Detroit Lions’ season-ending game with Green Bay Packers comes with painful past

Detroit Free Press

Sunday night’s matchup between the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field will be the 13th time the Lions and Packers have finished the season against each other since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978 (and a 17-gamer last season), with nine of those coming since NFL realignment in 2002 created eight four-team divisions.

Of those 13 times over 45 seasons, Sunday could be the fourth time the Lions have had a shot at either clinching a playoff spot or a division title in that year-end matchup. The Lions, as you may have heard, need a L.A. Rams win over the Seattle Seahawks in the late-afternoon slot; that would make Sunday’s game a winner-take-all battle for the NFC’s No. 7 seed and a matchup with the No. 2 team, most likely the San Francisco 49ers.

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Four times doesn’t feel like a lot. Then again, the Lions and Bears have finished up against each other, regardless of playoff hopes, six times since 1978 (and three times since 2002); it’s five and three, respectively, for the Vikings and Lions. Also, the Lions have just 11 playoff appearances of any sort, and three division titles, over that span. And we’re not even counting the 2011 season, when the Lions — with a playoff berth already clinched — could have moved up to the No. 5 seed and a visit to the 9-7 Giants with a win over a 14-1 Packers squad resting its starters, but instead were torched for six TDs by backup QB Matt Flynn, resulting in the 6-seed and a disastrous matchup with the New Orleans Saints.

With that in mind, let’s take a look back at the three previous times since 1978 that the Packers and Lions have finished the season with high stakes:

Jan. 2, 1994: Lions 30, Packers 20

At stake: Three teams in the five-team NFC Central — The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were also a division rival in the predecessor to the NFC North — entered the final Sunday of the 1993 season with playoff berths locked up. The Vikings entered the week at 8-7, but beat Washington in a Friday night game to clinch a wild-card berth, leaving the Lions and Packers, both at 9-6, to duke it out for the division title, with the loser falling to the final wild-card berth. Of course, the winner of the Central was set to host the lowest wild-card squad — meaning the game was essentially for the right to host a playoff game at the Silverdome in Pontiac or Lambeau Field in Green Bay.

The previous meeting: The Lions’ visit to Wisconsin — taking on the Packers in Milwaukee — took a disastrous turn in the fourth quarter. After recovering from a 10-0 deficit to take a 17-13 lead on the second half’s opening kickoff, the Lions gave up 13 unanswered points. The final Packers score came on a 2-yard TD run by Edgar Bennett five plays after a Rodney Peete pass was intercepted to start Green Bay on the Lions’ 37. “The only good thing,” offensive lineman Kevin Glover told reporters, “is that we get to play again in four days. So we don’t have to wait a week to hit somebody. After a game like this, we really feel like hitting something.”

The finale: The Lions lost that next game on Thanksgiving (to the Bears, as Barry Sanders suffered a partially torn left MCL), and then the next one (to the Vikings) before earning a playoff spot with two wins in three weeks. Sanders was still injured for the showdown with the Packers, and so the Lions turned to … Eric Lynch? The nominal third-string running back, who entered the game with 23 rushes for 92 yards all season, delivered 115 yards and two touchdowns on 30 carries, plus another 29 yards on five receptions. It wasn’t easy, though — when is it with the Lions? — as the Packers took a 20-16 lead into the fourth quarter. But the Lions’ strategy of letting Packers QB Brett Favre make plays — good and bad — finally paid off with a pair of fourth-quarter interceptions, two of four on the day for Favre. Lions head coach Wayne Fontes didn’t know quite what to make of it, telling reporters, “I feel extremely … uh, uh …” then sputtering out. He began anew: “I feel great about this win. It shows what you can do when the players believe. The players deserve it, they played extremely hard and won the championship. I couldn’t be more proud of my locker room and the team.”

The aftermath: Just six days later (and three days after Tonya Harding’s crew hit Nancy Kerrigan’s knee in a hallway at Cobo Center in Detroit), the teams met again on a Saturday afternoon at the Silverdome. Sanders was healthy again and had 169 yards on 27 carries, but it was the second-string RB, Derrick Moore, who gave the Lions a 24-21 lead midway through the fourth quarter. They were unable to extend the lead on their next possession, but still, the Lions made it to the final minute with that three-point lead. And then … disaster. On second-and-4, Favre scrambled to his left and fired a bomb to his right, toward the end zone and a waiting, wide-open Sterling Sharpe, who hauled in his third TD pass of the game as a distraught Kevin Scott tried to catch up. The only thing the Lions had covered was the explanation of the massively blown coverage after the 28-24 loss. “On the last play, I didn’t let Kevin know what the coverage was,” safety William White said. “I didn’t know, and we just blew it. Just blew it. … I effed up.” Scott concurred, saying, “Everybody was not on the same page on that play. I’m thinking one thing and everybody is thinking another.”

Dec. 28, 2014: Packers 30, Lions 20

At stake: More than two decades later, the Lions had a shot at their first NFC North title, as both the Packers and Lions entered the final weekend at 11-4. The winner not only would get a home playoff game, but also a first-round bye as the No. 2 seed. (The Seattle Seahawks had the No. 1 spot locked up, thanks to a win over the Packers and a better record in NFC games than the Lions.) The loser, however, would hit the road for wild-card weekend.

The previous meeting: It wasn’t pretty for the Lions — Matthew Stafford had no touchdown passes and two interceptions — but it was even uglier for the Packers. The Lions defense held QB Aaron Rodgers to just 162 yards passing, forced a fumble that was returned 40 yards for a TD and stopped running back Eddie Lacy in the end zone for a safety. In all, the Lions allowed just 223 yards of offense, all while breaking in a new signal caller, DeAndre Levy, after linebacker Stephen Tulloch was injured. “My normal job, I just listen for the call and get lined up,” Levy told reporters. “But now you got to listen to the sidelines, communicate to the front end, communicate to the back end  and that’s while the crowd is making a lot of noise. … Sometimes you’re not even getting a call until (the QB) is under center.”

The finale: On a chilly Sunday afternoon at Lambeau Field, Levy and the Lions defense were far less effective where it counted. Seemingly everything that could go wrong did for the Lions. In the first quarter, they stopped the Packers on four straight plays from the 1, then punted on the next possession only to have it returned 55 yards for a TD. In the second quarter, they forced another fumble by Lacy deep in their own territory, then made it to the Green Bay 31 before the drive petered out on downs.  Rodgers missed several third-quarter snaps with a left calf injury and returned to play with a limp — “I just felt like if I got in there, it might give us a little jolt,” he said afterward — but he led the Packers to a 61.5% completion rate on third downs and went unsacked. Through it all, Lacy kept churning out yards; his 100 yards on 26 carries made him the first running back with 100 yards all season against the Lions. And yet, as much as the result seemed to be Same Old Lions, first-year head coach Jim Caldwell refused to accept excuses: “This is the way it happens in this league,” he  said. “You don’t play well enough to win, you don’t win. We didn’t win. We’re 11-5 and it’s a new season. None of that stuff matters. I told our guys after they get out of that shower, when they get finished, we got to look forward. We’re not going to look behind, we don’t have to address any issues and talk about this particular game. It’s over with, it’s done. They’ve played well enough to give us a chance to get into a new season and this new season is win or go home. It’s a new day.”

The aftermath: Unfortunately for the Lions, their “new day,” a date in Dallas with the Cowboys the following Sunday, looked all too familiar: A two-touchdown lead that vanished in the second half thanks to some questionable calls (the infamous picked-up flag on a Brandon Pettigrew non-catch the league later admitted should have been a  penalty), some brutal special-teams play (Sam Martin’s 10-yard punt midway through the fourth quarter) and an untimely turnover (Matthew Stafford’s fumble with a minute left and the Lions on the edge of field-goal range). It all added up to a 24-20 loss and another Lions disappointment.

Jan. 1, 2017: Packers 31, Lions 24

At stake: The Lions entered the final three weeks needing just one win to clinch the North — then lost to the Bears and Giants. The Packers, meanwhile, would have been eliminated with a single loss after Thanksgiving— but they won five straight to go into the final weekend tied with the Lions at 9-6. And so, Packers/Lions at Ford Field was flexed to the Sunday night spot. The winner would get the division and a home game against the Giants; thanks to an afternoon loss by Washington, the loser was guaranteed a playoff spot in Seattle against the third-seeded Seahawks.

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The previous meeting: It was over almost before it started on a sunny Sept. 25 afternoon at Lambeau, as the Packers jumped out to a 31-3 lead. Even worse, it was Rodgers looking like the Rodgers of old; after 14 consecutive games with a sub-100 passer rating, he tossed four first-half touchdowns while going 12-for-18 for 174 yards and a 137.5 passer rating before halftime. (He attempted just six passes in the second half, completing three, to drop his passer rating to only 129.3.) The Lions rallied to make it a one-score game with 3:40 remaining, but the Packers were able to run out the clock for a 34-27 victory. The problem was clear, and clearly stated by Caldwell afterward: “We just couldn’t stop them,” he said. “Rodgers was hot, completing a lot of big passes on us, and really gave us some problems in that area. We just couldn’t slow him down.”

The finale: Like so many times before, Rodgers delivered a death by paper cuts: 27 completions on 39 attempts for 300 yards; four TD passes, all of 10 yards or less; 10 rushes for 42 yards, and, perhaps most painfully of all, constant scrambling to keep plays alive against a beleaguered defense. Golden Tate’s TD gave the Lions a 14-7 lead with 23 seconds left in the second quarter, but that was still enough time for Rodgers to lead the Pack to a field goal as time expired. In all, the Packers scored 25 points to a mere field goal by the Lions between their TDs in the final seconds of each half. Afterward, cornerback Darius Slay, who had played on a bad hamstring to lead the Lions with eight tackles, summed up the experience thusly: “It’s tiring, to be honest,” Slay said. “It’s just tiring. He do a lot of running around. But he’s the best at what he does and that’s why he’s Aaron Rodgers and won two MVP’s. He’s just the best at what he do.”

The aftermath: The Lions looked even more tired the following Saturday, and it wasn’t because of the 11:15 East Coast start time in the Pacific Northwest. The Lions’ offense was beaten down, mustering just 231 yards, of which 49 came on the ground. The Seahawks, meanwhile, were content to grind down the Lions defense behind running back Thomas Rawls; the Flint native, who went undrafted out of Central Michigan in 2015, rushed 27 times for 161 yards and a touchdown, with 107 yards in the first half. Seattle scored 16 points in the fourth quarter to make it a 26-6 final, but, really, it was over once Russell Wilson connected with receiver Paul Richardson on a 2-yard TD midway through the second quarter. “We didn’t get it done,” safety Glover Quin told reporters. “We got to the playoffs, and when you play against a good team on the road, you have to play stellar football, and we didn’t do that.”

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