As Packers take week off, North race tightens
GREEN BAY—The decade-plus of incompetence is supposed to be behind the Detroit Lions. They landed the quarterback and paid up to keep him long term. They built a fearsome front four. They add offensive firepower annually.
But to this point, it's all been a tease. The Lions haven't threatened the Green Bay Packers' perch atop the division.
This Sunday, they'll have a chance to prove they're for real at their house of horrors—Lambeau Field.
Four weeks in, many questions remain in the NFC North. Who is the Minnesota Vikings' quarterback? Will the real Jay Cutler ever stand up? But right now it's the Lions (3-1) in first place with a chance to take on history and prove they are legitimate contenders. For those who lost count, Detroit has lost a surreal 22 straight in Wisconsin. The last time the Lions won in Wisconsin was Dec. 15, 1991.
Count Sunday as their official early-season gut check.
Their beacon of hope is in the backfield. The difference between this Detroit challenger and past ones might be Reggie Bush. On Sunday, Bush averaged 7.7 yards per carry and had 173 total yards.
No longer a third or fourth offensive option used in space, Bush is running between the tackles and finishing runs. Spinning, juking and lowering his shoulder, he has been a complete back so far in Detroit. In Sunday's 40-32 win over Chicago (3-1), Bush resembled the player everyone expected when he went No. 2 overall in the 2006 draft.
On the 37-yard touchdown run that gave Detroit a 30-10 lead, Bush evaded a Cornelius Washington arm tackle, leaped over Major Wright and then out-raced Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman to the end zone.
“That dude does special things out there every week,” Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford said afterward. “As long as we can give him good support in the blocking game and we do our thing on the outside, we're going to be all right.”
Too often against the Packers, Stafford—boasting one of the strongest arms in the league—forced the issue. Ill-advised turnovers have sparked Packers wins. Last season, Stafford had a costly pick-six to M.D. Jennings at Ford Field and a fumble returned for a touchdown by Mike Daniels at Lambeau Field.
Detroit lost the two games by a combined 11 points.
In five games against the Packers, Stafford has a 68.8 passer rating.
Bush is supposed to help with this burden. In its nickel defense, Chicago played the pass Sunday.
“We definitely felt like that was an area we could take advantage,” Bush said. “When we have them in nickel—their nickel personnel—and there's six guys in the box, we've got to take advantage of that. We felt like we had to do a better job this week and take advantage of that and that would force them to be honest.”
The Lions soared, the Bears soured and the Minnesota Vikings finally got into the win column.
Many pundits pegged Minnesota as Green Bay's top competition in the NFC North. After all, they fell one game shy in 2012. Yet through the first three games in 2013, shaky quarterback play hamstrung the Vikings. On Sunday, Christian Ponder (ribs) was out, and Matt Cassel was in. And now, they've got a quarterback controversy brewing.
Cassel was efficient in relief of Ponder, making the quick decisions Ponder so often struggles with. In the 34-27 win over Pittsburgh in London, Cassel completed 16 of 25 passes for 248 yards and two scores.
There was a Greg Jennings sighting. Adrian Peterson bowled over the once-proud Steelers defense. Even the erratic Jerome Simpson (140 yards) showed up.
Immediately after Sunday's win, coach Leslie Frazier did say it's “been a while” since he's been able to talk about the team not turning the ball over, but he also reaffirmed that the injured Ponder was the team's starter.
“Our quarterback is Christian Ponder,” said Frazier when pressed by reporters at the podium. “We'll discuss a lot of things when we come out of the bye, we'll talk about a lot of things, but we're going to enjoy this victory for a little while at least.”
Meanwhile, Chicago regroups. The good vibes between Jay Cutler and new coach Marc Trestman are on hold after Cutler's abysmal four-turnover performance in Detroit.
It's only September, far too soon to know if any of the other three teams have the ammo to take down Green Bay in the division. But again, the Packers (1-2) are forced to play catch-up. Behind Detroit and Chicago by 1½ games, they'll need to hit a groove—fast—again.
Sunday is probably the best chance Detroit has had in years at ending its Wisconsin futility.
“It's great to have weapons at your disposal,” Stafford said. “Our offensive line is playing great. They're opening holes in the running game and those guys are doing what they do. The more we can do that, the better we're going to be.”