GREEN BAY, Wisc. — When the Packers’ locker room opened up after their 23–22 win against the Lions on Monday Night Football, a team communications employee shouted to the horde of media storming the entrance:
“ALLEN LAZARD IS TALKING!”
A Green Bay defensive back jokingly revved up the media, saying “Go get your boy!”
The swarm of reporters immediately redirected and scurried as one unit toward Lazard, the previously anonymous undrafted rookie receiver. He leaned against a laundry bin as the crowd closed in on him, wanting to ask all about his clutch 65-yard, one-touchdown performance against a tough Detroit team.
Initially in this crucial divisional game, Aaron Rodgers couldn’t get anything going on offense. Green Bay’s top target Davante Adams was out with a toe injury, and his next two receivers, Geronimo Allison and Marquez Valdes-Scantling, were both injured during the game. There’d been dropped passes, forced fumbles and an interception from a ball that hit receiver Darrius Shepherd in the face mask.
From their film study that week, the Packers knew the Lions to be one of the best teams in football when it comes to stripping the ball, but still, this was infuriating.
Rodgers had to reach deep into the receivers group, forcing him to lobby for Lazard to get onto the field in the fourth quarter. Rodgers finally connected with the rookie out of Iowa State for a 35-yard touchdown that put Green Bay in a position to win.
A reporter asks Lazard what it feels like to know that America knows his name now.
“I’m made for this sh--,” Lazard said, smiling.
Green Bay now sits in first place in the NFC North, thanks to Rodgers’s and Lazard’s fourth-quarter heroics against Detroit—and of course, a couple questionable penalties called on the Lions. But first place in the NFC North isn’t a very easy spot to hold; top to bottom, it’s the toughest division in football this season. The NFC North is the only division where no team has a losing record. The first-place Packers had to dig deep against the last-place team in the division, the .500 Lions, on Monday night, beating them by just one point.
And the scary thing is, Green Bay hasn’t played anywhere close to their best football yet. The offense under new head coach Matt LaFleur has been inconsistent, and has felt the absence of Adams, who has missed the last two games with a turf toe injury. The Packers’ success is more a credit to a remade defense, a unit that is now as opportunistic as Green Bay’s offense has been in recent years. The Packers are fourth in the league in takeaways and have three wins when holding opponents to 16 points or less.
Packers outside linebacker Preston Smith was signed in free agency along with pass rusher Za’Darius Smith to provide a stronger edge attack for Green Bay’s defense. Between the Smiths this season (they’re not related), Preston has seven sacks and Za’Darius has six, making them the first Packers tandem to register six or more sacks in six games since 1982. They even have a special “Smith brothers” handshake that they’re polishing with each sack as the season goes on.
“You can never get too comfortable in this division because there are a lot of good teams that are fighting for it,” Preston Smith said in the locker room Monday night. “You got the Lions who put up a fight tonight, you got the Vikings who are playing well, they are nipping on our heels and you still can't forget about the Bears. They have a great defense, they got a good offense with a lot of great players on their offense that contribute to a lot of success for their team.”
To determine which division is the strongest this season, The MMQB polled a handful of NFL personnel executives and coaches. The NFC North was the most popular answer, though one argued for the NFC West and another said he would have picked the NFC West if it weren’t for the last-place Cardinals. Arizona has a much bigger drop-off in talent from the rest of the division (5-0 49ers, 5-1 Seahawks, 3-3 Rams) than Detroit does from the rest of the NFC North.
As one personnel executive put it, in the NFC North, “all teams have good defenses and capable quarterbacks, the key players are healthy and there isn’t a team that is rebuilding or a bad team at the bottom of the division.”
Let’s run down the rest of the division. The 4-2 Vikings claim the third-best rushing offense in the league, averaging 159 yards per game behind star running back Dalvin Cook; the team’s worst offensive game came at Chicago, where they were held to just 40 yards rushing. QB Kirk Cousins can be hot and cold, but when paired with its well-rounded defense, he can keep the team afloat.
The offense of the 3–2 Bears has struggled this season, ranking 30th in total offense in the league. Trubisky is expected to start against the Saints Sunday after missing Chicago’s last two games with a left shoulder injury, and his return restores the NFC North quarterback group back to full health. However the defense is a top-five unit, keeping the team competitive this season.
The 2-2-1 Lions might be last in the NFC North, but Stafford has guided his team to hot starts in their previous two games, both ultimately losses. Detroit got out to a 10-0 lead against the Kansas City Chiefs and a 13-0 lead against the Packers. Stafford’s 8.0 yards per attempt is a career-high, and about 20.8% of his targets have been at least 20 yards downfield, which is third in the league. The Lions opened up their first two drives at Green Bay on Monday night with two deep pass plays for 66 yards and 58 yards. Minnesota head coach Mike Zimmer said this week that Stafford is playing, “maybe the best I’ve ever seen him.”
Of the four divisional games played so far, the largest margin of victory was ten points. The Packers have played the most divisional games and won all three of those matches by a margin of seven, five and one point. There hasn’t been a decisive victory like the 49ers 20–7 divisional win over the Rams last week in the NFC West.
Packers right guard Billy Turner is new to the NFC North, coming from Denver in free agency, but it didn’t take long for him to notice the challenge this division will present this season.
“It's probably the best division in football right now. ... It's definitely the most competitive. A lot of the games come down to the wire and there is a lot of great defenses which is good for us because it's just going to continue to strengthen our offense and our team as a whole.”
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