500 miles. That’s the distance from Detroit to Green Bay. Exactly 500 hundred miles.
On Sunday night their respective football teams will face off only inches away from each other to decide the champions of the north. It promises to be an old-fashioned gridiron battle in the tradition of this rivalry.
Even though there won’t be mud on the ground at Ford Field, it seems as if they should cart some in. They should bring it in on a tractor being driven by a fat unshaven guy wearing a stocking cap with a tassel on top.
This is a game that deserves dirty uniforms, tattered wind-blown sleeves, and bloody lips. It screams for bone-crushing tackles, broken fingers, and mad scrambles for fumbled footballs. It should have snow or sleet or ice or a winter monsoon, if such a thing exists. If it ended in a 6-3 slug fest with the ball rarely leaving the 40 yard line, that would be perfect.
This game promises to be an all-time classic because of what’s at stake. The winner will be crowned champion of the NFC North. The loser might miss the playoffs completely.* If the Packers win it would be their 100th victory in the series and it could deny the Lions a trip to the playoffs. If Detroit wins it would be their first division title since before Bill Clinton was president.
Green Bay is the smallest city to host a professional team in one of the four major sports leagues. But it has a huge ego. Big enough that locals call their home “Title Town.” The population of Green Bay almost exactly matches the number of people they squeeze into Michigan Stadium on a Saturday in the fall in Ann Arbor.
But even though Green Bay is small, that big-city-sized chip on its shoulder has often a menace to Detroit over the years. Since the rivalry began in 1930 (and has been continuous since 1933) the Packers have held a 99-68-7 margin. Twice, during the WWII years and from 2005-2010, Green Bay defeated the Lions ten times in a row.
But there have also been times when the Lions were king. From 1949-1954, Detroit beat Green Bay eleven straight times. Four times during that stretch, Detroit scored 45 points or more against the feeble Packers.
Detroit is a city that has seen hard times in the last few decades, we all know that. Still, it survives. Detroiters embrace the image of being underdogs, of being counted out but coming back to prove people wrong. This is a lunch pail city with a “Dont’ fuck with me” attitude. In contrast, Green Bay seems like a midwestern city from a different era, a time when you didn’t need to lock your doors, where everyone knew each others kids, and Fonzie was living over your garage. It’s Detroit vs. Green Bay. Attitude versus Cockiness. The losing franchise against the four-time Super Bowl champions. The “Same Old Lions” versus (One Of) America’s Teams.
Longest continuous rivalry in the NFL
This rivalry doesn’t need hype. It’s the real deal. In 1935, back when they were playing with stitched pieces of leather on their noggins, the Packers defeated the Lions two times, allowing only one touchdown to Detroit. In their third meeting of the season at Briggs Stadium in late November, Detroit won 20-10 when they pushed across two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, both via the legs of Bob Shepherd, who was described as “heavy, strong-headed, and sawed-off.” The victory propelled the Lions to the postseason where a month later they vanquished the Giants for their first title. At that time the Lions, Tigers, and Red Wings were reigning champions. Detroit was the original “Title Town.”
The following year, in 1936, the Packers won the NFL title, beating Detroit twice. But neither victory was easy, as the Pack had to come from behind each time. It was becoming clear that records didn’t matter when the two northern teams squared off. A few years later the gritty Lions beat Green Bay even though the Pack were on their way to a title game. Back then the man coaching the Packers was named Lambeau, not the field.
The Lions reigned supreme in the 1950s, winning three NFL titles. Meanwhile, the Packers were a mediocre team in “that little town by the water.” They were in a period between the Hall of Fame coaches of Lambeau and Vince Lombardi. The ’54 Thanksgiving game between the two teams was still a classic, the Lions rallying behind Bobby Layne to win 28-24 before more than 51,000 at Briggs Stadium. Three years later when the Lions were on their way to their last championship, their defense punished the Packers on Thanksgiving in an epic 18-6 battle in Detroit.
Lombardi and the 1960s
A few years later, Lombardi was in place in Green Bay and everything changed. The Packers transformed from laughingstock to dynasty. With winning the only goal, Lombardi drove his team to five titles in seven years during the 1960s. But the Lions didn’t stick their tails between their legs and roll over.
In 1962 on Thanksgiving Day, the Lions held the Packers to 122 yards of offense in a cold game at Tiger Stadium. A defensive line composed of Darris McCord, Alex Karras, Roger Brown, and Sam Williams terrorized Bart Starr. The middle of the field was patrolled by nasty Joe Schmidt, a man who once played almost an entire season with a dislocated shoulder secured in a self-made leather harness. A layer behind him were cornerbacks Dick LeBeau and veteran Night Train Lane, who later that season would intercept a pass and block a kick while he had appendicitis in the Pro Bowl Game! The Lions won that day 26-14, handing the Packers their only loss of the season. Green Bay was the best team in football and captured their second straight title, but the Lions were their true nemesis. During the Packers heyday, the Lions beat Green Bay five times in seven seasons and tied them two times.
The two teams battled to a 14-14 stalemate in 1968. Two years later Greg Landry and the Detroit defense led the Lions to a pair of shutout wins over the Packers by a combined score of 60-0. On December 20, 1970, the Lions beat a fading Starr and Green Bay 20-0 to advance to the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade.
Lean years for both teams
On January 2, 1980, the Lions scored a late TD to beat the Pack 27-24 at the Silverdome and earn a playoff spot, ending another drought. At that time, the balance of power was shifting to Detroit, who had exciting running back Billy Sims. For Green Bay fans, the days of Bart Starr and “Title Town” seemed like a distant memory. The following year the Lions pushed in a late TD and got a game-winning field goal off the foot of Eddie Murray in OT to beat Green Bay in a game played at Milwaukee County Stadium. But the Packers exacted revenge, pounding the Lions the next season 41-9 at Lambeau Field. The next season the Packers stunned Detroit when they scored 13 points in the final quarter to beat the Lions at the Dome, 26-23. The loss eliminated the Lions from playoff contention.
Detroit won only two games in 1988 but two came at the expense of the Pack. The rivalry was at a nadir: both teams were floundering. But two players soon came along, one for each team, that catapulted the franchises forward and reinvigorated the rivalry. In 1989 the Lions drafted running back Barry Sanders, and three years later the Packers acquired quarterback Brett Favre in a trade.
Sanders and Favre rekindle the rivalry
In 1991 the Lions scored two dramatic TDs in the fourth quarter, one a 78-yard kickoff return by Mel Gray, to beat the Packers at Lambeau Field. It would be their last win in Wisconsin for 24 years. In ’92 Favre beat the Lions twice in his first appearances in the rivalry. In all, during the Favre Era, Green Bay would go 25-9 against the Lions.
The 1993 season was most like the current one. Entering the final game of the season in Detroit, the two teams were both 9-6. The winner of the game would win the NFL Central title, the loser would still make the playoffs as a wild card. The game was played on January 2 in front of more than 77,000 fans. The Lions won 30-20 to disappoint Favre and the Packers. But six days later Favre hit Sterling Sharpe with a 40-yard TD pass in the fourth and Green Bay beat the Lions at the Dome, 28-24. It was the first meeting between the two rivals in the postseason.
Wouldn’t you know it? The next season the two teams were back in the playoffs, this time as wild cards. The Packers hosted the game at Lambeau and came out on top in a defensive struggle, 16-12. A few years later the Lions gave the defending Super Bowl champion Packers one of their three regular season losses, a 26-15 thumping at the Silverdome.
One of the mos thrilling games in this rivalry was played on Thanksgiving in 2001. The Pack held a 29-13 lead with seven minutes left in the fourth when Detroit staged a comeback. First, Lamont Warren plunged in for a one-yard TD, and the Lions converted for two points. Detroit successfully recovered an onside kick and with ten seconds left Mike McMahon fired a 29-yard TD pass to Scotty Andersn. Neither were legendary names, but in this rivalry anything can happen. Trailing 29-27 the Lions had to go for two but a pass from McMahon fell in the end zone as time expired. The loss lowered the Lions to 0-10 on the season.
At Lambeau in 2006 the Lions watched as Favre orchestrated a drive to set up a game-tying field goal in the fourth and subsequently a game-winning field goal in OT as they lost 16-13.
Packers dominance in the modern era
It was the Packers in 2008 who made the Lions 0-16, beating Detroit in Green Bay 31-21 in a game that was close until the middle of the final quarter. But two years later the Lions beat the Pack in an old school 7-3 battle in the season when Green Bay went on to win their only Super Bowl behind Aaron Rodgers. The following year in the final game of the regular season, Matt Stafford nearly ended the Lambeau Curse in a rollicking game in Green Bay as he and Green Bay backup QB Matt Flynn matched off in an aerial show. Stafford tossed a TD with just over two kinutes left to put Detroit up by three, but the Packers won when Flynn threw a TD a minute later, 45-41.
The rivals met again on the final Sunday of the regular season in 2014 at Lambeau, and Stafford nearly carried the Lions to a win in Green Bay again, before succumbing 30-20. That time, both teams had already secured playoff spots. Last season the Lions finally defeated Rodgers and the Packers in Green Bay, winning a tough 18-16 game in which Stafford threw a TD pass with less than two minutes left. The Detroit defense foiled a two-point conversion to seal the win and end the losing streak in Wisconsin at 24 games. But Rodgers got revenge three weeks later when he performed the “Motor City Miracle” on a 61-yard pass with no time left on the clock at Ford Field. It was probably the most stunning finish in the rivalry.
Battle for the North
The meeting on Sunday Night Football will mark the third time in the rivalry where the two teams are facing each other in the final game of the season to determine first place. So far, the teams have split those games. But both times they both advanced to the playoffs. This time, one of them could be going home. The stakes are high.
Matthew Stafford has established himself as an MVP candidate in 2016, leading the Lions to a record eight fourth quarter come-from-behind victories. Does he have more magic in his arm? On the other side, Aaron Rodgers is a former MVP and one of the best QBs to play the game. The defensive units are not top-notch, but the Lions eleven has been playing inspired recently, save for the Cowboys game last Monday night.
Say what they want about “the same old Lions,” Detroit fans will tune in on Sunday night to cheer for their team. This city is a football town. The oldest franchise never to play in a Super Bowl, yes, but still very much a football town. If the Lions beat Green Bay, if they host a playoff game and win it, if they get to a Super Bowl, this city would go nuts. For that to happen, the Lions will need to beat their rivals one more time.
– – – – – – – – –