Lions throw away control of NFC North to set up critical Thanksgiving showdown with Pack

Eric Adelson
Yahoo Sports

That foreboding feeling is back at Ford Field.

The first-place Detroit Lions lost on a mistake by the immaculate receiver Calvin Johnson, a blow that must have hit that football-cursed city like a gut punch. A steady march toward the first division title in two decades has turned into what must seem to jaded fans like a two-loss tipping point into another heartbreaking ending.

If the sure-handed Megatron can fumble away a possible victory after Jim Schwartz coached a road win over the Pittsburgh Steelers into a narrow loss, what kind of horrors could Matt Flynn and the Green Bay Packers bring on Thanksgiving, a day the Lions haven't won on since 2003?

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The Lions have two competing storylines: one written by decades of disaster and one trying to be penned by a quarterback with enough moxie to turn a franchise around. They came together on Sunday as Matthew Stafford led the Lions on what looked to be another game-winning drive, this time against the lowly Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It appeared similar to what Stafford did in the Lions' last home game, when the quarterback called his own number and snuck the Lions to the last-second touchdown to beat the Dallas Cowboys. Detroit moved to 5-3 that Sunday and won the following week in Chicago. An NFC North banner looked to be in the grasp after injuries to Bears quarterback Jay Cutler and Green Bay MVP Aaron Rodgers.

Instead, Detroit blew a victory in Pittsburgh thanks in part to Schwartz's decision to go for a fake field goal with a fourth-quarter lead. Then on Sunday the Lions scuffled their way to a 17-14 fourth-quarter deficit. Stafford had a chance at another thrilling ending when his pass found Johnson near the goal line with less than a minute remaining in the game. That's when the improbable happened: the Lions' best player mishandled the ball and rookie cornerback Johnthan Banks grabbed the interception to clinch the game.

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"It's just a bang-bang [play]," Johnson told reporters after the game. "I wanted to turn up, get upfield, and as soon as I did, the dude was right there. He got a good hit on me and the ball is in my hands. I don't know if he got his hands on the ball or whatever, but it just came out."

Detroit lost at home to a two-win Tampa team with no Darrelle Revis, no Doug Martin and rookie quarterback Mike Glennon.

Credible teams don't lose those games.

"We definitely need to have a team meeting," tailback Reggie Bush said. "Really dig deep inside and find out what we're made of. And it's going to take everyone on this team – the coaching staff, the players – to overcome this."

The Lions were bailed out by the St. Louis Rams, who beat up on the Bears, and the Minnesota Vikings, who tied the Packers at Lambeau, but all three teams have a strong shot at the division title. With the Carolina Panthers and Arizona Cardinals racing toward wild-card spots, Thursday's game looks like the biggest in two years for the Lions.

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Detroit fans don't need reminding about what happened the last time Green Bay came to town on the holiday. In 2011, star defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh stomped Packers center Evan Dietrich-Smith and got suspended. A sizzling start for the surprising Lions began to fizzle right then and there, and an unsightly Week 17 loss in Green Bay to Flynn portended the end. The Lions went to New Orleans in the first round of the playoffs instead of staying home, and they got torched. That gave way to an ugly 4-12 season last year.

Flynn got a huge payday in Seattle based on that game and couldn't produce … until he led the Packers back to a draw on Sunday against Minnesota. He looks to be the starter against the only team he's ever impressed against (unless Rodgers is healthy enough to play). A highly anticipated Thanksgiving in Detroit – a rarity in itself – is bringing feelings of nausea to some in the Motor City. A loss could land the Lions in third place, if the 6-5 Bears win next week.

It doesn't have to go that way. The Lions don't have to play in Fraud Field. That's the message Stafford and the Lions are trying to send. All the losing over the past half-century-plus doesn't have to happen with these players, who don't remember Eddie Murray missing a playoff game-winner in San Francisco in '83 or the Redskins obliterating Barry Sanders and company in the '92 NFC title game (and those were the good years). Stafford has shown the late-game guts the Lions have desperately needed, and Johnson is the team's most reliable, beloved and feared star since Sanders.

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There is hope, which is to the Lions' credit considering the 0-16 blight was only five years ago. Thanksgiving is a huge game, and a win would mean a rare and respectable 3-1 record against the Bears and Packers this season. The Lions aren't a Super Bowl contender no matter what happens Thursday – their defense isn't good enough – but a division title would be cause for celebration in a city largely consisting of fans who remember one playoff victory and fans who remember zero.

There's reason to turn up at Ford Field on Thursday. There is also, however, reason to turn away.

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