Going past the obvious storylines and taking a deeper dive into all three Thanksgiving games in Week 13. (All times Eastern.)
Packers (5-5-1) at Lions (6-5), 12:30 p.m., FOX
Packers offense vs. Lions defense
The Hollywood narrative would suggest Matt Flynn is primed for an Earth-moving performance. The former-Packer-turned-journeyman-turned-Packer is on the Thanksgiving stage and facing a Lions team that he torched for 480 yards and six touchdowns in a meaningless Week 17 contest two years ago. That performance helped bring Flynn a not-so-meaningless eight-figure contract in free agency, but it has also turned out to be the former seventh-round pick’s last taste of NFL success.
Since that game, Flynn has endured a tacit but public rejection from his former offensive coordinator (and current Dolphins head coach) Joe Philbin; lost quarterback competitions in Seattle and Oakland (after opening both as the heavy favorite); been released after short stays in Oakland and Buffalo; and, most recently, been written off as damaged goods by a litany of NFL clubs.
Now Flynn is starting again—presumably with, as the narrative goes, “a chip on his shoulder.” Too bad Aaron Rodgers can’t start with a chip on his shoulder. In real life, quarterbacks can’t ride motivation to victory. Motivation doesn’t amplify arm strength. Or size. Or mobility. Or sense of passing lane anticipation. All are significant attributes Flynn lacks.
A quarterback’s physical limitations are most exposed when he’s under pressure. We saw several examples of this late in overtime last Sunday, when Minnesota’s front four took it to Green Bay’s offensive line. On multiple dropbacks, Flynn couldn’t come close to getting the ball downfield.
Like Minnesota, Detroit’s defense is built around a dynamic front four. When the Packers and Lions met in Week 5, the Packers frequently kept in extra blockers to help unpolished offensive tackles David Bakhtiari and Don Barclay. Though both young linemen have since flickered signs of improvement, they remain ill-equipped to combat the explosive Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh, or the just-plain-fast Willie Young and Ziggy Ansah. (Ditto for Marshall Newhouse, who will make a third straight start at right tackle Thursday if Barclay remains sidelined with a bum knee.)
The Lions essentially refrained from all blitzing in the Week 5 meeting, which is not atypical of a Jim Schwartz team. They did, however, diversify their coverages, straying from their usual two-deep zones to incorporate more man-to-man. We probably won’t see that this time around. For one, teams playing on a shorter week are more likely to stick with what’s familiar. For Detroit, that means Cover 2 and Cover 3 zones. For two, with Flynn unlikely to conjure big plays on his own, and with Randall Cobb and Jermichael Finley out of action, Schwartz should have confidence that his defense can simply line up and out-execute Green Bay.
Lions offense vs. Packers defense
The Packers last faced Calvin Johnson in 2012. They defended him with Tramon Williams’ man coverage and, usually, a safety over the top. Johnson finished with 143 yards on five catches in the first meeting. In the second, he faced more one-on-one scenarios and caught 10 balls, but for only 118 yards.
This season, Sam Shields has emerged as Green Bay’s best cover man, though lately he’s been dealing with a bad hamstring. If Shields, who did a spectacular job against A.J. Green in Week 3, can’t handle Johnson, Williams will once again get the nod.
Regardless of who stalks Johnson, Detroit’s offense won’t click until Matthew Stafford recalibrates. He threw four interceptions against Tampa Bay—two on inaccurate throws underneath and two on forced balls to a double-teamed Megatron. The prior week, Stafford missed several open targets in a loss at Pittsburgh.
Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan must recommit to the quick-strike passing that worked early in the season. That will force Stafford to play with more discipline. Plus, for this matchup, it’s a good way to nullify the corner blitzes that Green Bay loves to bring.