The Green Bay Packers return from the bye week to take on their long-time punching bag, the Detroit Lions. For a long time, a home game against the Lions was a foregone conclusion. For twenty-two straight games, dating all the way back to the Infante Era, the Packers have Detroit within the hallowed halls of Lambeau Field.
The dies have been cast. The Packers are the four-time Super Bowl champions, while the Lions are the ne'er-do-wells who haven't won a championship since the George Plimpton Era. The Packers are the perennial contenders, while the stigma of 0-16 will never completely be erased from the Lions faithful's memory.
But, as you look uneasily at the matchup promos, it seems disconcerting to see a record of 1-2 next to the Lions 3-1. Surely, the Packers must have been facing top-notch competition, while the Lions must have been facing patsies. How else can you explain it?
Sam Shields declared this game a "must-win", an unusual show of drama very early in the season. The added dimension of running back Reggie Bush, who seems to have been a great fit into the Lions offense, may be throwing the Packers' locker room into a level of concern. The question has quietly been asked all week: "What does it mean if the Packers lose?"
For one, it will put the Pack clearly behind the 8-ball both in the conference and the division, at 1-3 looking up at a 4-1 team with a tiebreaker advantage (as well as the possibility of the Bears several games ahead, also). It's a long season, but no one wants to have to beat those odds to make the playoffs.
But, perhaps more importantly, the Packers don't want to lose the long-term advantage they've had over their division rivals for a very, very long time.
After Lombardi departed Titletown following Super Bowl II, the Packers was entreated what can be called the 24 Years of Darkness. Until the Green Bay opened the coffers and hired Mike Holmgren in 1992, the Packers were nothing more than a punch line to the rest of the division and the NFL. In that time, Minnesota appeared in four Super Bowls. Chicago won one in 1985. The Packers were the ne'er-do-wells for a long, long time....the presumptive win twice a season for the Vikings, Lions, and Bears.
In those years, an 8-8 season would be considered a smashing success for the Packers. The expectations were low, and disappointment was an annual way to end the year. But, think what has happened since the day Mike Holmgren came onto the scene: two Super Bowl championships and fifteen playoff appearances. Quite literally, an 8-8 season can lead to a head coach being fired, as happened in 1999.
The Packers have led a charmed 21 years, seemingly always in the mix for contention and always, always having an advantage over their division rivals, who usually spend their time fighting over their relative consolation prizes, much like runner-ups in the Miss America Pageant.
The domination, the swagger, the feeling of owning the division year after year has become the expectation. Yet, just as a team must eventually bring 24 years of futility to an end, it holds true that, someday, the Packers' charmed and winning ways will eventually hit the skids.
When you can count on accruing at least four or five wins out of the division, however, that tends to keep you in the running, and the Packers have dominated their division rivals during the charmed years. It's placed the Bears, Lions, and Vikings often in the position of looking up at the Packers in the standings. At one time or another, all three teams have admitted to building teams designed not to win a championship, but to beat the Packers.
That's how big a road block the Packers have been for the last 21 years, and since the wins have been few and far between for the rest of the division, its been a huge mental advantage. When we have lined up against the divisional opponents, the Packers have viewed it as an important game on the way to bigger and better things. The Lions, Vikings, and Bears have usually viewed it as their trial of worthiness. Their Super Bowl. The hurdle they've never been able to clear.
And with that has come the familiar mental implosions that regularly dot the charmed years. How many times have we seen the Vikings desperately cling to Packer players, in an effort to capture a taste of winning, only to fail. Jay Cutler's mental and emotional breakdowns are almost a thing of regularity, as if losing to the Packers is just to much for him to process.
But the Lions? They are the poster children for imploding. Even if they're in the game, somehow, somewhere, Ndonkykong Suh will lose his temper and the whole team unravels. And the fans of Detroit are left to hope for better days next season, just as the Packer fans did in the dark days.
Today's game is a must-win, as Sam Shields has proclaimed. But the Lions have played their first four games with a different attitude, a feeling of being able to win. This game is as much a proving ground for them as it is for the 1-3 Packers. While they've still looked sloppy at times, and Matt Stafford doesn't quite appear ready to be joining the elite quarterback club anytime soon, its not just a matter of pure talent versus pure talent.
It's a matter of maintaining the mental advantage over the other teams in the division. And those teams are looking at the 1-2 Packers and sensing doubt.
They are smelling blood. The Packers may have many years left in their charmed years, but the first order of business in making it last that much longer is delivering the message to the Detroit Lions that they are still the team that can't win Lambeau Field.
Maybe someday. But not today.