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Lions vs. Packers preview: 3 things that will determine the NFC North winner

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This season's playoff bracket hinges on the Week 17 showdown between NFC North rivals. Can the Packers keep rolling, or will the Lions steal the show? Retired NFL defensive end Stephen White previews the big game.

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The Lions and Packers meet up Sunday on the last day of the regular season in a rematch of a Week 3 contest that saw the Lions victorious in a low-scoring affair. This time the stakes are higher. The winner of this game gets all the spoils, the NFC North title, at least the second seed in the NFC and a first-round bye in the playoffs.

The loser? Well, they will at least be in the playoffs, but they will be the lowest seed, have to go on the road for Wild Card weekend and have no chance of hosting a playoff game. Zero, zilch, none.

So, yeah, this is a pretty big deal for both teams. Neither squad is all that predictable, but as I think back on all the film I have watched on both teams this season, here are three questions that will be central to deciding who wins this game.

1. Aaron Rodgers has only thrown five interceptions all season, getting picked in just three games. On a somewhat related note, the Packers have only lost four games all season.

Care to guess which team won the games where Rodgers threw a pick?

Yeah, that's right, in every game Rodgers threw at least one interception in this season, the Packers lost. The only other game they lost? The aforementioned Lions game.

Now, three games out of 15 is, of course, not a high percentage, so it's not like its easy to bait Rodgers into throwing the ball to guys in the wrong colored jersey. At the same time, the Lions are second in the NFL with 20 interceptions. I know for myself it's still hard to believe in the Lions improved secondary because they had so many years recently where their it was by far their weakest link. Believe in them or not, those guys are for real. Safety James Ihedigbo really seems to have made a major difference in turning that unit from a liability to a strength,.

Still, this is Aaron Rodgers were are talking about, and if the Lions can't force Rodgers into an interception, I have my doubts that the Lions can beat them again in Green Bay they way they did in Detroit earlier this season.

2. Immovable object meets unstoppable force. Will the Lions, with their number one run defense, be able to shut down Eddie Lacy? The Lions are only giving up a ridiculous average of 63.6 yards per game on the ground. Lacy, by himself, is averaging just over 93 rushing yards per game in his last six games. Something is going to have to give.

In their first game, the Lions kept Lacy in check and held him to only 36 yards rushing. The thing is, Lacy got off to a reaaaaally slow start this season, he looks like a totally different guy lately. It's not just that Lacy is producing more yards, he also seems to breaking more tackles. Late in December outside at Lambeau Field where I believe the high is forecast to be only 24 degrees right now, I can promise you all those tackles you see on Sunday are going to hurt. Let a big back like Lacy get rolling and it's going to be a looooong day. By the same token, if the Lions can jump on him early, Lacy isn't going to like all that fire raining down on him over and over either.

The more the Packers can rely on the running game, the less they have to put Rodgers at risk by throwing the ball with that intimidating Lions pass rush getting after his ass. One way or another, how Lacy performs will definitely correlate with who wins that game Sunday.

3. Can the Lions protect Matthew Stafford? Detroit has a kick-ass defense, but the Packers aren't too shabby either. In particular, the Packers know how to get after the passer. They're just one spot behind the Lions, at seventh in the league, with 39 sacks (the Lions have 41). I'm not going to mince words, Stafford really does get rattled if he gets knocked around a lot, and pressure is one way to shut down Lions all world receiver Calvin "Megatron" Johnson before he even gets started.

I haven't been impressed with any of the right tackles the Lions have rolled out there this season, and if my memory is correct, Packers outside linebacker Julius Peppers had a field day with the jabronis they tried to block him with in Week 3. If Peppers comes ready to play Sunday, I don't know how they are going to keep him off Stafford's back.

At the same time outside linebacker Clay Matthews, who used to simply line up opposite of Peppers, is now being moved all over the place to create favorable matchups and get him better opportunities for pressure on the quarterback. I bring that up because, of course, Lions starting center Dominic Raiola decided to be an asshole last weekend and stomp on Ego Ferguson's ankle and is now, rightfully, suspended for the game Sunday.

That means that Travis Swanson (who?), a third-round pick out of Arkansas who has only started four games so far this season at guard, is the starting center this week. Imagine all the different ways Packers' defensive coordinator Dom Capers will be able to move Matthews around so that he is matched up on an unsuspecting Swanson as a pass rusher. With so much on the line and playing away from home, talk about a potential a baptism by fire for young Swanson Sunday.

If the Lions' offensive line can manage to hold up enough to get Stafford time to push the ball down the field, then I think Detroit has an excellent chance of sweeping the Packers this weekend. If Stafford ends up running for his life, I have the sneaky suspicion that we will see the Stafford we are used to seeing in years past who looks great at first then ends up melting down in the face of pressure.


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