O'HARA: The race is on in the NFC North as Lions prepare for first division game

There are a lot of reasons for quarterback Aaron Rodgers to feel good about what has gotten the Green Bay Packers into first place in the NFC North, and a lot for him to like about his own performance in the first five games.

There wasn’t much for Rodgers or new head coach Matt LaFleur not to like in Sunday’s 34-24 road win over the Cowboys. That gave the Packers a 4-1 won-loss record going into Monday night’s game against the Detroit Lions at Lambeau Field.

Aaron Jones ran for 107 yards and four touchdowns. The offensive line allowed only two sacks, and Rodgers said he took one of them on a scramble to keep from going out of bounds and stopping the clock. And the rebuilt defense kept the Cowboys in check until the fourth quarter, when the game had been decided.

What Rodgers liked most was a renewed spirit in the locker room.

Meet this week's opponents, the Green Bay Packers.

“We’re just a more connected team this year,” Rodgers told reporters after Sunday’s win. “We’re enjoying each other more. We like each other a lot more. We hang out with each other. The locker room is a raucous environment, whether it’s a Monday or whether it’s right after a big win.

“I think guys really play for each other more. We have that chemistry with the leadership we have that maybe has been lacking the last couple of years.”

But what’s good for Rodgers and the Packers isn’t good for the Lions and the other division contenders.

The race is on in the North. All four division teams are in the race, including the Lions with a 2-1-1 record coming off their bye week.

No one can count on getting any help in getting to the finish line first. That was evident in Sunday’s games, with the Packers, Vikings and Bears in action while the Lions had the weekend off. The dream scenario for the Lions – one that was not unrealistic – was that all three teams would lose.

That didn’t happen.

The Packers dominated the Cowboys to take first place alone with a 4-1 won-loss record. The game was not as close as the score indicated. The Packers had a 31-3 lead late in the third quarter.

The Vikings got their offense out of neutral in a 28-10 road win over the Giants to make their record 3-2.

The Bears were the only division losers – 24-21 to the Raiders in London to make their record 3-2.

Bottom line: Unlike the last two years, it is unlikely that there will be a runaway winner in the North. The Bears finished first last year with a 12-4 record, with the Vikings a distant second at 8-7-1. The Vikings were first in 2017 with a 13-3 record with the Lions four games back in second place at 9-7.

It’s more likely that this year will be a repeat of 2016, when the Packers beat the Lions in a final-game showdown at Ford Field to finish first at 10-6. The Lions were a game back at 9-7.

However the race finishes, head coach Matt Patricia knows the Lions are facing a daunting task in going against Rodgers.

“The guy has been doing it at a high level for a long time, and some of that can just take over a ballgame and completely ruin everything you’re trying to do defensively,” Patricia said. “We know how great he is. We know what a great player he is.”

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