If football games were won and lost based on yardage gained and given up, the Packers would most likely be a huge favorite Sunday against the Detroit Lions. However, moving the ball up and down the field is no guarantee of success, as has been evidenced by the results in the early going of the season.
To date, the Packers have averaged gaining 376 yards per game, while then Lions give up an average of 352. The Packers defense has been allowing 384 yards per contest, but the Detroit offense ranks 31st in the league, putting up just 252 yards per game.
So what is it that has made the difference in seeing the Lions get off to one of their best starts in recent memory at 3-1 and riding high atop the NFC North, while the Packers have slumped to 1-4 and find themselves in unfamiliar territory at the bottom of the division?
One key factor in the disparate fortunes of the two clubs so far in 2004 has been their ability, or inability, to protect the football on offense, and force their opponents to give up possession of the pigskin.
Through four games, the Lions have fumbled the ball away just once and tallied an amazing eight fumble recoveries of their opposition. The Packers, on the other hand, have at times handled the ball like a hot potato, losing six fumbles, while recovering two fumbles on defense.
These numbers have gone a long way to opening up an 18-turnover margin (Detroit 9, Green Bay -9) between the two clubs.
Packers GM/Head Coach Mike Sherman is well aware of the Lions' propensity for causing turnovers.
"You don't have to look very far to see they're taking the ball away from their opponents and hanging on to it on offense," Sherman said. "I think they only have three giveaways on offense. They're 9 in the giveaway/takeaway margin. They've been very effective in being opportunistic, and they're forcing fumbles on a regular basis."
Speaking Wednesday at his mid-week press conference, Sherman acknowledged the importance of holding on to the ball, and stated that his team would definitely be reminded of that fact throughout this week of practice.
"I've said many times in this room that to win football games in this league, you have to hang on to the football," the coach said. "We haven't done a great job - we've given the ball away too many times and not taken it back enough times. That's certainly going to be a point of emphasis. It will be the point of emphasis at the start of practice."
The fumbling problems have been spread throughout the team - Ahman Green (3 fumbles lost), Javon Walker (1), Donald Driver (1) and Antonio Chatman (1) - but it has been Green's fumbles that have drawn the most attention from critics.
Sherman said that he believes his All-Pro running back will be able to work through his recent rough spell, and doesn't agree with some claims that Green must alter his practice of carrying the ball nearly exclusively in his left hand, pointing to the back's superior record of ball control from last season.
"He's been more protective of it in practice," Sherman said. "To ask him to change how he's held the ball, we've been through that and I really think that it would force more problems in regard to that issue. When you can carry the ball in this league 246 times without a turnover, you can carry it. We just have to be better on emphasizing the fundamentals of protecting the football."
Wide receiver Robert Ferguson knows what kind of team he and his offensive teammates will be facing Sunday, and what they will have to do to emerge victorious from Ford Field.
"They're a good defense," Ferguson said. "They fly around to the ball and make plays.
"Protecting the ball and taking the ball away is our main focus this week. We've got to create turnovers and hang on to the ball."
Ferguson said that the team had been running a lot of ball-security drills in practice this week, including strip drills and one called "the gauntlet", to force them to concentrate on holding on to the football.
The emphasis has obviously made its way to the defensive side of the ball as well, as linebacker Na'il Diggs spoke about the need to create more turnovers.
"It's a very serious matter," Diggs said. "Any team that is successful now, that is above .500, probably is in the plus-takeaway category and we're minus-nine. It correlates a lot to your chances of winning, and that's something we definitely have to pick up - for our offense to keep the ball and our defense to get the ball."
It seems simple, but the numbers don't lie. Whichever team is able to protect the ball better Sunday will most likely be the ones to come away with the victory.