The last time these two teams met, the Lions were playing spoiler on the final day of the 2022 regular season, defeating the Packers in a game that had Green Bay won, would have clinched it a playoff berth. Much has changed for each team between then and now, though, and we'll be looking at a significantly different matchup than last time around.
With each team entering the contest at 2-1, the stage is set for one of them to take an early lead in the race for the NFC North title. Which will it be? We'll find out soon enough. Before we break down the matchup, here's a look at how you can watch the game.
How to watch
- Date: Thursday, Sept. 28 | Time: 8:20 p.m. ET
- Location: Lambeau Field (Green Bay, WI)
- Stream: Amazon Prime Video
- Follow: CBS Sports App
- Odds: Lions -1; O/U 46 (via SportsLine consensus odds)
When the Lions have the ball
This matchup is all about the middle of the field. That's the area the Lions are almost always trying to attack in the passing game, whether it's with Amon-Ra St. Brown in the slot, Sam LaPorta underneath or up the seam, or one of the perimeter receivers on a crossing route. That's where Jared Goff feels most comfortable throwing the ball. It's also the area the Packers have defended the best so far this season, as they rank sixth in FTN's DVOA on throws over the middle.
How much of that is due to their having played against Justin Fields, Desmond Ridder, and Derek Carr/Jameis Winston and how much of it is an actual defensive strength? The Packers were 14th in DVOA against the same throws last year so it's probably a little more of the former than the latter, but Green Bay has gotten better play (especially in coverage) this year out of linebacker Quay Walker, which has obviously helped quite a bit. His partner at inside linebacker, De'Vondre Campbell, though, has already been ruled out for this game after suffering an injury during last week's win over the Saints. That could open things up for LaPorta, who is coming off a monster game.
More concerning from Green Bay's perspective is the matchup of St. Brown vs. slot corner KeiSean Nixon. Nixon has allowed 10 of 11 passes thrown his way in the slot to be completed, yielding 89 yards and a touchdown, according to Pro Football Focus. St. Brown ranks fifth in the NFL with 11 slot receptions so far this season, gaining 124 yards on those plays. St. Brown was limited to just 4 catches for 55 yards (on 9 targets) and 6 catches for 49 yards (also 9 targets) in two games against Green Bay last year, but he also tore up the Packers for 8-109-1 on 10 targets in the season finale of his rookie year. Even while playing with a steel plate in his cleats last week against the Falcons, the Sun God had his most productive game of the season with 9 grabs for 102 yards. He is the clear focal point of the passing game -- only now, the Lions have more reliable over-the-middle threats in LaPorta, and then Jahmyr Gibbs out of the backfield.
The Packers rank just 27th in DVOA against throws to running backs so far this season, and if David Montgomery returns to resume the early-down grinder role, that could lead the Lions to get Gibbs more involved as a receiver, like he was in Weeks 1 and 2. Last week, he had a career-high 17 rushes (more than in the first two weeks of the season combined) but drew just two targets after seeing nine the week before.
As we detailed in our preview of the season-opener, Goff is one of the league's most susceptible quarterbacks to pressure. That's not great news against a defensive front featuring Rashan Gary (12 pressures), Kenny Clark (12), and Devonte Wyatt (10), but the offensive line has mostly kept the rush away from him so far this season. (He's been pressured on 34% of his dropbacks, compared with the league average of 35.3%, per Tru Media.) If you're going to get to Goff, it's likely going to come via interior pressure due to the strength of Detroit's tackles, which means Clark and Wyatt may have to do the heavy lifting. It may also be a good idea to have Gary rush off the right side of the defensive line against Taylor Decker rather than the left against Penei Sewell, given that Decker was limited in practices due to an ankle injury.
When the Packers have the ball
There's a lot up in the air here, injury-wise. We know the Packers will be without both left tackle David Bakhtiari and left guard Elgton Jenkins. We don't yet know for sure whether any or all of right tackle Zach Tom, running back Aaron Jones, and wide receiver Christian Watson will play, or whether there will be any limitations on them if they do. They all got in at least a limited session on both Tuesday and Wednesday, which should be considered a good sign, but with Watson, in particular, the Packers may want him to get in a full practice before having him make his season debut. That's obviously easier to accomplish when you're not playing on a Thursday night.
Still, there are certain things we know we should expect from this version of the Packers' offense. For one thing, we know that Jordan Love is going to aggressively push the ball downfield. Even without Watson in the lineup, Love is averaging an incredible 10.6 air yards per attempt. That's the single-highest mark in the league, according to Tru Media. His average throw has also traveled 2.0 yards beyond the first-down marker, which is the highest mark BY MORE THAN A FULL YARD. (Derek Carr is second at 0.9 yards past the sticks.) He is really trying to get the ball down the field.
Given how aggressive Love has been, it's a little worrisome that he has only an average explosive play rate so far (7.5% of his dropbacks have turned into gains of 20-plus yards, compared with a league average of 7.4%), but that's where Watson comes in. More than a quarter of his catches last season (11 of 41) turned into explosive gains. That's his role in the offense, and the theory is that he'll help Love capitalize on those chance more often. Detroit has been only average (17th in FTN's DVOA) against deep passes this season, so Watson's potential return could present an opportunity to take advantage of that area of the field -- assuming he can play a full complement of snaps.
The play of the Packers' other young wide receivers (Romeo Doubs, Jayden Reed, and Dontayvion Wicks have combined for 26 catches for 362 yards and six touchdowns through three games) makes it less of a necessity that Watson make a big impact in his first run of the season, but the Packers seem to really need Jones to get their ground game untracked. A.J. Dillon has been running in mud all year, averaging a paltry 2.7 yards per carry and breaking just one run of 12 yards or more while being stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage a disgusting 23.1% of the time. Jones was the significantly more efficient and explosive runner of the two last season, and it looks like that will again be the case this year. The Packers obviously don't want to overload him with work given his size, age, and injury history, but if Dillon remains this ineffective, they might need to figure something else out.
Where the Lions may be able to generate a surprising advantage here is in the trenches. Aidan Hutchinson is off to a terrific start to the season, as he is tied (with T.J. Watt and Maxx Crosby) for the league lead with 19 pressures through the season's first three weeks. He's also getting to the quarterback faster this year (2.6 seconds to pressure and 2.85 seconds to sack, according to Tru Media) than he did a year ago (2.8 seconds to pressure and 3.61 seconds to sack), a sign that he's making quicker work of opposing offensive tackles. Alim McNeill, meanwhile, is never going to put up big numbers due to his role, but he's been stout in the middle of what has so far been an effective run defense, checking in fifth in FTN's DVOA.
The Packers could try to counteract the potential of an up-front mismatch by using play-action to keep the rush off balance. Love has been quite effective on play-action throws, completing 15 of 26 for 247 yards and two scores. The Lions have been vulnerable to run-fakes so far this year, ranking 18th in Tru Media's EPA/play on those snaps. Trying to hit a downfield shot via play-action could be the Packers' best chance of creating a big play.
Prediction: Lions 24, Packers 20
Green Bay's offensive line injuries, combined with the better-than-expected performance of Detroit's defensive front, lead me to believe the Lions can hold the Packers' offense somewhat in check. (Even in last week's comeback victory over the Saints, the Packers were held scoreless for three quarters before notching two touchdowns and a field goal in the fourth.) The Lions just seem like the better bet to move the ball well offensively -- even on the road, and even against a Green Bay defense that is also playing quite well.
If you want a breakdown on which way to lean for Thursday night's game, then I suggest you go to SportsLine so you can check out R.J. White's pick. White is a gambling guru who has hit on an absurd number of Packers' picks, going 60-21-2 against the spread in his last 83 picks involving Green Bay. It's almost like the NFL is sending him the script for the game because he seems to know what's happening in Packers games before they're even played.