The Packers and their modern dance: Trying to stay a step ahead of the odds, and the Detroit Lions
This story appears in the March-April 2015 issue of Packerland Pride magazine. Subscribe to the magazine here.
The score was tied, close as it can be. Watching Aaron Rodgers throw warmup tosses on the sideline in the third quarter, the game felt like it was over. Rodgers came out of the Lambeau Field tunnel to cheers after a Green Bay Packers three-and-out. He was still in uniform. When we saw from the same end zone seats we watched Rodgers crumple after throwing a touchdown to Randall Cobb before halftime, Matt Flynn back in a heavy winter coat after the break, the world was seemingly realigned to regular. And regular, when it comes to the Packers and Detroit Lions, has for a long time meant one-sided. A decided outcome. Waiting for confirmation in the form of a game.
This is a dangerous way to think. And over the last few seasons it hasn’t exactly been the case. Even if the confidence these meetings conjure up seeps through Packers fans, Detroit has been close to catching Green Bay. No matter what the Lions do, though, the idea that this only ends one way remains.
It’s a deeply-rooted feeling in Wisconsin. Unless you’ve been around since years before Vince Lombardi showed up in Green Bay, the Lions have been a) a non-threat or b) a decent to good team incapable of shaking its non-threatening undertone. To go through Detroit’s history is in some ways an exercise in how much you can take. Reading over the Lions’ fate against Green Bay specifically is impossible to spin. It only reads one way. Even as a Packers fan, it is difficult not to comb through the Lions’ past and, if you see enough of it, start to feel a little bit bad.
To illustrate, an onslaught of numbers. The Packers and Lions have played 171 all-time games. Green Bay has won 95, most in franchise history against any one team.
Their all-time winning percentage against Detroit is 58 percent. Higher than Green Bay’s versus division foes Minnesota (54 percent) and Chicago (49 percent).
The most points the Packers have scored against any team in history are the 3,578 they’ve put on the Lions.
The overall point differential between the two is 505. Green Bay owns a 279-point all-time advantage over the Vikings. They’re a touchdown and an extra point down to the Bears.
There isn’t a team they’ve scored more against – or defeated as often – than Detroit.
Postseason meetings add hateful spice to a rivalry. Few outcomes can leave a bitter, lasting taste in the mouth of a fan base like losing to a rival in the playoffs. Ending your neighbor in the division’s season is bragging rights on PEDs. Green Bay has won and lost once apiece to Minnesota in the playoffs. Add those final scores and the Packers and Vikings each notched 41 points against each other. Against Chicago, the Packers are also 1-1. They actually trail in overall points in those contests, 47-35. This means pain was felt before. It means a couple times the season ended in a few of the worst ways it could: To the Bears or Vikings.
As for Detroit? The Lions have lost both postseason meetings against Green Bay. The Packers have outscored them in those games, 44-36. In the first meeting, a 1993 Wild Card game inside the Pontiac Silverdome, Brett Favre rolled, ran left, then planted his feet and bombed a touchdown back right across the field, 40 yards, to Sterling Sharpe in the waning seconds. The Packers won 28-24. They trailed by 10 in the third quarter.
To date, this is Detroit’s most recent home playoff game.
The next season Detroit came to Lambeau for a Wild Card game on New Year’s Eve 1994. The NFC Central sent four teams to the postseason that year – Green Bay, Detroit, and Chicago all at 9-7, with division champion Minnesota at 10-6.
The Lions had the third-best rushing offense behind running back and AP Offensive Player of the Year Barry Sanders. Sanders led the NFL in rushing yards (1,883), rush yards per game (117.7), and yards from scrimmage (2,166). Green Bay was third in the league in rushing yards allowed. The Packers jumped out to a 10-0 halftime lead and hung on to win, 16-12. It wasn’t a dominating margin, but this game is remembered because of the complete blanketing of the NFL’s best offensive weapon. Detroit ended with 171 total yards and minus-four rushing yards.
The always-dangerous Sanders finished with 13 carries and minus-one yard rushing. His longest run of the day was seven yards. He caught three passes for four yards.
Green Bay erased the head of that Lions team. And with it, their best chance.
Lions-Packers wasn’t always this way. Detroit has four NFL championships: In 1935, 1952, 1953, and 1957. From 1949-‘54, they won a rivalry-best 11 straight over Green Bay. The teams met each season on Thanksgiving Day from 1951 to 1964, and on Thanksgiving Day 1962, the Lions made sure Lombardi’s best shot at perfection just missed the target; Detroit sacked Bart Starr 11 times in a 26-14 upset. It was the only game Green Bay lost that year.
Along with the long string of Thanksgiving meetings, Packers-Lions is also the longest still-running rivalry in the league. Chicago and Green Bay have played the most but didn’t in 1982, the season shrunk by a player’s strike. The Lions and Packers have played twice a year since 1932.
Those early years were mostly controlled by the Packers. Against the Portsmouth Spartans until 1934, then the newly named Lions through the rest of 1930s and ‘40s, Green Bay went 29-9-1. The ‘50s, as noted before, were dominated by the Lions to the tune of a 15-4-1 record.
But with a new coach in 1959, Green Bay ended the decade with a season sweep.
Overall, Lombardi kept the Lions at just enough of a distance. These games were punishing contests, though. From 1960 to 1967 the Lions leaned on a defense that was top five in the league in both points and yards allowed in every season but one (1966). Detroit’s records bounced around .500 after the early ‘60s, while the Packers owned this period, winning three straight Western Conference championships from 1960-62.
The Lions finished second in the conference in each of those seasons.
The average score from 1959 to 1962 was Green Bay 17.9, Detroit 14.8. Green Bay won five of the eight contests. A few of these tight games go the other way, and who knows what else changes? The Lions weren’t Green Bay’s chief rivals. These four seasons, however, started a theme that still runs through this rivalry today: Detroit’s best, or some of their better, teams often couldn’t make the final push that is upending the Packers.
It would loosen up from there. The Packers won seven of the last 10 against Detroit under Lombardi by an average margin of about 10. They tied twice and lost once. For the Lombardi era as a whole, the Packers averaged 20.4 points per game against Detroit; the Lions 13.7 versus Green Bay. One score away.
Over the next two decades the Packers (2) and Lions (3) combined for five playoff appearances. Green Bay started the ‘70s in maybe the worst possible way, losing to the Lions by a combined score of 60-0 in their meetings during the 1970 season. They went 9-9-2 against each other in the decade. Then Detroit won 13 of 20 in the 1980s. Neither knew it at the time, but both franchises couldn’t wait for the calendar to flip to 1990.
In the book “Black and Blue: A Smash-Mouth History of the NFL’s Roughest Division,” by Bob Berghaus, Larry McCarren says of the Detroit rivalry, “The Lions are not only third on the Packers’ batting order, but a distant third as far as rivalries go.
“Why? I don’t know. They were tough games, physical games, all that good stuff. But I don’t have a lot to add on that.”
This feels about right.
The Lions were more than a challenge in 2014. They gave the league an early season blueprint for containing Green Bay’s offense in Week 3’s 19-7 victory. Then, and this was the un-Lions-like part, they kept pace with the Packers until Week 17, the rematch at Lambeau looming larger and larger as the season rolled on. Yet neither team, despite slip-ups on each side, lost stride with the other for long.
Because of the 19-7 win there was real cause for concern as the finale and stakes were set. Green Bay was already in the postseason but needed a win to clinch a home playoff game. Detroit capped the Packers’ passing game by not allowing anything deep. They did what teams would increasingly try to do against Green Bay in 2014: Eliminate the chances for quick, big plays down the field by playing with two safeties back, then seeing if the Packers could maintain and cash in on long drives.
The Lions were well-suited for this type of defense because of their ability to effectively contain Rodgers in the pocket with their defensive front four, allowing linebackers to clog passing lanes rather than blitz. They were also great at blowing up running plays before they started – Eddie Lacy had 36 yards on 11 carries in the first meeting. It all started with the defensive line for Detroit in recent years. And it’s hard not to see their strength as a direct response to Green Bay’s. On that day in September it worked to near-perfection against the Packers. It frustrated them by limiting everything they did, by forcing costly turnovers. It was another recent example of the Lions building themselves to beat the Packers. Then, most importantly, proving the plan could work.
That game caused a stir over the ground the Lions seemed to be gaining. But Week 17’s 30-20 Packers victory fell back in line. The game turned out to be a triumph of the Packers not only doing their thing better than Detroit does theirs, but of one side’s growth and the other’s reversion back to old habits.
Aaron Rodgers, hobbled as he was in the second half, simply found the soft spots in Detroit’s coverage. The duo of Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson, along with rookie tight end Richard Rodgers, got open. Green Bay’s offensive line, which got better and better all season long, allowed minimal pressure and only one sack (of Matt Flynn). Lacy churned out 100 yards on the ground; James Starks added another 26. Green Bay’s late-season offense wasn’t the same as September’s. It was better. More dynamic and balanced. More evolved, shaped closer to the best form it would take in 2014.
Detroit, on the other hand, went back to a Jim Schwartz-ian stage of Packers-and self-induced meltdown: The Lions committed 10 penalties. They failed to convert on 7-of-11 third downs. They allowed a punt return for a touchdown. Matthew Stafford threw 21 incompletions. After tying the score only to see the Packers respond with a pair of touchdowns, the Lions showed the fraying wires of a team that knew it was losing control but unable to stop the chaos. For as quick as Detroit tied the game, as fast as it felt like maybe Green Bay was in trouble when Rodgers left the field, the latest edition of Packers-Lions returned to usual form when the two-time MVP quarterback came back from the Lambeau Field tunnel, uniform on.
After that moment the pieces started assembling themselves into places familiar to those who’ve seen the puzzle before.
That puzzle, what the Green Bay-Detroit rivalry means from this side, is this: Hope for the same. Hope for regularity. That the gravity of history and long lists of results don’t, someday, spin towards the other side. The Lions are better than they were. They’re a far cry from the 0-16 horrorshow of 2008, and the precluding Matt Millen era that sent the franchise off a bridge. For Packers fans the Lions will probably always, to some degree, be the Lions. Meaning, it’ll never be truly right not to dominate. We’re always going to assume or hope the next game isn’t the one where the other shoe drops.
Granted, it has happened recently. And in chunks over the long span of the rivalry. Last season’s 19-7 win showcased Detroit’s strength in recent seasons – a devastating defensive front – and how it can impact an entire game. Their Thanksgiving Day romp two years ago has the major asterisk of being a game without Aaron Rodgers in the lineup, but it was an embarrassing blowout in the typically opposite direction nonetheless.
That’s the major difference between Lions-Packers and Green Bay’s other divisional rivalries: Sometimes status quo changes in those. But it rarely has in this case for a couple of decades. And it has been even more lopsided of late.
Whereas an upset loss to the Vikings or Bears can be explained away by the randomness of a true rivalry, a loss to the Lions still exists on a plane without room for explanation. We’re not saying it should be this way. The Lions are not a bad team. They’ve got some of the best talent in the league. But that’s sort of the problem, too. When they’ve been talented in the recent past, when they’ve challenged for or even claimed a division crown, they ultimately still haven’t crossed the invisible threshold. They still come back to the Pack. Then fall behind.
Look at the Lions’ seasons of the 1990s. The Lions went 12-4 in 1991 and lost in the NFC Championship game to Washington, 41-10. Detroit made the playoffs in three consecutive seasons from ‘93-‘95, ending that streak after a 5-11 campaign in 1996. They returned to the postseason in 1997 after a 9-7 year, and again in 1999 at 8-8.
But going back to 1993, the last seven trips to the postseason have ended at the same exit for Detroit: A Wild Card loss.
There’s another layer to this. Those seasons resulting in Lions postseason bids also coincided with the rise of the Packers under Ron Wolf and Mike Holmgren, quarterbacked by Brett Favre. Turns out this was an inopportune time for trying to make a power play in the NFC Central.
Detroit was good in those years, but they weren’t great. Or should we say Super?
The early 1990s were over by the time the Packers won the aforementioned 16-12 Wild Card game over Detroit in ‘94.
That playoff victory was, ironically, the first time Green Bay beat the Lions at Lambeau Field since 1985. And it now famously set up the backbone of the rivalry today: The Packers haven’t lost to Detroit in Wisconsin since.
The 24 consecutive in-state losses spans tenures of nine Lions head coaches. It started in 1992, a 38-10 loss in Milwaukee County Stadium. This is noteworthy because, yes, it is a streak that started in 1992 and remains ongoing. Nothing lasts that long in the NFL. But also, a year before, when they got their last win in Lambeau, it came during what was the best Lions season – 12-4 record, spot in the conference title game – since the ‘50s. This is just Detroit’s luck: Even their successes are shadowed in green and gold shortly after. Directly or indirectly, historical timelines don’t do the Lions many favors.
If you’re looking for a way to encapsulate the rivalry, to boil it down, there’s really no better way than with its most famous streak. And it will happen sometime: The Lions will break that 24-game losing streak in Wisconsin. But until then, year after year, we as Packers fans just want to get through one more season. To stretch that streak out for one more game.
More than hoping for the same, the streak has almost evolved into a rule. You can’t jump offsides, you can’t run after you’re touched down, no celebrating with teammates, ever, and the Lions can’t win in Wisconsin. It’s a constant graphic on the screen during these games. Sure as a shot of a Wisconsin barn when the broadcast returns from commercial break.
The Lions will chase down an upset in Detroit here and there. But until they snap that skid, is there a way to possibly take them as seriously as other rivals? The longer the losing goes, the more it feels like it’s written in stone. And again, this is a dangerous line of thinking. It will only make the day it ends feel all the more difficult to accept.
But, as far as Packers-Lions goes, a win in Lambeau Field might be the only way to truly start a full-fledged rivalry again. It might not get there until Detroit does what many believe can’t happen. Not next season, at least. And maybe not until the season that comes after the one that comes next.