GREEN BAY, Wis. (WSAU-TSN) - During his college days at the University of California, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers played in the shadows of USC star and fellow Pac-10 player Matt Leinart.
What a difference the NFL has made on the two college standouts, with Rodgers emerging as one of the top signal-callers in the game for Green Bay and Leinart buried on the depth chart for his second team in Houston.
Rodgers will try to further cement his pro legacy and move the Packers closer to a playoff berth in the crowded NFC Sunday against the NFC North-rival Detroit Lions at Ford Field. He is on pace for his third straight 4,000-yard season and has been protecting the football like an officer at the Mexican border. Rodgers hasn't thrown an interception in his last five games, spanning 177 attempts, and owns 11 touchdown passes over his past four contests. He had three scoring strikes in last Sunday's 34-16 home win over San Francisco.
"Aaron is playing sharp," Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said. "Just the emphasis, really starts with ball security, staying within the offense. That's what you want from all your players, whether it's offense, defense or special teams. He's really in a groove."
The former first-round draft pick eclipsed Brett Favre's run of 163 passes without a pick for the second-longest streak in team history, behind only Bart Starr's stretch of 294 passes without an interception. Starr is the last Green Bay quarterback to not thrown an interception in five straight games.
Rodgers had nine interceptions over this season's first seven contests, and said that it has been a "conscious" effort not to give the other team the ball. The Packers are an astounding 46-4 since 1996 when they're turnover free.
Green Bay will enter the Motor City somewhat wary of how well the Lions have played this season, despite the team's 2-10 mark. Right now the Packers are on the outside looking in for the playoffs with an 8-4 mark and sit one game behind Chicago for the NFC North lead.
Dynamic offensive players such as Rodgers and wide receiver Greg Jennings will be key to the Packers' success from here on out. With veteran wideout Donald Driver seemingly healthy again, the team will be even more potent and better prepared for a rough stretch of games to close out the regular season. Green Bay will also visit New England before hosting both the New York Giants and Bears.
Green Bay's matchup with Chicago on Jan. 2 at Lambeau Field could have division bragging rights on the line. The Bears are also among several NFC teams vying for a division title and a postseason berth.
Lions head coach Jim Schwartz said this week that he's optimistic about the future of the organization, and who could blame him? But for all of that to happen, he'll need injured quarterback Matthew Stafford back at full strength and that may not come to fruition until next season.
With 10 losses through 12 games, the Lions' role has been relegated to spoiler as they take on Green Bay, Tampa Bay, Miami and Minnesota to close out the regular season. Miami and Minnesota are pretty much out of the playoff picture, but winning those games only builds confidence and a solid foundation for the 2011 campaign.
"Do we still have work to do? Sure we have work to do," Schwartz said. "There's no question about that, but we're not dissatisfied in anything other than our record and [that] we haven't done a good enough job finishing the individual games."
The Lions have lost five in a row and are coming off last Sunday's 24-20 setback versus the Bears. They had a 10-point lead evaporate in the second half and inexperienced quarterback Drew Stanton had an average day with 178 passing yards with a touchdown and no turnovers.
Detroit's offense is mainly run through wide receiver Calvin Johnson, who had 66 yards and a score on just three catches against Chicago. Johnson can't do it all, but does have a touchdown reception in each of the last four games and 12 total on the year.
If Schwartz has plans on the future, he should start by building a better offensive line and drafting a go-to running back. Rookie Jahvid Best still could be the answer in the backfield and can prove that with a quarter of the season left. A threat both on the ground and catching passes, Best is still searching for his first 100-yard rushing game of the season. His best outing was back in Week 2 versus Philadelphia, when he had 78 yards and two scores rushing while hauling in nine passes for an additional 154 yards and a touchdown.
Detroit's defense will face another pass-happy squad on Sunday in the Packers. The team should be prepared by now after getting torched through the air by Dallas, New England and Chicago in succession.