NFC North: John Rambo
November, 22, 2011
By Kevin Seifert | ESPN.com
Getty Images, AP PhotoThursday's matchup at Ford Field features the secret-agent stylings of the Green Bay Packers against the emotionally charged Detroit Lions.Because I am immature and ridiculous, I present this question: Who would you take in a fight: James Bond or John Rambo? The cool, cunning and well-equipped secret agent or the slightly deranged veteran who takes on the world at every turn?
So goes the pop-culture analogy swirling in my head as we hurtle toward Thursday's showdown at Ford Field. There are a number of reasons this matchup between the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions is so appealing, and we'll get to them all, but at its core it features teams with polar personalities and styles that can't coexist on a football field.
The Packers' surgical precision is embodied by quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who leads the NFL with a 72.3 completion percentage and, these days, limits his on-field emotion to an occasional fist pump. ("The Belt" has recently been reserved for paid advertisements.) The Lions, meanwhile, play every game as if they're avenging past injustices. They are emotional, often angry and not beyond pushing the far boundaries of the rules.
One approach will prevail Thursday over the other. The Lions will either overwhelm the Packers with energy, trying to win their first Thanksgiving Day game in seven years, or the Packers will slice through that emotion with professional calculation.
"We'll be going to a hornet's nest," Packers defensive lineman B.J. Raji said. "We're the defending champions, and those guys are at home with a chance to knock us off in front of a national television audience. They're probably going to be jacked up. They beat us last year [at Ford Field] and they almost beat us at home. They believe they can win. It's our job to convince them they can't."
The Lions are doing their best this week to limit the fuel they add to an already-charged situation. This game has been sold out for months, and last week the Lions sold an additional 1,500 standing-room tickets in less than 30 minutes. Ford Field will be as frenzied as it was for the return of "Monday Night Football" last month, an atmosphere that contributed to nine false-start penalties by the Chicago Bears.
Receiver Nate Burleson couldn't resist taking a subtle shot at Rodgers' currently-running State Farm commercial, saying he might perform the "discount double check when I score just to give him a shout out." But for the most part, the Lions understand the diminished utility in antagonizing a team as steely as the Packers.
"If you start thinking about all the things that go into this game," Burleson told reporters in Detroit, "you get away from what really matters -- getting the win. We just want to win the game."
Yes, this is one game where the Lions won't need to emit guttural roars to be noticed. As the Packers have plowed through the season, many of us have looked ahead and thought the Lions could present their first true matchup problem.
As the charts show, the Lions' strengths -- on paper, at least -- match up favorably against the Packers.
The Lions have a top-five pass defense no matter what category you consider, one that at least gives them a chance to slow down Rodgers if their defensive line provides its usual pressure and physicality. And the success of their own passing game puts them in position to exploit the Packers' most obvious vulnerability.
Generally speaking, the Lions have the capacity to match the Packers score for score, along with a defense that stands as good of a chance as any to steal a few possessions. These are two of the top three scoring offenses in the NFL, another reason this game has such national appeal.
In the end, however, I really think this game will come down to poise. The Packers are at their best when operating in a cocoon, keeping their opponents at a safe distance while they speed down the highway in Q's latest contraption. The Lions get an edge on opponents by knocking them out of that comfort zone, blowing them up with energy and anger.
That's why Packers running back Ryan Grant told reporters that this game "is about us." The Lions' extracurriculars have "nothing to do with us," Grant added.
"We have to take care of our business on our end," he said. "Every week, we look … to maintain our discipline. It has nothing to do with what the other man does. We know what we need to do. The challenge isn't necessarily dealing with their discipline."
Can the Packers maintain their poise? Or will the Lions get under their skin just enough to slide those matchups in their favor? I'll be in the front row with popcorn and 3-D glasses to find out.