GREEN BAY – It was easy to take the Detroit Lions seriously the last time the Green Bay Packers played them.
Back then, a Week 6 game on Monday night, the Lions were conceivable NFC North contenders. They entered Lambeau Field with a winning record (2-1-1) coming off a bye week. Quarterback Matthew Stafford was still their quarterback, and he had 168 passing yards in the first quarter alone, including a 66-yard completion off a flea flicker on the game’s first play.
Those Lions played the Packers every bit as tough as their record would indicate. They jumped out to a 13-0 lead. If not for a pair of controversial illegal hands to the face penalties, the Lions might have handed the Packers their second loss in three weeks.
More than two months later, it’s almost impossible to see any similarities between the Lions team the Packers will face in their Week 17 finale compared to the opponent they hosted in the middle of October. The Lions have had another forgettable season, losing 11 of their past 12 games, including eight straight. Stafford, who hasn’t played since early November, was placed on injured reserve last week because of fractured bones in his back.
With a 3-11-1 record and undrafted rookie David Blough at quarterback, it now would seem quite difficult to take the Lions seriously. Which might explain why Packers coach Matt LaFleur put his team on notice Thursday as players arrived from their well-earned off day for Christmas.
“This is a playoff game for us,” LaFleur said. “There’s no doubt about it. That’s the way we’re approaching it. Because if you’re able to take care of business and win this one, you get a week off. Our guys have to understand that.”
The implications this week make for a big Packers finale, even if playing the Lions does not. If the Packers win, they are assured of no worse than the NFC’s second seed, and with it a first-round bye and a home game in the divisional round. If their win is joined by a Seattle Seahawks victory at home against the San Francisco 49ers, the Packers will be the NFC’s top overall seed.
It’s possible the Packers could secure a first-round bye with a loss, but it would be unlikely. The New Orleans Saints close their season at the reeling Carolina Panthers on Sunday in a game they’re expected to win. The Packers and Saints are both 12-3, but the Packers (9-2 in NFC) win the tiebreaker over the Saints (8-3) because of a better conference record.
A loss would also eliminate the Packers from contention for the top overall seed, and the home-field advantage throughout the postseason that accompanies it.
So while playing a moribund Lions team does not have the game-of-the-year vibe last week’s matchup at the Minnesota Vikings carried, the Packers know what’s at stake. Because of those implications, they know the Lions are not a team they can afford to overlook, no matter their record and deficiencies. All the Packers have to do is look at the reason they now have a legitimate chance at the No. 1 seed. Their path was created when the Seattle Seahawks stunningly lost at home to the Arizona Cardinals last week, an upset that would rival the Lions beating the Packers.
“I guarantee you” outside linebacker Preston Smith said, “nobody thought – looking at their record and everything – nobody thought Arizona was going to beat Seattle. Nobody in Vegas thought that, I’m pretty sure. But they came out there and they had a dominant performance and they beat Seattle.
“So we know this is a home game for (the Lions), this is a game they can do a lot, and those guys still have a lot to prove. Those guys still have a lot to play for. It’s not the playoffs, but they still have a lot to play for in terms of job security and taking care of their families. They’ve got to still go out there and play as hard as they can.”
The Packers have built-in challenges other than the Lions this week.
Coaches worked through Christmas, arriving at Lambeau Field around noon Wednesday, but players were given the holiday off. To accommodate the off day, LaFleur scheduled a pair of walkthroughs for Thursday. The Packers will have only one true practice this week, coming Friday morning.
LaFleur said Thursday’s first walkthrough was used to install the team’s base game plan. The second walkthrough focused on situational elements of the game, including third down, goal line and short yardage. Both were held inside the Don Hutson Center and closed to media.
“When you look at this week,” LaFleur said, “we’ve got a short week as it was playing on Monday, and how we laid out the schedule, it’s even shorter. So there’s a lot of information being thrown at these guys. It’s going to take an unbelievable concentration and focus in order to digest all this information and then go out and play good football.”
Still, that remains the unwavering expectation. No matter the obstacles preparing for this week’s game – imposed or not – the Packers will need to play like the playoffs are on the line.
Because if they aren’t, an extended postseason run might be.
“You’ve got to check yourself,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said, “and realize that we’re playing a team that, they’re still getting paid. There’s a lot of pride. I don’t know who’s going to play for them specifically, but it’s the NFL, you know. it’s important that we approach this game understanding how much we have to gain from winning.
“The great teams win these games. If we want to be that great team that gets an opportunity to be in the mix for the one seed, for sure gets a bye, gets a chance to relax for a week and get ready for an opponent, these are the kind of games you win.”