdowns, either of which would have given them a victory. Receiver Greg Jennings got behind Lions safety Amari Spievey in the first quarter but inexplicably bobbled the ball into the air, allowing a surprised Spievey to make the interception. And Flynn overthrew Jennings on what would have been a touchdown on the Packers' final possession. This is not to discredit the job the Lions did that day. It's just a reminder that it took two to tango on that occasion.

Facing Calvin Johnson: Two important trends will collide in this game: The Packers have given up gobs of passing yards this season, and Lions receiver Calvin Johnson has taken his game to another level. Opponents are averaging nearly 290 passing yards per game against the Packers and have 18 touchdown passes against them. But it's worth noting that the Packers have had success against Johnson since Dom Capers joined them as defensive coordinator in 2009. In three games over that span, Johnson has caught a total of nine passes for 130 yards; he does have three touchdowns in those games. Cornerback Charles Woodson has taken the majority of the responsibility for covering him in those games.

Mr. Smith arrives: We probably haven't told enough of the Kevin Smith story this week. Two weeks after the Lions re-signed him, Smith appears set to return to the starting lineup. His continued production would obviously help balance the Lions' offense, but it's worth watching what kind of impact he can have in pass protection as well. You would think he will be at least one line of defense against Packers outside linebacker Clay Matthews, who has typically lined up over right tackle this season and has an otherwise favorable matchup with Lions right tackle Gosder Cherilus.

Rookie Watch: We've noted on several occasions the dueling rookie receivers on these teams. The Lions drafted Titus Young with the No. 44 overall pick of the 2011 draft, and the Packers selected Randall Cobb at No. 64 overall. Although they have filled much different roles for their respective teams, both players are in position to impact this game. Young has caught 28 passes as the Lions' No. 3 receiver, including touchdowns in two of their past three games. Cobb has been used more sparingly on the Packers' deep offense, catching 15 passes, but he has returned both a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns already this season.