28F Ford Field, Detroit, MI
Exit Aaron Rodgers for three weeks, and the NFC North has suddenly overtaken the NFC East as football's most up-for-grabs division.
Two of its three five-loss teams will try to further establish themselves Thursday when Matt Flynn leads the visiting Green Bay Packers against the Detroit Lions with much more than a drumstick at stake.
The Packers' quarterback situation has mirrored the division's uncertainty since Rodgers went down with a broken left collarbone Nov. 4 against Chicago. Rodgers has been ruled out for a third straight game despite returning to practice this week, leaving Green Bay's hopes of matching the Lions and Bears for a division-best six wins in the hands of its fourth starting signal-caller this season.
Coach Mike McCarthy waited until Wednesday to announce Flynn would be his new starter. Though Scott Tolzien started the last two games, it was Flynn who took over midway through the third quarter Sunday and led the team back from a 16-point, second-half deficit in a 26-26 tie with Minnesota.
The Packers (5-5-1) are 0-3-1 since Rodgers got hurt.
"I've been hitting the playbook hard and studying, and asking a lot of questions from Aaron, all the receivers, linemen - how they want things called, and how they want the operation to go," Flynn said. "So I feel good."
Tolzien, who took over for the injured Seneca Wallace on Nov. 11 against Philadelphia, has lost the job to Flynn after combining for one touchdown pass and five interceptions in his two starts and one relief appearance.
Flynn, playing his first game with the Packers since backing up Rodgers from 2008-11, went 21 of 36 for 218 yards and a touchdown Sunday.
"I'm very comfortable. Feel good with the playbook, feel good with the game plan, and I feel ready to go," said Flynn, who re-signed with Green Bay on Nov. 12. "You know, I'm light years ahead of where I would be three weeks into any other system obviously because of the time I spent here."
Green Bay has averaged 18.0 points in the last four weeks, tied for 25th in the league. Through Week 8, the Packers were third in the league with Rodgers at 30.3 points per game.
A win would vault the Packers past the Lions (6-5), who haven't been able to take advantage of their division foe's misfortune or their own seemingly soft schedule.
Detroit has lost consecutive games for the first time this year, and they've come against Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay, which have a combined 8-14 record. But both of those teams have won three in a row.
The Lions now face a Green Bay team that has gone winless in four straight for the first time since a five-game losing streak in 2008. Detroit, however, has lost nine straight Thanksgiving Day games since a win over the Packers in 2003.
"I think we all need to remind ourselves, like we did yesterday, that the fact is that there's five games remaining, and we're in first place," Detroit coach Jim Schwartz said Monday. "We need to conduct ourselves accordingly, and we can't worry what happened last week, we can't worry about what happened yesterday. We need to worry about what's going to happen in the future. I like our team's mindset."
The Lions haven't exactly had the same quarterback of late, either. Matthew Stafford threw at least four interceptions for the first time since Nov. 13, 2011, in Sunday's 24-21 loss to the Buccaneers.
He'd thrown eight in the previous 10 games this season with just one multi-interception game.
Accuracy has been an issue as Stafford has completed a league-worst 49.6 percent of his throws this month in three games after connecting on 62.4 percent through Week 8.
The off day against the Bucs came despite the return of one of Stafford's top targets, Nate Burleson . The Lions' No. 2 wide receiver had seven catches on 10 targets for 77 yards and a touchdown in his first game since Sept. 22 after breaking his left arm in a car accident.
After Sunday's loss, running back Reggie Bush said it was time for a players-only meeting. Stafford didn't agree.
"I don't think it's necessary," Stafford said. "This is a team I've been around for a while, and we have strong leaders on this team. We can get it taken care of just in individual groups. We've got leaders at every position, and guys know what it takes to win in this league."
This week, it'll take snapping a five-game skid against the Packers, which includes a 22-9 loss in Green Bay on Oct. 6. It was the Lions' only game without a touchdown and the only time they've been held under 21 points as Stafford was sacked a season-high five times.
However, that was the only game Calvin Johnson has missed, and he's had 505 yards receiving in his last three matchups with the Packers. The All-Pro wideout has an NFL-best 1,198 yards, including 861 over the past five weeks with seven of his 42 catches going for touchdowns.
Slowing him or Burleson down could fall on Packers cornerback Sam Shields , who is expected to return after missing two games with a hamstring injury.
Detroit is 1-15 against the Packers since Dec. 11, 2005, and Stafford has never beaten them. He's 0-6 with 10 touchdowns and 12 interceptions since entering the league in 2009. The one win against the Packers in his time with the team was led by then-backup Drew Stanton .