Wojo: No excuses, Lions should beat these Packers
Green Bay, Wis. — You can say it without shame, without fear of ridicule. Go ahead. You almost never, ever get this chance.
The Lions should win at Lambeau Field tonight.
They should beat the wounded Packers because they have the much-better quarterback, and Matthew Stafford is (over)due to deliver. This is exactly the reason the Lions gave Stafford the gigantic contract, because he’s durable and often dynamic, and they’re betting he can win this type of game. Frankly at this stage, his reputation is riding on it. Green Bay is ripe to be plucked, and the NFC North is back up for sale with Aaron Rodgers sidelined.
The Lions have suffered injuries along their offensive line, still have little semblance of a running game, and are 3-4 with three straight losses. But of all the teams in their division, they have the fewest excuses. The Vikings are 6-2 using, essentially, their third-string quarterback in Case Keenum, and missing injured rookie runner Dalvin Cook. The Bears are 3-5 and playing a rookie QB, Mitchell Trubisky.
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The Packers are 4-3 even with a Brett back at quarterback. Uh, that’s Hundley, not Favre, and the third-year pro has completed 52 percent of his passes with one touchdown and four interceptions since replacing Rodgers (broken right collarbone) two games ago. There’s a reason the Lions actually are slight favorites in this one.
No excuses. They’ve won once at Lambeau since 1991, and that was a nasty little 18-16 victory in 2015. This could be just as nasty, and far more necessary. It’s a season-turner or a season-burner, 4-4 or 3-5. The Lions’ path ahead is manageable — if such a thing exists in the NFL — with Cleveland, Chicago and Minnesota (on Thanksgiving).
‘It’s a big game’
If you really want to be teased, let’s play the always-entertaining schedule game. Of their final nine opponents, you know how many currently have a winning record? Two, the Vikings and Packers. The rest — Browns, Bears (twice), Ravens, Buccaneers and Bengals — are a combined 12-29.
Stafford’s record against teams with winning records — 5-49 — is startling, although it can get overstated because the Lions often were outmanned. But not lately. Not when they’ve made the playoffs three of the past six seasons. The pressure is on Jim Caldwell and coordinator Jim Bob Cooter to make Stafford more effective, and to avoid red-zone disasters like the 0-for-5 against the Steelers.
Sometimes you wish Stafford adopted more of a grim-faced countenance in these cold-weather outdoor games. Throwing for 423 yards without a touchdown in the 20-15 loss to Pittsburgh was the epitome of a tease, doing just enough to fall. It certainly wasn’t all on him, but at some point, in some games, it is mostly on him.
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His demeanor rarely changes and his comments are rarely revealing. But this opportunity has to burn deep, deep inside, another chance to show he’s the quarterback who should be the difference in this division.
“Each game is an important one because it’s the next one, and this one is no different,” Stafford said. “Obviously in the division it’s a big game. You kind of win one in the division it counts for two, right? So you kind of control your destiny in that regard. It’ll be a big one every time we go to Green Bay. It’s a tough environment, tough place to play against a really good team.”
The Packers still have pieces, but no, they’re not a really good team right now. Their leading rusher is rookie Aaron Jones, who has been effective. Their run defense has been gashed, not that the Lions are capable of taking advantage, now up to 59 consecutive games without a 100-yard rusher.
The Packers are coming off a bye, and I imagine they’ll try to get Hundley, 24, moving around and creating plays with his legs. But if the quarterback can’t get Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams and Randall Cobb involved, Green Bay is eminently beatable, even on not-quite-frozen tundra.
Of course, the Lions have had beatable teams nearly beaten and let them slip away. There was the final-play, overturned touchdown against Atlanta. There was the crusher last week, when the Lions had the ball inside the Steelers’ 6 three times in the second half and came away with three points.
Against Hundley, the Lions have to crank up the aggressiveness, find a way to confuse and contain the young quarterback. They haven’t had a single sack the past two games, which puts more pressure on their offense, which hasn’t proven capable of handling it.
‘We’re really close’
Stafford has thrown for 735 the past two games, with three TDs and three interceptions. Too much glitz, not enough grind. Stafford isn’t the only one feeling the heat, and Cooter nicely mangled a metaphor trying to explain the frustration.
“It’s that kind of old thing, ‘Don’t fix a hole in the boat and let the other one open up,’ or whatever the hell it is, you guys figure it out,” Cooter said. “But we can’t let something else drop off because we’re fixing something else. We have to sort of fix everything, get better at everything. We’re really close to doing some good things this past game, but close doesn’t really matter in this league.”
Receivers Marvin Jones, Golden Tate and TJ Jones played well against the Steelers. But Cooter has to find different ways to use Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick, because they’re not between-the-tackle runners and defenses know it.
Nobody cares how close you are, and whether you’re getting good breaks or bad breaks. Rodgers’ injury is only a break for the Lions if they do something about it, and for credibility’s sake, they absolutely must.