Aaron Rodgers’ last throw at Ford Field was one for the ages. His 61-yard, Hail Mary touchdown pass to Richard Rodgers on the final play shocked the Detroit Lions and gave the Green Bay Packers a 27-23 victory last season.
If the Lions can’t stop Rodgers and the Packers from completing a magical late-season run on Sunday night, they might not have a prayer of making the playoffs. By the same token, if Rodgers cools off, Green Bay could see its season come to an abrupt end.
The Lions and Packers are tied atop the NFC North with 9-6 records and their matchup at Ford Field will decide the division title.
The loser will need Washington to lose to the New York Giants earlier in the day to claim a wild-card berth.
Green Bay has all the momentum, carrying a five-game winning streak into the season finale.
Rodgers asserted the Packers could run the table when they were 4-6 and he’s one big victory from backing up that claim.
“We feel our season is just getting started,” Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy said. “We understand what we needed to do to get to this point. This is about beating the Lions and beating them in that dome.”
Rodgers is the hottest quarterback in the NFL right now. He has thrown 14 touchdown passes without an interception in the past six games. He carved up the vaunted Minnesota defense for 347 passing yards and four touchdowns and added a rushing score in a 38-25 home victory last Sunday.
“He has all the tools,” Detroit head coach Jim Caldwell said. “He’s smart, he’s tough, he’s athletic. He can make every throw from all different types of angles. He has a couple of different gears.
“He gets out of the pocket and he’s not just looking to run, he’s looking to throw and complete it down the field. And he has receivers that have done a real good job of adjusting to him. I just think he’s a real dynamic guy and he’s done it a long time now — 12 years in the league — and his skills haven’t diminished.”
Rodgers’ favorite target, wide receiver Jordy Nelson, has 38 receptions, 528 receiving yards and five touchdowns during the winning streak. Rodgers threw four touchdown passes, two to Nelson, in the Packers’ 34-27 win over the Lions at Lambeau Field earlier this season.
“He plays the game in a unique way, probably different than any quarterback in the league,” Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford said. “He can make all sorts of throws and he’s a really good athlete. He runs around and makes huge plays.”
The Lions are coming off two road losses, including a 42-21 thumping by the NFC’s top team, Dallas, on Monday night. In a best-case scenario, Detroit can still gain a first-round bye in the NFC playoffs if they win and both Atlanta and Seattle lose this weekend.
Stafford has thrown four interceptions in the past three games since suffering ligament damage to his right middle finger in the Lions’ most recent win, a 20-17 victory over Chicago.
“I really don’t think it’s been a factor,” Stafford said.
For most of the season, Stafford has been Mr. Clutch.
The Lions, whose last division title came in 1993, have won their last six home games, rallying in the fourth quarter each time. They have an NFL record eight fourth-quarter comeback victories this season.
A win over the team that has dominated the division and his team for many seasons could elevate Stafford to elite status among his peers.
“I’m not worried about that kind of stuff now or probably even after the fact,” Stafford said. “I’m just laser-focused on doing what I have to do to help us win.”
If Detroit doesn’t make the postseason, the team will be most remembered for giving away a division championship — and possibly a playoff berth — in its final three games.
“You don’t get this opportunity very often,” Caldwell said. “It’s always a little bit of a comfort level (to be at home). But ask me if it makes a difference, if you don’t play well between those lines, it doesn’t make any difference where you play. I do think, without question, rather than a Monday night game and traveling, it’s certainly a lot better being at home.”
Both teams are hopeful of getting some key performers back. Packers wide receiver Randall Cobb missed the game against the Vikings with an ankle injury. The Lions’ top cornerback, Darius Slay (hamstring), and lead running back Theo Riddick (wrist) didn’t suit up in Dallas.
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