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Detroit Lions, Packers fight for division supremacy: 'We kind of flourish' in games like this

The Detroit Lions were on the road to recovery long before they went to Lambeau Field for Game No. 272 last season.

Their defense turned a corner sometime last fall, when the five rookies that were playing heavy minutes on that side of the ball seemed to blossom overnight and Jared Goff started showing glimpses of the talent that once made him a No. 1 overall pick.

Still, there’s something about that Sunday night in January, when the Lions spoiled the Green Bay Packers’ playoff hopes and ushered Aaron Rodgers out of the division, that still resonates nine months later.

“That’s a good win,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said this week. “On the road, division opponent, and if you can’t get in (the playoffs), that’s the way you got to end it. You win some games and you find a little bit of a flow and it’s just, it’s always good to win on the road, especially in this division.

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Jared Goff greets Detroit Lions fans after defeating the Green Bay Packers, 20-16, at Lambeau Field on January 8, 2023 in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
Jared Goff greets Detroit Lions fans after defeating the Green Bay Packers, 20-16, at Lambeau Field on January 8, 2023 in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

“But I think that’s the extent of it and now it’s a new season. We know we can win out there, we’ve done it before, but you got to go earn it. It’s not going to be given. It’ll be loud, it’ll be a tough environment, they’re playing good, so here we go.”

The Lions and Packers meet Thursday night for the first time since their memorable 2022 regular season finale, when the Lions capped a season sweep of the NFC North’s longtime standard-bearer with a 20-16 win.

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Lions fans flooded Lambeau Field that day and haven’t hopped off the hype train since.

Buoyed by a strong draft and smart additions in free agency, the Lions entered this season as favorites to win their first division title in 30 years. They knocked off the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs in Week 1 and, after a Week 2 stumble against the Seattle Seahawks, improved to 2-1 with a win Sunday over the Atlanta Falcons at Ford Field.

The Packers, thanks to wins over the Chicago Bears and New Orleans Saints, are tied for first place in the division, and many in Detroit think this game is circled on their calendars.

“Maybe,” Goff said. “Yeah, they’re probably saying that over there. I don’t know. For us it’s, again, it’s a road division game and would be one that we’d like to win.”

As pivotal as last year’s game seems to sending the Lions and Packers down their current paths, the reality is both teams are vastly different than the ones that met 263 days ago.

Jordan Love, a 2020 first-round pick, finally succeeded Rodgers as Packers quarterback and has been a mixed bag through three starts. He has the second-worst completion percentage (53.1%) in the league, behind Zach Wilson, and has led one first-half touchdown drive this season, but he rallied Green Bay for a 17-point fourth quarter comeback against the Saints and has done a good job taking care of the ball (seven touchdowns, one interception) despite not having top receiver Christian Watson or top running back Aaron Jones most of the season.

Both Watson and Jones could return Thursday.

“He kind of plays similar to (Rodgers),” Lions linebacker Alex Anzalone said. “Obviously, he’s not him, but you see him make some like fade-away throws over the middle. I saw a couple on film like that. You could tell that he learned from him. You could tell that he rubbed off.”

The Lions return 17 starters from their Week 18 win over the Packers last season, but a half dozen of those players have been reduced to backup roles or won’t play Thursday because of injuries.

The Lions overhauled their secondary this offseason, with free agent addition Cam Sutton and rookie Brian Branch joining Jerry Jacobs as starting cornerbacks, and their offense relies heavily on new faces David Montgomery, Jahmyr Gibbs and Sam LaPorta.

Green Bay Packers quarterback Jordan Love is pressured by New Orleans Saints linebacker Demario Davis during the first quarter Sunday, September 24, 2023, at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis.
Green Bay Packers quarterback Jordan Love is pressured by New Orleans Saints linebacker Demario Davis during the first quarter Sunday, September 24, 2023, at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis.

“I know the challenge we have in front of us,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur told the Green Bay Press Gazette. “We’ve got a team that we’ve lost to three consecutive times that knocked us out of the playoffs last year. It’s an NFC North rival. I know what they’re all about. It’s a tough, gritty team, and we’ve got to make sure that we prepare to the best of our ability to give ourselves a chance to go out there and win.”

For all the changes the Lions have made since last January, longtime left tackle Taylor Decker said one thing that hasn’t is the team’s unflinching approach to big games and finally being in the spotlight, which is exactly where they’ll be playing for first place in a hostile environment Thursday night.

“Very similar to the season opener this year and the season finale last year, we just kind of relish those opportunities to be able to go and play primetime games in awesome atmospheres, even if they’re hostile to us,” Decker said. “I feel like we kind of flourish in those environments so ultimately it’s just going to come down to can we go do it again.”

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

Next up: Packers

Matchup: Lions (2-1) at Green Bay (2-1).

Kickoff: 8:15 p.m. Thursday; Lambeau Field, Green Bay, Wisconsin.

TV/radio: Amazon Prime (Simulcast Channel 2 in Detroit); WXYT-FM (97.1).

Line: Lions by 1½.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Stakes high for Detroit Lions, Packers in rematch of 2022 finale