For the last decade, Detroit’s annual Thanksgiving Day game rarely received much national attention as the struggling Lions were largely irrelevant.
That is no longer the case.
Adding to the excitement, the Green Bay Packers arrive in the Motor City as the NFL’s lone undefeated team and the first unbeaten to play on Thanksgiving in nearly 50 years.
In one of the most anticipated games in Detroit in years, the Lions take the field Thursday against a Packers team still smarting a bit from last season’s loss at Ford Field.
Over the past three seasons, Detroit entered its nationally-televised Thanksgiving game with a combined record of 4-27. The Lions have lost seven straight on the holiday by an average of 22.9 points since beating Green Bay 22-14 in 2003. The Packers have contributed to two of the Lions’ defeats during that skid, beating them 37-26 in 2007 and 34-12 in 2009.
Detroit is no longer a pushover, however, arriving at Thanksgiving at 7-3 for the first time since 1993.
“From what it’s been in the past to now, it’s different,” said Detroit defensive lineman Corey Williams(notes), who played for the Packers from 2004-07. “For us to be doing as good as we’re doing right now, it’s real exciting. Then we’ve got Green Bay coming in - the big, 10-0 Green Bay.
“It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be like a mini-Super Bowl, I think, atmosphere-wise.”
The Packers arrive in Detroit riding a 16-game winning streak including last season’s Super Bowl run, and could clinch a playoff berth as soon as this weekend depending on other results. They are the first undefeated team to play on Thanksgiving since 1962, when Detroit handed Green Bay its only loss of a 13-1 championship season.
Although the Packers’ record is perfect, their performance in Sunday’s 35-26 win over Tampa Bay left plenty of room for improvement.
Green Bay’s defense again struggled, allowing 455 yards to a Tampa Bay team that had averaged 292.0 in its previous three contests, and leading rusher James Starks(notes) left in the fourth quarter with a knee injury.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy is uncertain if Starks will return with the short turnaround between games. His absence could be a big blow for Green Bay, which relies heavily on the ground game to wear down opponents late. Starks ranks second in the NFL with 229 rushing yards in the fourth quarter.
McCarthy believes last week’s relatively close call against the Buccaneers will work to his team’s advantage.
“I think it was great for us,” he said. “Adversity is awesome. We’re getting ready to play a big game on national TV on Thanksgiving, and adversity (offers) healthy situations to learn from. Especially when you overcome it.”
Green Bay also was faced with some adversity in its last trip to Detroit, but was unable to prevail.
“We were actually just watching that game, and we did not play well,” Green Bay right tackle Bryan Bulaga(notes) said. “Didn’t do anything well, really. It was just a poorly played game. That may be a nice way of putting it, too.”
The Packers could again have some trouble against a Detroit defense that ranks fifth in the NFL against the pass (192.8 yards per game) and is tied for eighth with 27 sacks.
“They’ve got as good a front four as you’re going to see and they rotate some guys in who can play as well, so it’s going to be important for us to control them when they’re just rushing four,” said Rodgers, who has a league-leading 31 touchdowns and just four interceptions.
Like the Packers, the Lions prevailed last week despite a somewhat shaky performance.
Against Carolina on Sunday, Detroit turned the ball over on its first three possessions and trailed 24-7 in the second quarter before rallying for a 49-35 victory. The Lions became the first NFL team to win three games in a season after trailing by at least 17 points, but coach Jim Schwartz knows they won’t be as fortunate if they turn the ball over to the Packers, the NFL’s highest scoring team (35.5 points per game).
“Against Green Bay, you can’t make the mistakes we did,” Schwartz said.
Matthew Stafford(notes) who had a four-interception performance in a Week 10 loss to Chicago, threw two more picks in the first quarter against the Panthers but recovered to pass for 335 yards and match a career high with five touchdowns.
Stafford, who missed both games against the Packers last season with right shoulder injuries, could be poised for another big game against a Green Bay pass defense that ranks 31st, allowing 289.3 yards per game.
Green Bay will have to deal with what will likely be a loud crowd at Ford Field, as Detroit fans are priming for the Lions’ first playoff berth since 1999.