When I think of last year's season finale against the Lions, I probably look back with my green-and-gold goggles on. I think of an exhilirating, record-setting game in which the Packers came out on top at the end in heroic fashion. I think of the Packers putting the finishing touches on a 15-1 season, proving they can pull out a win even with Aaron Rodgers on the bench. And, I think of it being the launching point for backup quarterback Matt Flynn's career as a backup quarterback somewhere else.
But after viewing the game yesterday on NFL Network's NFL Replay, a little 20/20 hindsight not only clears your memories, but gives you some concern in looking ahead to tonight's rematch--as well as the Packers' chances the rest of this season.
The Packers, playing at home last New Year's Day, didn't play a pretty game. They didn't put away a lesser team early. While you may blame such lack of cohesion on the fact that the Packers sat several starters, including Rodgers, the fact remains that Flynn set lifetime Packer records in his stead. Statistically, who was out there wasn't the problem.
The Lions are, in many ways, the foil for the Green Bay Packers. When you look on the other sideline tonight, you will see a team that the Packers could be. It's loaded with talent on both sides of the ball, with a few All Pro caliber players to boot. In fact, you might be able to state that, with the incredible number of players on the Packers' injured reserve list, the Lions could be the more talented team on the field today, at least in terms of potential.
But that is where the comparison ends. The Lions have taken their talent, amassed over years of high draft picks awarded for truly awful play, and squandered it. The Lions play heavy on emotion and play heavy on trying to provoke responses from their opponents on the field. They take pride in being a dirty team, led by perhaps the dirtiest player in the league, Ndamukong Suh...but by no means alone in his efforts to provoke and taunt.
The Lions and Packers are mirror images of each other, and not just based on their records of 4-8 and 8-4. The Packers have made a living under Mike McCarthy of surging in close games and pulling out wins at the end, even if it against teams they should have blown away. The Lions have mastered the art of blowing fourth quarter leads as they have in their last three games, often because they allow their emotions to get the best of them. They implode under the weight of having to reach deep down and persevere against a little adversity.
On the other hand, the Packers thrive under adversity. One could easily make the case that without it, the Packers simply aren't the Packers. They need to be behind the eight ball to play at their best. And more times than not, they do.
It makes you wonder if Jim Schwartz were coaching the Packers, if the Packers would have their fortunes reversed. While the environmental and cultural issues the Lions have certainly don't come purely on the shoulders of the head coach, it does make you a little more appreciative of our own head coach, Mike McCarthy, and his approach. It may not be perfect, but the Packers often find the ability to play at a a level higher than the sum of their parts.
The Lions somehow find a way to play below the sum of the talent that they've amassed on their team, week in and week out.
Which brings me back to last season's closer, where the Packers won, but perhaps gave something up in the process. Watching the replay, I saw many of those things I'd like to forget. The stupid scuffles after every single play. The fights that broke out after every big play. The late hits, the wrenching of players' bodies in an attempt to injure them. I wish I could say that it was just the Lions doing this, and the Packers rose above it. But, the Packers fell into the trap laid by the Lions, lowering themselves to that level of play, allowing a rotten team to stay close in a game they shouldn't have been close in.
The one play that stands out, after a game full of taunts and cheap shots, was a third-quarter touchdown play where Kevin Smith caught a short pass and took three steps into the endzone, only to get a punishing hit from Jarrett Bush that actually cracked his helmet. Now, as Packer fans, our first inclination is to cheer, to rise and tell those dirty Lions they deserved a little bit of their own medicine.
But Bush didn't stop at the crushing hit. Even though his squad had just surrendered a go-ahead touchdown late in the game, he decided to stand over Smith and taunt him, resulting in a near-bench-clearing brawl. It was an unnecessary display on the part of a defending Super Bowl Champion, as well as the team that was 14-1 and had already cleared home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Why lower yourself to the standards of a clearly sub-standard organization?
In the end, the Packers won, and they beat the Lions at their own game. They gave up fourth quarter leads and allowed emotion to prevail. And, yes, perhaps the Packers didn't suffer statistically not having Rodgers, Charles Woodson, Clay Matthews, and Greg Jennings on the field, but they may have sorely missed their calming leadership and professionalism.
The part that got me, however, was the post-game interview with Mike McCarthy (emphasis mine):
“It sends us into the playoffs in the right mindset to continue the process. It’s a new season. There’s six teams we’re battling against to get to Indianapolis. We’re really focused on improving as a team. We don’t do everything exactly right. We understand there are things we did today that we haven’t done, so we’ll continue to learn. It’s a very accountable group of men. But the most important thing is in two weeks when we step out onto Lambeau, we play our best football.”
Now, take this quote and bookend it with how the Lions convinced the Packers to play their brand of football in that game; and with the performance we saw two weeks later in the playoffs against the Giants....same field, same conditions. It wasn't the right mindset for the playoffs, and the Packers were not playing their brand of football. They were playing the Lions brand of football, and as we know, it is a losing brand of football.
Now, the issues with the Giants game, of course, go far deeper than simply having played the Lions a few weeks before. But, there is an important lesson to be learned from that game, even if it was a fifteenth win and a career day for Matt Flynn. The Lions are the dark parallel universe version of the Packers (picture Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers' lame mustaches as goatees), and represent the worst of what the Packers can become: a team without focus, control, and perseverance.
Tonight, the Lions will face the Packers with nothing to lose and nothing to gain in front of yet another national audience. The final nail in their playoff coffin was delivered by the Packers last month, and there's little doubt the Lions play their dirtiest when the most people are watching. You can bet tonight's game will be fraught with dirty play and grandstanding.
If the Packers are continue to sit in the driver's seat in the NFC North, much less make an impact in the post-season, they have to maintain the composure and professionalism of a team that is used to being there. Just because you can get away with playing an unfocused, undisciplined game against a lesser opponent and pull out a win doesn't mean it prepares you for a playoff-caliber team that isn't going to make stupid mistakes for you.
In the end, the Packers must take tonight's game and handle the Lions and their immature antics as nothing more than what they are: a distraction. If not, the Packers create their own distractions.