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Butler's Breakdown: Packers vs. Lions


Considering all that the Green Bay Packers have gone through this season, it would be huge to get to 7-5, and they can do that Thursday with a win over the Detroit Lions at Ford Field.

Late November is the time of year that playoff teams start to separate from the pack. Since the bye week, the Packers have played like a team that's playoff bound, but they still trail the Minnesota Vikings in the race for the NFC North.

The Thanksgiving game against the Lions could be great for the Packers, because if they get the win, they can sit back over the weekend and watch the playoff contenders emerge.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. The Packers have had the Lions' number of late, but Detroit always plays well on Thanksgiving Day and this year's bunch is a lot better than that 3-8 record indicates.

Just like a few plays here and there have hurt the Packers this season, especially in losses to Kansas City and Philadelphia, the Lions are just a few plays away from being .500 right now.

That might not sound like much, but don't forget that the Packers were only a .500 team themselves going into last weekend's game with the San Francisco 49ers.

At this point of the year, most 3-8 teams would be feeling pretty demoralized. But the Lions are coached by former Packers assistant Steve Mariucci, who is a master motivator, and they have a guy at quarterback, Joey Harrington, who just refuses to quit.

Believe me, from the Lions' perspective, beating the Packers with the whole world watching on Thanksgiving would feel like five wins, not one.

They'll be hungry and angry. And they'll play as if they have nothing to lose.

The Packers need to match that intensity by remembering what this game means to them: a playoff spot.

If they can beat the Lions, the sting of those Chiefs and Eagles losses will start to melt away. If they lose, the Packers will start to wonder if time is running out on their post-season hopes.

My memories of the Lions on Thanksgiving Day consist of running back Barry Sanders making the opposition look foolish.

Detroit has a different offense now. Harrington had a rough game last week with two interceptions returned for touchdowns, but he's still a talented quarterback who could really get it going if he gets off to a strong start.

The Lions tried to give Harrington a dangerous target by drafting wide receiver Charles Rogers, but then their future star hit the injured list. Now Harrington will look to Az-Zahir Hakim and the pride of Sheboygan, Wis., Bill Schroeder, who showed flashes as a Packer of being a very good receiver.

In the first meeting with Detroit this season, the Packers were able to stop the run and force Harrington to throw early.

They'll use the same blueprint this time around, but it will look a little different to the Lions offensive line, because Grady Jackson and Larry Smith weren't with the team in Week 2.

The Packers have some injury issues on defense, but if they can pressure Harrington, I think they'll win the game.

Rookie middle linebacker Nick Barnett is questionable with an ankle injury and Pro Bowl safety Darren Sharper has a chest contusion.

If Barnett can't play he'll be replaced by Torrance Marshall, who played the second half of the San Francisco game. That time on the field was good for Marshall to brush off some of the dust, but it probably also gave Detroit some ideas on how to attack him.

While Barnett is lightning quick to all parts of the field, Marshall is a bigger and more powerful linebacker. He should be good handling the lead blocks of Cory Schlesinger, but he'll have to keep an eye on the Lions fullback in the passing game.

In the secondary, Green Bay can go with Marques Anderson and Antuan Edwards at the safety spots. Both have been starters and Edwards is coming off perhaps the best game of his career, so they should come into the game feeling confident.

The short turnaround between games probably hurts the availability of Barnett and Sharper, but maybe this is a blessing in disguise, especially for Barnett.

Ankle sprains can linger and maybe the best thing for him is to sit out one game in order to be healthier down the stretch.

Last season, injuries killed the Packers. If they want to make a playoff run they're going to have to stay healthy.

With that in mind, the offense would love it if they can limit running back Ahman Green's carries.

If they need him, they'll run him, but look for running backs coach Sylvester Croom to see to it that Najeh Davenport and Tony Fisher get increased reps to spare Green.

Green has been remarkably healthy to this point this season, but the Packers will need him to have fresh legs in December.

With the way the Packers offensive line is blocking, the running game should succeed no matter who's in the backfield. That said, the Lions defensive line -- which includes Dan Wilkinson, Luther Elliss and Robert Porcher -- is one tough group.

Hopefully the O-line can rise to the occasion. They'll also need to provide protection for Brett Favre, who is likely to pass a little more than he did against San Francisco in the more favorable conditions of Ford Field.

Favre doesn't need to dominate the game, but he does need to limit his turnovers. A 15-for-22 performance for 205 yards and two or three touchdowns would be outstanding.

Last week the Packers tried to work Bubba Franks back into the passing game, and I think you'll see the tight ends play a bigger role as receivers this week.

The Packers wide receivers of Donald Driver, Robert Ferguson and Javon Walker also should be able to make some big plays against the Lions secondary.

Of course, Ferguson needs to make his biggest impact on special teams. He's been a monster in the coverage units all season and needs to have another big game.

The Lions are likely to try some special teams trickery to get a big play against the Packers. That could mean a fake punt, a pooch kick or maybe a reverse on a return.

I expect that coordinator John Bonamego will have warned the Packers special teams players, but it's up to the guys on the field to stay alert.

Lions kicker Jason Hanson is one of the best in the game, so the field position battle becomes more important.

Davenport and Ferguson need to give the Packers an average starting point around the 35-yard line on kickoff returns. And on punt returns I'm still waiting for Antonio Chatman to break one.

I've been calling for it all season. Maybe Thanksgiving is the day!

It really doesn't get much better than playing on Thanksgiving. Unlike a Monday night game where half the country might go to bed before the third quarter is over, on Thanksgiving you know all eyes are on you.

Even non-football fans watch on Thanksgiving.

This is the perfect time for the Packers to send a message that they are a playoff team. It's also a chance for players to earn some Pro Bowl votes from fans and their peers.

On Thanksgiving, you are the show.

And with everyone watching, the Packers need to show what they're made of.

*LeRoy Butler played 12 seasons for the Green Bay Packers, helping them to two Super Bowls and earning NFL All-Decade Honors for the 1990s, before retiring in July 2002. This season Butler is providing exclusive analysis to with a breakdown of the upcoming game on Saturdays and a column and Q&A session on Tuesdays.

Butler's autobiography, 'The LeRoy Butler Story ... From Wheelchair to the Lambeau Leap,' is available on his website,*

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