GREEN BAY, Wis. — It was supposed to be a test. A barometer of sorts.
Because after all, this was Lambeau Field, a house of horrors for the Detroit Lions for so many years — OK, decades — where dreams and hope had so often come to die.
And yet the Lions seemed unfazed by the weight of history or the mounting expectations or the glare of the game’s brightest lights on Thursday night.
They not only embraced the moment but they reveled in it. The Lions toyed with the outmatched Packers, barely letting them off the canvas just long enough to drag them around precious Lambeau by their hair during a thorough 34-20 victory before 78,052 fans.
Four straight wins over the Packers? Two in prime time in their house? Is this really the same franchise that as recently as 2015 ended a 24-game road losing streak to the Packers that dated back to 1991?
Yes, it is.
And no, it isn’t.
Something has happened to this team. It officially turned a corner Thursday night somewhere along Lombardi Avenue and arrived at an inflection point. The Lions are 3-1, leaders of the NFC North, and carry within themselves the expectation to win these kinds of games.
The proof of that could be found in the Lions’ relatively subdued locker room. I was in the same Lambeau locker room in January after they beat the Packers, kept them out of the playoffs and capped a 9-8 season with an 8-2 finish. It was jubilant then, but on Thursday it felt like a typical winning locker room. Happy but not exactly ecstatic.
“This is our expectation, to go out and win every single game that we play,” left tackle Taylor Decker said. “And it's taken awhile to build to that point, but I mean, that's the expectation for this team.
“We’ve got a good football team. We have good players. We have guys that care about each other. The whole culture and everything is 100% real and authentic and guys have bought into it and believe it.”
Now the Lions head into uncharted territory as a 3-1 team, a division leader that looks like it belongs among the NFC’s best. How might the Lions respond to their new station near the top of the conference standings?
“We have to come back after these players get these days off here,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said, “and we have to refocus and go back to work just like we have done the last couple of weeks here. Recenter our focus and understand.
“And I just keep making this point that, man, nothing is given in this league. There are no handouts. You have to go take it and you have to earn it. You should assume that every game is going to come down to the wire and that every play matters. We have done that the last two weeks collectively as a group and as long as we continue to do that, no matter what, we will always have a chance to win.”
Actually, it’s more than a chance. The way the Lions played, they made a very motivated Packers team look subpar. They played the definition of complementary football — 211 rushing yards to go with two interceptions and five sacks — and steamrolled a team that traditionally has done all the flattening.
This was the first division game of the Lions’ season. But it was also expected to be their toughest test. And they passed it the way Stephen Hawking might pass a first-grade math quiz. So who’s left? The Vikings are 0-3 with a porous defense and the Bears might be the NFL’s worst team.
So I’m going to say this plainly. The Lions will win the NFC North. Probably handily.
Because it all started here on Thursday night for the Lions and the thousands of fans who invaded Lambeau the way Bears fans used to take over Ford Field. It was a sea of Honolulu Blue behind the Lions’ bench, with fans and players riding the wave together. Because winning hasn’t always come easy here, the longest-tenured player on the roster knows what a victory like this means.
“It's cool for Lions fans to be able to go to work at the water cooler and talk shit to their friends about their team,” Decker said. “Because you hear fans will say us and we, and they believe that, and they're passionate about that.”
So go ahead and corner that coworker. You know the one. That Bears or Vikings fan. Maybe one of those traitors from the Upper Peninsula who flaunts his green and gold. Defrock them. Defrock them all. The Lions hold the NFC North lead, and they probably aren’t giving it up.
Contact Carlos Monarrez: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Lions will win NFC North after steamrolling Packers