With the Bears and Vikings stumbling to 0-3 starts, the NFC North appears to be in the hands of the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers for the time being, with both entering Thursday night’s game at 2-1.
A win for the Lions would achieve something they haven’t done in more than six years. The Lions have not held a division lead outright in Week 4 or later since Week 15 of the 2016 season.
For the Packers, a win would further back up their decision to go with Jordan Love, who led a 17-point, fourth-quarter comeback win in Week 3. Love has seven touchdowns and only one interception through three games this season, averaging 12.6 yards per completion.
The Lions can throw the ball and protect it well, too. Jared Goff’s INT-less streak might be over, but going back to Week 10 last season, he has the best TD-INT ratio (20 TDs, two INTs) in the NFL. Although the offense hasn’t been quite as prolific as it was last season, the Lions can score quickly and often.
Beyond the rivalry and the obvious short-term advantages of winning this game for the Packers, there’s also a bit of a bitter taste left in some of their mouths the way last season ended.
Green Bay rallied after a 3-6 start to put itself in a win-and-in situation for the playoffs in Week 18 at Lambeau against the Lions. That’s when Detroit closed the door on the Packers’ season and Aaron Rodgers’ career in Green Bay. That completed the Lions’ season sweep of the Packers. A win Thursday would give Detroit four straight wins over their NFC North rivals.
Here are four things to watch for when the Lions visit the Packers on Thursday night on Prime Video:
- Packers might have reinforcements on offense. Most signs point to running back Aaron Jones and wideout Christian Watson having a chance to return (they're both questionable for Thursday). In a little more than a half against the Bears in the season opener, Jones arguably was the best player on the field. The Packers have not been able to replace Jones’ production since he left that game with a hamstring injury. Getting him back would give the Packers more options in the run and pass games and lighten the load for AJ Dillon, who hasn’t been efficient in a leading role. The Packers have spread the ball around effectively among their young receivers with Watson -- who led them in TD receptions (9) last season -- sidelined for the first three games. Romeo Doubs has been WR1 in Watson’s absence, but rookie TE Luke Musgrave and rookie WRs Jayden Reed and Dontayvion Wicks have stepped up. Still, Watson would add another deep element to the offense and stretch the Lions’ defense vertically.
- The Lions defense still seeks consistency. Detroit came to play in the Week 1 win at Kansas City, and it did so again in the home victory over Atlanta in Week 3. The pressure was there, and the run defense did its job. The game in between? The Seahawks pretty much had their way offensively. Which defense will show up Thursday? The group struggled for long stretches last season but has shown obvious signs of improvement. The next step: consistency. What should worry the Lions is that of the three styles of offense they’ve faced so far, the Packers most resemble Seattle's. The Lions had trouble putting heat on Geno Smith in Week 2 (pressured on 35.2% of his dropbacks), and the Seahawks picked on CB Jerry Jacobs all game. But the Lions survived the potentially season-ending injury to C.J. Gardner-Johnson well last week, with rookie DB Brian Branch stepping up to have a big game. It starts with the Lions’ pressure up front, but the back end still must tighten up -- especially if Green Bay has its full arsenal of weapons available.
- Rashan Gary’s breakout is a big development for Green Bay. With Gary working his way back into form following ACL surgery, the Packers brought him off the bench the first two games with limited snaps. In Week 3, Gary’s reps increased a bit and his production went with it. Gary logged three sacks against the Saints, including the one that knocked Derek Carr out of the game due to a shoulder injury. Two of the three sacks came on third downs, and Gary added another big one late on Jameis Winston as the Packers started to mount a comeback. How much Gary can play in a short week remains a question; he still hasn’t seen the field for more than 23 snaps in a game this season. The Lions are also expected to be healthier on the offensive line. Gary needs to make the most out of whatever snaps he can muster against a dangerous Detroit offense.
- Detroit’s offensive line isn’t whole again, but could be healthier. The Lions have had to go without left tackle Taylor Decker the past two games, and his absence has been felt. Penei Sewell has shifted over from right tackle to take his spot, and he hasn’t been quite as effective there with a few pressures allowed in Week 2 and two penalties in Week 3. Adding urgency to Decker’s potential return is the fact that Sewell’s replacement at right tackle, Matt Nelson, suffered an ankle injury and needs surgery. Even Nelson’s replacement, Dan Skipper, was injured last week. If Decker can’t go (he's listed as questionable), it might be Sewell back at left tackle and rookie Colby Sorsdal on the right side, depending on Skipper’s health. Even with Preston Smith off to a slow start rushing the passer, the Packers have several sources outside of Gary who can get in Goff’s grill, including Kenny Clark, Devonte Wyatt, Kingsley Enagbare, rookie Lukas Van Ness and others. Goff is pretty good throwing vs. pressure and is among the NFL’s least-sacked quarterbacks, but Seattle showed what some well-timed pressures can do to him.