NFC North: Green Bay Packers

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The Green Bay Packers say they're a different offense with a different running game than they were at Ford Field three months ago, when the Detroit Lions shut them down.

The Lions? They're the same.

What looked like a stout run defense back in Week 3 has proven to be the best in the league. Only one team -- and not a single running back -- has rushed for more than 100 yards against them this season.

And it wasn't the Packers.

[+] EnlargeEddie Lacy
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesEddie Lacy managed just 36 yards and the Packers only netted 76 yards as a team in the first meeting of the season with Detroit.
They didn't come close in their 19-7 loss Sept. 21.

Running back Eddie Lacy managed just 36 yards (his second-lowest total of the season) on 11 carries, and the Packers totaled just 76 yards on the ground, which is actually more than the Lions' season average of just 63.8 rushing yards allowed per game -- a figure that puts them on pace for the sixth-best total in NFL history.

So what makes the Packers think they will have any success running the ball against the league's No. 1-ranked rushing defense Sunday at Lambeau Field?

"We didn't have an identity Week 3," Packers left guard Josh Sitton said. "It always seems to take us awhile to get going and figure out who we are. Some teams come out right away and have their identity. It always takes us longer. We know who we are now, and we feel confident."

Coming out of the Lions' game, the Packers ranked 26th in rushing yards and 22nd in yards per carry (3.63). In the 12 games since, the Packers rank eighth in the league in rushing yards, and only two teams have bettered their yards-per-carry average of 4.61 in that stretch.

Then again, they haven't faced a run defense like Detroit's in months.

"Obviously they're good," Packers right tackle Bryan Bulaga said. "But we didn't play very well. You go back and watch the film, there wasn't enough finish early on in the year there. We just didn't play well. We just didn't play well enough to beat that team, so we're going to need to up our game quite a bit."

It's easy to put the onus Sunday on the offensive line -- and that group has willingly accepted it this week -- but it runs deeper. The Packers' tight ends bear almost as much responsibility in the run game. Consider what happened in the second quarter of the first meeting against the Lions. With the Packers backed up on their own 1-yard line, they tried to run Lacy off right tackle to get some breathing room. Defensive end Jason Jones overpowered rookie tight end Richard Rodgers, and when right guard T.J. Lang tried to help, it left a gaping hole for linebacker DeAndre Levy to dump Lacy for a safety.

With the likes of Jones, Ndamukong Suh, Ziggy Ansah and Nick Fairley controlling the line of scrimmage, it allowed Levy to run free and pile up 10 tackles.

The impact was this: Because the running game failed, it put the Packers in third-and-long situations that Aaron Rodgers could not convert.

"I think we had 54 plays in the game, that's not going to cut it," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "We obviously have to be productive in normal [down and distance] to create better third-down situations for ourselves, but I think third down will be a key statistic in the game."
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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The Green Bay Packers have a contingency plan in place if quarterback Aaron Rodgers has another issue with his calf muscle but at this point, two days before Sunday's NFC North title game against the Detroit Lions, they expect him to start the game without any limitations.

They listed him as probable on Friday's injury report.

Rodgers
"I don't have any concerns today, just based off of the conversation with Aaron and how he's feeling," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said Friday. "You get out there … really tomorrow will be a big indicator, just to watch him move around and do the different things. And then we'll communicate during the game. But I don't have a very high concern right now."

Although the Packers did not practice on Friday – they will hold their usual light workout on Saturday – Rodgers took part in all of Friday's meetings and the walk-through session at the team's indoor field inside the stadium.

McCarthy had to adjust his game plan last Sunday after Rodgers pulled his left calf in the first quarter.

"I think that's up to coach and he as far as the game-plan meetings and what they feel like they can get done under whatever circumstances arise," Packers quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt said. "But we're going in fully loaded and expecting a healthy guy on Sunday."

Even with the injury, Rodgers had a solid showing against Tampa Bay. He completed 31-of-40 passes for 318 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions in the 20-3 victory.

"He's just an accurate thrower," Van Pelt said. "I think he wakes up in the morning being accurate."

Here's the Packers' full injury report:

Out
CB Davon House (shoulder)

Probable
G T.J. Lang (ankle)
LB Clay Matthews (biceps)
OLB Mike Neal (abdomen)
QB Aaron Rodgers (calf)
G Josh Sitton (toe)
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Bryan Bulaga needed a season like this.

Nearly two years on injured reserve will do that to an NFL player. For his own psyche as much as anything else, it was imperative that the Green Bay Packers right tackle finish a season.

[+] EnlargeRodgers
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesPackers right tackle Bryan Bulaga has been healthier this season, allowing him more opportunities to celebrate with -- and protect -- Aaron Rodgers.
Despite two brief interruptions -- the Week 1 knee injury that kept him out the next week against the New York Jets and a concussion two weeks ago against the Buffalo Bills that did not keep him out the next week -- Bulaga will reach the finish line Sunday when the Packers play the Detroit Lions at Lambeau Field for the NFC North title.

"Two years on IR, it's tough," Bulaga said this week. "So to have a have a year like this -- we were just actually talking about it -- everyone stayed relatively healthy, and for me just to have one of these years to go out and play and play well and stay somewhat healthy besides the concussion and a little knee. Besides that, it's been great."

Or maybe he’s just getting started.

"It's been great to be able to contribute and play well and do my job," Bulaga said. "It's been great. It's been fun. Just looking forward to more games."

With everything Bulaga has been through -- from taking over as a rookie starter during the Super Bowl season of 2010 to the 2012 hip injury that ended his season after nine games to his offseason move to left tackle in 2013 that was ruined when he blew out his knee in August of that year to a move back to right tackle this season -- it’s easy to forget the former first-round pick is just 25 years old.

That would seemingly leave him in prime position for a second lucrative contract. The deal Bulaga signed after the Packers drafted him in the first round in 2010 expires in March, and he has no idea whether they want him back next season.

"You know, that's not really something to talk about right now with me," Bulaga said. "It's not really on my mind. I'm just going to go out and play football and enjoy my time here, and at the end of the year, whatever happens, happens. It's out of my hands at that point. That's for my agent and the guys upstairs to figure out."

If the Packers go purely off the tape, there's little reason to think they would not want Bulaga back. He has allowed only three sacks this season, according to ProFootballFocus.com, and two of them came in the Week 6 game at the Miami Dolphins.

But there's the injury history to factor.

The Packers never told Bulaga they wanted to see him get through a season before they talked contract, but that surely would have been a prerequisite.

To that end, Bulaga did just about everything he could to come back strong. He spent most of last season rehabbing his knee at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, where he keeps an offseason home. It was there that he not only recovered from his knee injury but remade his 6-foot-5, 314-pound body.

"He's heavier than he's ever been; he's stronger," Packers offensive line coach James Campen said. "Remember, he was a young guy coming out of college, so he's grown into his body and he has a clear understanding of the scheme, so he's playing with total confidence. He knows exactly what’s going to happen, where it’s going to happen."
video When: 4:25 p.m. ET Sunday Where: Lambeau Field, Green Bay TV: Fox

Both teams clinched their playoff berths last week, but that doesn't mean the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions don’t have plenty at stake Sunday.

They’re both 11-4 and have their sights set on the NFC North title. The winner takes it, while the loser must begin its Super Bowl quest on the road in wild-card weekend.

ESPN Lions reporter Michael Rothstein and Packers reporter Rob Demovsky discuss the matchup:

Demovsky: The teams that have the most success against the Packers are the ones that can stop the run, get pressure on Rodgers with just a four-man rush and commit the rest of their players to coverage. The Lions seem to do that as well as anyone. Why?

Rothstein: The easy answer is Ndamukong Suh. Although he won't receive much consideration for the league's MVP award because it is a quarterback-driven league, Suh is perhaps more valuable than anyone else in the NFL to his unit's success this season. Opponents have told me often this season they have to scheme differently for the Lions because of the attention that must be paid to Suh. He essentially requires a double team on every play, and that allows Ezekiel Ansah, Jason Jones, George Johnson or C.J. Mosley to have a single-coverage matchup. Detroit blitzes about 25 percent of the time and records sacks on 6.6 percent of dropbacks. That's not a bad percentage at all. The pressure the front four provides gives Darius Slay, Rashean Mathis and the safeties relief from having to cover too long as well, which is usually a major issue for any defensive back. Perhaps the biggest surprise has been how efficient the Detroit run defense has been without Nick Fairley in the second half of the season. The Lions have yet to allow 1,000 yards rushing this season and since Fairley's injury, the Lions have allowed only 52.14 rushing yards a game. That's insane.

Green Bay tried to run it a ton the latest time the Packers faced the Lions. Since then, Detroit has posted the league's best run defense. What do you think ends up being Green Bay's offensive strategy this time?

Demovsky: Coach Mike McCarthy isn't going to bang his head against the wall and run, run, run if it's not working. If you think that means he's too quick to abandon the running game, then so be it. So it probably will depend on how Eddie Lacy fares early. If Lacy can rip off a few good runs in the first couple of series, like he has done of late, McCarthy might be more inclined to go back to it later. But here's one thing to look for: If Aaron Rodgers ends up throwing a bunch of dump-off passes or screens, it's probably a sign they don't think they can run the ball, so they'll use the short passing game to simulate the run. There's no shame in admitting you can't run the ball against the Lions. Who has this season?

What do you make of all these late-game, come-from-behind victories? Are they living dangerously, or are they just a good team that finds a way to win no matter what?

Rothstein: That stems from Jim Caldwell. His eternal calmness on the sideline has been extremely beneficial for Detroit in a ton of ways this season. Multiple players have said throughout the season that the reason for their ability to score and make plays late in games comes directly from Caldwell's calmness. They never panic because he never panics. Part of this has to do with Matthew Stafford, too. He's always been pretty good at putting together late-game drives, but he's been particularly good at it this season. He has thrived in those situations this season, and it is a position he not only feels comfortable in but also wants to be in. It allows him to use his intelligence, along with playing with a little bit of reckless abandon that has made him a playmaker in the past. It really starts with the two of them, but there is little doubt they are living a bit dangerously because starting this week and entering the playoffs, every team is going to be good, and most will have a quarterback who can do similar things. If they don't find a way to play better early in games, Detroit will have a short playoff stay.

We all know about Green Bay's win streak over Detroit in Wisconsin, but what makes it so tough for the Lions -- and many other teams -- to win in Green Bay?

Demovsky: It's not the noise; it's not even that loud, to be honest. If it were, why else would the Packers have launched their "Get Loud Lambeau" campaign this week to try to increase the noise level for Sunday's game? Rather, it's how the offense functions at home, where crowd noise isn't a factor for them. It's not a coincidence that before Sunday’s game at Tampa Bay, Nelson’s 11 longest catches of the season all came at home. Don't discount the footing, either. They're familiar with the turf and what shoes to wear. We've seen a number of different opponents come in and slip all over the field.

Since you brought up the streak in Wisconsin, how are Jim Caldwell and the new regime approaching it from a mentality standpoint? Are they ignoring it, downplaying it or accepting that it's a real thing?

Rothstein: They aren't worrying about it. This staff has a pretty good understanding of the difficulty of winning in Wisconsin too. Jim Caldwell is a Wisconsin native -- from Beloit -- and the offensive coordinator is Vince Lombardi's grandson. Some players will likely acknowledge the streak during the week -- they always do -- but one of the big messages this season has been that this team is different than all the prior ones, and they have to understand and believe that. So far, Detroit has, as only two other Lions teams in franchise history have won 11 games. I don't expect Detroit to win this game, but the history in Lambeau Field won't be the reason for that.

Rodgers appears to be playing at his typical, high level with the best QBR in the league. Where does this season rank for him in terms of his career?

Demovsky: It has to rank right up there with his MVP season of 2011. The difference that season is the Packers would pile up yards and rack up the points, while so many of those games became shootouts. This year, the points and yards are down. That 2011 team was loaded with offensive weapons -- Jordy Nelson, Greg Jennings, Jermichael Finley, James Jones, Donald Driver and even a young Randall Cobb. This season, Rodgers might be better because he's getting more out of less. Really, his only consistent weapons have been Cobb and Nelson. Plus, McCarthy has put so much more on Rodgers' plate now -- running the no-huddle almost exclusively -- that his job is even more difficult than it was in 2011. Either way, perhaps the best part of both 2011 and this season is Rodgers’ touchdown-to-interception ratio. It was 45-to-6 in 2011 and 36-to-5 this season.
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ALLEN PARK, Mich. – When he steps inside Lambeau Field on Sunday, Joe Lombardi might glance into the upper reaches of the historic stadium of the Green Bay Packers.

And if one interesting, different thing happens Sunday before the game for the Detroit Lions offensive coordinator, it'll be then.

“Certainly I grew up with some of the mementos around,” Lombardi said. “It’s cool. It’s fun to walk out and see your grandfather’s name on the ring of fame, but it’ll be business as usual, I think.”

[+] EnlargeJoe Lombardi
Carlos Osorio/AP PhotoBeing a Lombardi opened the door for admission to the Packers Hall of Fame for Lions offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi. But that's about it.
His grandfather is Vince Lombardi, the legendary coach of the Packers and the man the Super Bowl Trophy is named after.

Some of the mementos lying around included pictures and Super Bowl rings that were in view. So it wasn’t an ordinary upbringing in that respect for Joe Lombardi.

Lombardi said he’ll probably take Detroit’s offensive staff to the steakhouse bearing his family name – Lombardi’s – this weekend while the team is in Wisconsin, but that it won’t be a big deal, either.

“Listen, there’s been a lot of big names that have gone through Green Bay since my grandpa,” Lombardi said. “They’re not interested in Joe Lombardi; they’re interested in Vince Lombardi and all the famous people that have come since then.”

The Lombardi name did get him one other cool token that at one point he hoped would be a bigger deal – a lifetime pass to the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame. Then, in college, he went up to visit Green Bay, Wisconsin, with some friends.

And he found out it didn’t really get him much at all.

“I had this lifetime pass, this metal card that I got sent when I was 8 years old or something,” Lombardi said. “Somehow I kept it around. So I was like, ‘Watch this, we’ll be MVPs.’ Then we walked in and it was like, ‘Go ahead,’ and it wasn’t a big deal. No one paid any attention.

“Said Joe Lombardi, it was this metal kind of thing. I thought it would be like, ‘All right, VIP.’ But they were like, ‘Go ahead.’ I got in for free. They had to pay 10 bucks or whatever it was.”

Lombardi said he probably still has the pass somewhere in the bottom of a box from all the coaching moves his family has made since then, but he isn’t sure where it is.

This weekend, though, he won’t have to worry about paying for access to Lambeau Field. He’ll be in there coaching for a division title.
GREEN BAY, Wis. – On Monday, Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy said Clay Matthews has "probably had his best year." There could be some debate about that.

Matthews
But there's no question Matthews had his best game of the year on Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and for that he was named the NFC's defensive player of the week on Wednesday. Matthews had a season-high 2.5 sacks against the Bucs to run his season total to 10, making it the fourth time in his six NFL seasons that he has reached double digits.

His fourth career defensive player of the week award, which tied Charles Woodson for the most in team history, came less than 24 hours after Matthews was named to the Pro Bowl for the fifth time in his career.

Matthews has been on a sack tear the last eight games. He has 8.5 sacks during that stretch, fourth in the NFL in that span. He'd love nothing more than to keep up that production on Sunday when the Packers play host to the Lions for the NFC North crown.

"You look at the first half of the season, and I think I was at two-and-a half [sacks] through eight games, and now I am at 10 [with] five in the last three games," Matthews said. "Some of those are coverage sacks. Some of those are just being fortunate, and some are just winning my one-on-one matchups. So that's part of the deal.

"The one thing you look for more important than the sacks is the pressure that's being generated, and I felt myself around the quarterback a lot these last several games as well as the other pass rushers on this team. Ultimately I think we're doing a good job in the front seven, the DBs are covering their man and this week it is going to be very important to step it up a spot especially with big, playmaking wide receivers."
» Pro Bowl analysis: AFC | NFC » Complete roster

SELECTIONS

Aaron Rodgers, QB, fourth Pro Bowl selection: This was a lock considering he's also the frontrunner for the MVP award. Rodgers ranks second in the league this season in passer rating (111.0), first in interception percentage and third in touchdown passes (36). He's the biggest reason the Packers are 11-4 and playing for the NFC North title on Sunday against the Lions.

Who he beat out: Probably everyone. He was the No. 1 overall selection among the fan balloting, which counts for one-third of the vote.

John Kuhn, FB, second Pro Bowl selection: The fan favorite has been an effective short-yardage back and a solid blocker but still doesn't get much playing time. He has only 21 carries for 79 yards and one touchdown, but he deserves some credit for helping Eddie Lacy reach 1,000 yards rushing for the second straight season. However, the Packers play far more single-back sets than two-back formations.

Who he beat out: There's not much competition at this spot since teams rarely use fullbacks on a full-time basis anymore. They've become nearly extinct because so many teams use three-receiver sets as their base offense.

Jordy Nelson, WR, first Pro Bowl selection: Nelson ranks tied for seventh among all receivers with 92 catches, fourth in receiving yards (1,433) and second in touchdown catches (13). He has three touchdown catches of at least 65 yards this season, the most by a Packers receiver since 1998.

Who he beat out: Among those on the alternate lists were Larry Fitzgerald, Jeremy Maclin, Golden Tate, DeAndre Hopkins and his teammate, Randall Cobb.

Josh Sitton, G, second Pro Bowl selection: Sitton has not allowed a sack all season while playing through a painful toe injury and is part of an offensive line that helped block for Lacy. It's his second Pro Bowl but his first as an original selection. He went in 2012 as an alternate. ProFootballFocus.com has him ranked as the third-best guard in the league.

Who he beat out: Sitton was selected over PFF's top-two guards in their rankings, Marshal Yanda of the Ravens and Joel Bitonio of the Browns. Evan Mathis of the Eagles and Alex Boone of the 49ers were among the alternates.

Clay Matthews, OLB, fifth Pro Bowl selection: With 10 sacks, Matthews has been in double digits in four of his six NFL seasons. However, it's interesting to note that he had only 7.5 when the players and coaches voted took place last week, so his 2.5 sack game last Sunday against the Buccaneers wouldn't have been factored in. Coach Mike McCarthy called this Matthews' best season in part because he has added inside linebacker duties to his job description.

Who he beat out: It could have come down to Matthews and Raiders rookie Khalil Mack, who was one of the alternates. Lavonte David of the Buccaneers also was among the alternates.

SNUBS

Randall Cobb, WR, no Pro Bowls: Only six receivers have more touchdown catches than Cobb's 10 this season. But it's not just scoring where Cobb has excelled. He ranks eighth in catches (87) among receivers and 10th in receiving yards (1,207).

Who he should have beaten out: The only questionable selection at receiver was A.J. Green, and that's largely because he missed three games for the Bengals this season. But if Detroit's Golden Tate (96 catches, 1,286 yards) didn't make, then Cobb probably had little or no chance, either.

Packers want Lambeau loud vs. Lions

December, 23, 2014
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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Lambeau Field is one of the most revered, historic stadiums in the NFL. But it's never been considered one of the loudest.

The Green Bay Packers want that to change starting with Sunday's regular-season finale against the Detroit Lions, a game that will decide the NFC North title and whether the Packers get a first-round playoff bye.

They launched the "Get Loud Lambeau" campaign on Tuesday. The team said it's aimed at encouraging fans to get loud and on their feet during Packers games.

Coach Mike McCarthy wore a "Get Loud Lambeau" shirt to his press conference on Tuesday and players found them hanging in their lockers after practice.



"It's a great environment; it always is," McCarthy said. "This is an important game. But hey, it's all about promoting the Lambeau experience, and no one does it better than we do."

It's not like the Packers lack a home-field advantage; they're 7-0 this season at Lambeau. But crowd noise is not always a factor. One long-running theory has been that applause, especially late in the season, is muffled because fans wear gloves to cold-weather games.

"It's about December football," McCarthy said. "We want to play our best football in December, and we want our best Lambeau experience there in December. Get Loud Lambeau. Please participate."

However, quarterback Aaron Rodgers surely would remind them -- as he has in the past -- not to do so when the Packers are on offense.

"I think they're going to be nice and loud this week," Rodgers said. "[There is] a lot to play for, playing for a first-round bye, obviously division title, four in a row, and 8-0 at home. There's a lot of fun things that can happen with a win."

Speaking of things that might or might not happen at Lambeau Field on Sunday, McCarthy said the team had not yet decided whether it would give updates on the Seattle Seahawks' game against the St. Louis Rams. The Packers need a win plus a Seahawks' loss or tie in order to get the No. 1 seed in the NFC. During Mike Sherman's tenure as coach, he kept updates off the scoreboard in regular-season finales when other games would impact the Packers' playoff possibilities because Sherman wanted his players focused only on their game.

"I haven’t thought about it yet," McCarthy said. "I do understand the theory behind not showing the score, but both teams Detroit and ourselves, we're in the playoffs so I don't think it's as big of a distraction if the score did come on the scoreboard. We'll talk about it."
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Aaron Rodgers' calf injury did not prevent him from throwing on Tuesday, but it remained unclear how well he could move.

The Green Bay Packers quarterback took part in practice just two days after he strained his left calf in Sunday's win at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. During the portion that was open to reporters, Rodgers and the other quarterbacks did some light throwing and took snaps from their centers.



However, there was little or no movement and running involved with those drills.

Coach Mike McCarthy said Monday that Rodgers hoped to get in as much work as possible this week in advance of Sunday's game against the Detroit Lions.

Every player on the Packers' roster took part in some portion of the practice, including cornerback Davon House, who has not played since he sustained a shoulder injury on Dec. 8 against the Atlanta Falcons. House did some of the individual drills, but it may have been just a test.

The Packers do not have to issue an official injury report until Wednesday.

QB snapshot: Aaron Rodgers

December, 23, 2014
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A quick observation of quarterback Aaron Rodgers and how he played in the Green Bay Packers' 20-3 win at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday:

Rodgers
Rodgers' calf injury limited his mobility but not his accuracy. He completed 31 of 40 passes for 318 yards and a touchdown.

But most of his throws came from within the pocket. According to ESPN Stats & Information tracking, all but six of Rodgers' passes came from within the pocket. He was 29-of-34 on such passes for 295 yards. He also didn't have a rushing attempt for the first time in the past six games.

And the Bucs prevented him from going down the field much, but he gladly took the underneath throws against Lovie Smith's Cover-2 defense. Rodgers' longest completion was just 30 yards yet he still managed an average yards per attempt of 7.95, only slightly below his season average of 8.34.

Rodgers was nearly perfect targeting Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. He completed 20 of 23 passes to that duo for 244 yards and a touchdown.

It was the kind of performance that would go a long way toward a victory on Sunday against the Detroit Lions, who in Week 3 limited Rodgers to just 162 yards on 16-of-27 passing. Cobb and Nelson combined for just eight catches and 88 yards without a touchdown in that 19-7 loss at Ford Field.
GREEN BAY, Wis. – From the sound of things on Monday, Mike McCarthy would have rather his Green Bay Packers' players not brought up the meeting that occurred Saturday night at the hotel on the eve of the game at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"Team meetings are kind of like Las Vegas, what's said in there should stay in there," McCarthy said Monday. "But that's fine, they shared it with you. That's their prerogative."

[+] EnlargeJordy Nelson
AP Photo/Mike RoemerJordy Nelson was one of six Packers chosen to be playoff captains by their teammates.
Several players described it as a players-only session in which the six playoff captains, who were elected last week even before the Packers had clinched a playoff spot, spoke to the rest of the team. It occurred a few minutes into the meeting after McCarthy dismissed everyone but the players.

"I thought it was very important to give those six men the platform to speak to their teammates," McCarthy said. "And obviously when coaches and other people are not in the room, the conversations are different. It's not the first time we've done it, but that was really what happened."

Each of the six captains -- quarterback Aaron Rodgers, receiver Jordy Nelson, receiver Randall Cobb, safety Morgan Burnett, linebacker Julius Peppers and cornerback Jarrett Bush -- took a turn.

"He gave us an opportunity to talk in front of the team and speak what we thought," Nelson said after the game. "It wasn't anything mind-blowing or anything, but just making sure guys understand the opportunity that's ahead of us. Some of us have been there. Some have been there and came up short. Some have been there and won it all, and some haven't experienced any of it. You just try to educate other guys on what this opportunity means and what it can do, how hard it is to get there, and how hard it is to win."

When those six were named last week, Clay Matthews was perhaps the most noticeable name left off the list as voted on by the players. Matthews had perhaps his best game of the season on Sunday, when he recorded two sacks to reach double digits for the fourth time in his six seasons, but McCarthy didn't think it was because his star linebacker was motivated by a captaincy snubbing.

"I don’t think so," McCarthy said. "I don't know that for a fact. Frankly, I was in a conversation with Clay a few days before I decided to make that decision, and it was something that Clay brought up. So this was something that was being kicked around. I think Clay sees the big picture.

"I think it's important to understand the dynamics of every locker room. Morgan Burnett is a young guy that’s ascending and the way the votes panned out, it reflected that. So you could see by the way the voting goes, just based off the numbers, just kind of the way the locker room looks at their leadership, and I think it's great the way it panned out, and I don't think Clay is taken aback. It's not a contest. Clay Matthews is a leader. We have more than six leaders on our team, but you can only vote for six, but that's really the way it is."

McCarthy went on to say that Matthews has "probably had his best year in my opinion" and that Matthews' move to inside linebacker on a part-time basis has been a major factor in the improved run defense.

"Our run defense has taken a huge step the last eight weeks, and he's definitely part of that," McCarthy said.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- At the midpoint of last season, the Green Bay Packers thought they had a solid defense, and the numbers backed them up. They ranked 15th in the league in yards allowed per game (and fifth against the run) as the second half of the season began.

Then came the free fall.

Without quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who missed seven starts in the second half of the season because of a broken collarbone, the Packers defense crumbled under the pressure of trying to carry a team that was rendered offensively challenged without its quarterback.

By the time Rodgers returned for the regular-season finale, Dom Capers' defense had bottomed out at 26th out of 32 teams, only to move up one spot and finish the season at 25th, which was tied for the Packers' second-lowest ranking since 1983. Their run defense never recovered, either, finishing 25th as well.

This season, Capers and Co. have flipped the storyline.

As the Packers began the second half of this season, they ranked 25th in total yards allowed. They hovered around that area until two weeks ago, when the first signs of major improvement came in the 21-13 loss at the Buffalo Bills. The Packers did not allow a defensive touchdown and yielded just 253 yards, their lowest total since Week 7 of the 2013 season.

They bettered that in Sunday's win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who managed just 109 yards of total offense and did not score a touchdown.

It shot the Packers up to 12th in the defensive rankings, giving them their highest ranking since Week 8 of last season, when they were 11th. Their run defense, which bounced between 30th and 32nd the first nine weeks of the season, has gone all the way up to 22nd.

"What you've got to understand is that throughout the run, there's going to be a couple bumps, but we've always overcome adversity here in Green Bay," Packers cornerback Tramon Williams said. "We don't see it as anything different. We're going to continue to get better, continue to go to work, continue to trust the guy next to us and continue to trust our whole team."

The yardage allowed the last two weeks combined (362) is only slightly more than what the Atlanta Falcons put up against the Packers in the second half alone (304 yards) two weeks ago, when it looked like the Packers might be headed for another defensive collapse.

"I can't even really think about two weeks ago, but every week is a different week," said outside linebacker Julius Peppers, who had two of the Packers' season-high seven sacks on Sunday. "We go out with the goal every week to try to perform better than we did previously. If we can continue to go in that direction, we'll be good."

While Williams said he believes the defense is trending up, they will have to come up with a similar performance in Sunday's regular-season finale against the Detroit Lions to prove it was something more than a product of the schedule. The Bills rank 24th in total offense, while the Bucs are second to last. The Lions are at least respectable at No. 18.

"When that's what you're expected to do, I guess it's normal,” Williams said of slowing down two bad offenses. "But it's the NFL and anytime you can keep a team to that, it doesn't matter what type of offense it us. There's a lot of talented players out there. For us to come out and play the way we did [Sunday], it's something to build off of."

Perhaps this season will follow the same defensive track as 2010, when the Packers ranked 14th in total yards allowed at Week 9 but finished fifth on their way to Super Bowl XLV.

"Now we just have to not get too high with the highs or too low with the lows," safety Morgan Burnett said. "Keep an even keel."
CHICAGO -- The Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers will play Sunday for the NFC North title and a likely bye in the NFC playoffs.

The teams just won't be doing it on "Sunday Night Football."

Kickoff time for the Lions-Packers game was moved to 4:25 p.m. next Sunday at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Both teams are 11-4. If Green Bay wins, the Packers win the division. The Packers have won the NFC North the last three seasons.

If Detroit wins or the game ends in a tie, the Lions would win their first division title since 1993.

In their one matchup this season, Detroit beat Green Bay 19-7 at Ford Field in Detroit. However, the Lions haven't won in the state of Wisconsin since 1991.

The game will be televised on Fox.
videoTAMPA, Fla. -- If Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson allowed himself a minute or two to daydream back in March after he signed pass-rusher Julius Peppers, he surely envisioned the kind of thing he saw play out for real on Sunday.

From one side of the defensive formation, Peppers registered two sacks.

From the other, Clay Matthews got 2.5.

It was part of a season-high, seven-sack performance by the Packers in Sunday's 20-3 victory against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They have not had more sacks in a game since Week 17 of the 2004 season, when they recorded nine against the Chicago Bears.

To cornerback Tramon Williams, it felt like even more.

"I thought they had about 15, actually," Williams said. "That's the type of pressure that I felt they were getting. That's a good sign when feel that defensively. It was big and it was fun."

It was a performance that ranks among the most complete in Dom Capers' tenure as defensive coordinator, which dates to 2009, unless you're willing to discount it because it came against a Buccaneers offense that has not totaled more than 263 yards since Nov. 23.

Either way, the Packers held the Bucs to just 109 yards of total offense, the fewest a Green Bay defense has yielded since Dec. 21, 2006, when the Vikings managed just 104. The Packers haven't allowed a defensive touchdown in eight-plus quarters, dating to the Dec. 8 game against the Atlanta Falcons.

For Matthews, who ran his season sack total to 10, he reached double digits in sacks for the fourth time in his six NFL seasons.

For Peppers, who now has seven sacks, it ended a five-game sackless streak that made some wonder whether the 34-year-old had run out of gas.

"It's more than just me and Clay," Peppers said. "We have other guys who are capable pass rushers. As long as we have everybody ready to go healthy and performing well, I think we could be taking this thing far."

Six different players shared in the sack party. In addition to Matthews and Peppers, Mike Neal had one, while Morgan Burnett, Mike Daniels and Datone Jones each shared in a sack. Outside linebacker Jayrone Elliott also had a pressure that led to Jones' fourth-quarter interception.

The Bucs went three-and-out on their first five drives and at that point, the Packers held a yardage advantage of 185 to zero.

Burnett, fresh off being named one of the defensive captains last week, played most of the game near the line of scrimmage and was a run-stopping machine. He was credited with a team-high 10 tackles, including nine solo stops. The Bucs managed just 16 yards rushing on 14 attempts.

"Really, it started and ended with defense today, just the constant pressure, the seven sacks," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "Really, they controlled the game for us today."
videoTAMPA, Fla. -- Receivers Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson each totaled more than 100 yards. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers threw for 318. And running back Eddie Lacy came up a single yard short of 100.

Yet why does it seem like the Green Bay Packers are limping to the finish after a second straight run-of-the-mill performance on offense?

This wasn't the seven-drop debacle from Buffalo a week earlier -- although rookie receiver Davante Adams likely will be charged with two more this week -- but the Packers were in full grind-it-out mode in the Sunday afternoon heat of South Florida until Rodgers threw his first (and only) touchdown pass in the past seven-plus quarters when he hit Nelson for a 1-yarder with 2:45 remaining in Sunday's 20-3 victory against the punchless Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"We've won six of seven games," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said after Sunday's game. "I'd have to classify that as playing a lot of good football, that's for sure. We'll clean this game up tomorrow. We'll be on it. We'll also start on Detroit tomorrow. I like where we're at, and I really like this football team."

That should come with the caveat of Rodgers' health. The way he limped around Raymond James Stadium after he popped his left calf muscle in the first quarter was limiting but not debilitating. As primarily a pocket passer, he managed to complete 31 of 40 passes without an interception and recorded a 108.1 rating. But where were the big plays? His longest completions were a 30-yarder to Cobb and a 28-yarder to Nelson.

The Packers know defenses coached by Lovie Smith can do that. The first-year Bucs coach and his Cover-2 scheme often kept the Packers in check during his days with the Chicago Bears. It requires a dink-and-dunk mentality that Rodgers accepted. But not since the first half of the Dec. 8 "Monday Night Football" game against the Atlanta Falcons have the Packers looked explosive on offense.

"We hit a little bit of a slump today, as you could tell," center Corey Linsley said. "We've put 50 points on teams this year and didn't necessarily do it today. I think that we're in a little slump. I think this speed bump is going to propel us right to where we want to be. I think we're right where we want to be."

Of course, Linsley, a rookie, admitted he's not necessarily experienced in such matters.

"Obviously, I've been here for 15 games," he said. "That' it."

The Packers (11-4) can't afford to limp through next Sunday's NFC North title game against the Detroit Lions, a team that already showed it could stop Rodgers and the offense once this season in their 19-7 Week 3 win at Ford Field. But Rodgers and McCarthy have taken this path time and again. The win Sunday clinched their sixth straight playoff appearance, and McCarthy-led teams have now made the postseason in seven of the last nine years. They won an elimination game last year in Week 17, when they beat the Chicago Bears to grab the NFC North.

"We've been here before; we know what this looks like," McCarthy said.

And neither he nor Rodgers seemed concerned that the offense has slowed down from its torrid midseason pace. If anything, it may have been a product of how McCarthy changed his play-calling after Rodgers' injury.

"I was probably more affected by it than anybody with some of the play calls," McCarthy said. "Really, really a gritty performance by Aaron."

Rodgers likes what he has in his running game, which gave the Packers their longest play of the game -- a 44-yard touchdown run by Lacy in the first quarter on a play that Rodgers adjusted at the line of scrimmage.

"I think we have good balance," Rodgers said. "We've been working on that the last six or eight weeks, making sure we get Eddie a number of touches in the game and also finding ways to get Randall involved."

Cobb caught 14 passes for his 131 yards, while Nelson added nine to get to 113.

Lacy carried 17 times before cramps ended his day early in the fourth quarter.

And Rodgers didn't come out until Matt Flynn replaced him to take a knee on the final three snaps.

"We found a way to win," Cobb said. "At the end of the day, that's all that matters. Our defense played well. They got a bunch of sacks and got us the ball back. We were able to move the ball well, we just didn't get into the end zone like we should. We understand that moving forward we have to continue to find a way to put the points up and put our defense in a better situation and give them a little bit more cushion.

"But we won. We're in the playoffs, and that's the most important thing right now."

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