The Detroit Lions losing on Thanksgiving has become about as much as an American tradition as turkey, pumpkin pie and parades. The team finally believes it has the talent to reverse that trend this season.
The task won't be easy, however, as entering the Motor City for Thursday's annual Turkey Day contest at Ford Field will be a powerful Green Bay Packers squad that hasn't tasted defeat in nearly a full calendar year.
The Packers come into this critical NFC North clash riding a franchise-record 16-game winning streak when counting last year's postseason and will be shooting for their first 11-0 start in club history. Green Bay, which also strung together 10 consecutive victories to begin the 1929 and 1962 seasons, kept its unblemished mark intact by posting a hard-fought 35-26 decision over a determined Tampa Bay team this past Sunday at Lambeau Field.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers once again led the charge by throwing for 299 yards and three touchdowns, including a game-sealing 40-yard connection to wide receiver Jordy Nelson with 2:55 left to play after the Buccaneers had pulled to within two points. In the process, the Super Bowl XLV Most Valuable Player became the first signal-caller in NFL annals to produce a passer rating over 110 in each of the season's first 10 games, and his 31 passing touchdowns are already a career best.
Rodgers has experienced few if any low points during his incredible 2011 campaign, but did have one in Green Bay's most recent visit to Ford Field, however. The leading MVP candidate was knocked out of the Packers' matchup with the Lions on Dec. 12 of last season with a concussion late in the first half.
Green Bay went on to lose that tilt by a 7-3 score, as well as the following week's game at New England with Matt Flynn playing in place of an ailing Rodgers before embarking on its current tear.
That result started a run of nine consecutive wins for Detroit that included its first five outings of this season. The Lions have gone just 2-3 since, but did manage to bounce back from a lopsided loss at division-rival Detroit in Week 10 with last Sunday's 49-35 comeback triumph over visiting Carolina.
Detroit roared back from a 24-7 deficit behind a career-high five touchdown passes from quarterback Matthew Stafford, with the 2009 No. 1 overall pick shaking off two early interceptions as well as four picks he threw in the Chicago game.
The Lions have now rallied to win three times this year when down by 17 points or more in a game, the first team since 1950 to accomplish that feat. Detroit outscored the Panthers by a 35-8 margin in the second half.
"We went out at halftime, started getting defensive stops, starting getting turnovers; offense was going, defense, special teams," said Detroit head coach Jim Schwartz. "We can get hot. We can get hot as anybody in the league and we saw that particularly in that third quarter."
Falling behind the potent Packers, the NFL's highest scoring team at 35.5 points per game, may make it difficult for the Lions to end their sequence of seven straight losses on Thanksgiving, which have come by an average score of 30-17. Detroit hasn't prevailed on the holiday since a 22-14 ousting of Green Bay in 2003.
The Packers have downed the Lions twice since on Thanksgiving, a 37-26 win in 2007 and a 34-12 rout in 2009.
Green Bay begins this week's play three games up on both Detroit and Chicago for first place in the NFC North and owns a one-game edge on streaking San Francisco in the race for the conference's No. 1 playoff seed.
The series between the Lions and Packers dates back to the 1930 season, with Green Bay holding an 89-65-7 regular-season advantage. The Packers have won 12 of the last 14 meetings between the storied foes and owned a 10-game winning streak in the series prior to the above-mentioned 7-3 upset loss at Ford Field last December, Detroit's first victory over Green Bay since a 17-3 home verdict in the 2005 season opener. The Packers edged the Lions by a 28-26 count at Lambeau Field during Week 4 of the 2010 campaign and had left with a win in four straight stops in the Motor City before last year's defeat.
The longtime rivals have squared off only twice during the postseason, with Green Bay winning a 1993 NFC First-Round Playoff matchup in Detroit and also besting the Lions in an opening-round game in Wisconsin the following year.
This will be the 20th all-time game on Thanksgiving Day involving the Lions and Packers, with the clubs having played consecutively on the holiday between 1951-63. Detroit owns an 11-7-1 edge, but the Packers have won four of their last five Turkey Day matchups with Detroit.
Packers head coach Mike McCarthy sports a 9-1 career record against Detroit, with last season's setback the lone blemish, while Schwartz is 1-3 against both McCarthy and Green Bay during his tenure with the Lions.
WHEN THE PACKERS HAVE THE BALL
A juggernaut Green Bay offense that has averaged a scorching 39.5 points over its last four games and has eclipsed the 40-point mark four times this year has been expertly operated by Rodgers (3168 passing yards, 31 TD, 4 INT), who's in the midst of one of the greatest statistical seasons a quarterback has ever delivered. The incredibly-precise triggerman leads the league in both touchdown passes and yards per attempt (9.6) while having completed an astounding 72.3 percent of his throws at the controls of the NFL's third-ranked aerial attack. He's flanked by five very good receivers in the Packers' pick-your-poison arsenal, with 2010 Pro Bowl participant Greg Jennings (53 receptions, 761 yards, 7 TD) and Nelson (40 receptions, 756 yards, 9 TD) the two most productive members of the group. Nelson has been particularly prolific as of late, with the fourth-year wideout coming off a season-best 123-yard, two- touchdown outburst on six catches last week and having hauled in five scoring strikes over the last three games, while 36-year-old Donald Driver (22 receptions, 1 TD) came through with a season-high 72 yards on four grabs against Tampa Bay. Jennings, a Michigan native, left last Sunday's win with a bruised knee but should be fine for this test, but top running back James Starks (541 rushing yards, 1 TD, 28 receptions) is a question mark after spraining his knee in the game. Green Bay does have a two-time 1,000-yard rusher in reserve in Ryan Grant (267 rushing yards, 8 receptions), though the veteran is a drop-off in terms of explosiveness.
Though Rodgers has obliterated every defense he's come across during his MVP- caliber season, the Lions may be the toughest one he's faced to date. Detroit has yielded the fifth-fewest passing yards (192.8 ypg) in the league and garnered 15 interceptions, tied for second-most in the NFL, and picked off Carolina rookie sensation Cam Newton four times a week ago. Chris Houston (45 tackles, 4 INT, 10 PD) has put together a very strong year at one corner and offseason pickup Eric Wright (44 tackles, 3 INT, 8 PD) has been solid on the opposite side, and the duo is backed by a terrific pass rush headed up by high- impact tackle Ndamukong Suh (30 tackles, 3 sacks). Ends Cliff Avril (22 tackles, 6 sacks) and Kyle Vanden Bosch (22 tackles, 6 sacks) have combined for 12 sacks and an impressive seven forced fumbles, a reason why the Lions also rank near the top in takeaways (23) this year. Depth at the position could be a bit thin, though, with key reserves Lawrence Jackson (22 tackles, 4.5 sacks) and Willie Young (11 tackles, 2 sacks) both dealing with injuries that caused them to miss last Sunday's win. Nickel back Aaron Berry (19 tackles, 6 PD) also sat out due to an allergic reaction, but is expected to be available in a game where the secondary will need all hands on deck. Detroit has not been good in stopping the run, surrendering nearly 135 yards per game (28th overall) on the ground for the year.
WHEN THE LIONS HAVE THE BALL
A Detroit offense that's third overall in scoring (30.1 ppg) and eighth in passing yards (272.4 ypg) has generally relied on the strong right arm of Stafford (2843 passing yards, 25 TD, 10 INT), who bounced back strongly from a rough showing against the Bears in Week 10 by shredding a porous Carolina defense for 335 yards and five scores while showing no ill effects from a broken right finger. The Lions also get uncharacteristic balance in the victory, with running back Kevin Smith (159 rushing yards, 6 receptions, 3 total TD) -- re-signed off the street earlier this month -- erupted for a career-best 201 yards from scrimmage (140 rushing, 61 receiving) and three touchdowns as the club's new primary ball carrier. He'll hold down that role again this week with second-year speedster Jahvid Best still sidelined with symptoms from a concussion sustained back in mid-October. Stafford will have his go-to receiver available, however, with big-play wideout Calvin Johnson (59 receptions, 974 yards) looking to add to his league-leading total of 11 touchdown catches while vying for a sixth 100-yard receiving effort of the season. Tight end Brandon Pettigrew (50 receptions, 3 TD) has served as a sound secondary outlet for Stafford, while veteran wide receiver Nate Burleson (41 receptions, 2 TD) and No. 2 tight end Tony Scheffler (14 receptions, 5 TD) have each come on of late. Burleson has totaled 15 catches and 146 yards over the past two weeks, while Scheffler has scored a touchdown in three consecutive contests.
Stafford will be attempting to bomb away on a Green Bay defense that's permitted the second-highest amount of passing yards (289.3 ypg) this season, though that ranking is a bit misleading when considering that opponents have been playing from behind against the Pack virtually all year long. The unit has come up with a league-best 19 interceptions, however, and fields one of the best ball-hawks in the business in playmaking cornerback Charles Woodson (44 tackles, 2 sacks, 5 INT), a six-time All-Pro and former NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Counterpart Tramon Williams (36 tackles, 4 INT, 10 PD) has snared four picks over the team's last three games working on the opposite side, while safeties Charlie Peprah (47 tackles, 4 INT, 7 PD) and Morgan Burnett (66 tackles, 1 sack, 3 INT) have been opportunistic players as well. The Packers have been more sporadic in effectively pressuring the quarterback, though the team does possess an elite pass-rusher in high-motor All-Pro Clay Matthews (30 tackles, 5 sacks) and fellow outside linebacker Erik Walden (33 tackles, 3 sacks) has notched two sacks in the past three weeks. Leading tackler Desmond Bishop (93 tackles, 5 sacks) is tied with Matthews for the club lead in sacks while along with talented nose tackle B.J. Raji (16 tackles, 2 sacks), anchors a run defense that's allowed a mediocre 4.7 yards per rush attempt for the year.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Rodgers. The Packers clearly wouldn't be in their enviable position if not for the week-to-week brilliance of their standout triggerman, who's near-flawless play has help mask some other deficiencies. This could be Rodgers' greatest challenge yet, however, as the Lions have not allowed an opposing quarterback to record a passer rating over 100 this season and own a pass rush that can certainly create problems, especially with Green Bay left tackle Chad Clifton still out with a hamstring injury.
The red zone. This game has all the makings of being both high-scoring and competitive, and the outcome may ultimately be decided by which offense executes better deep in enemy territory. Not surprisingly, the Packers are the best in the NFC at scoring touchdowns inside the red zone, but the Detroit defense has been one of the league's stingier groups when pinned down near its goal line. The Lions are a lackluster 48.4 percent in red-zone conversions on offense, and will likely need to fare better on Thursday to match Green Bay's firepower.
The Lions do have the personnel of competing with Green Bay in a potential shootout, but winning one depends on how successful they are in limiting mistakes. Stafford has thrown six interceptions over the last two weeks -- two more than Rodgers has had all season -- and another careless afternoon would surely spell doom for Detroit. The Lions also need to shore up their coverage on special teams after giving up both a punt and kickoff return touchdown in their past two games. The Packers do have a difference-making return man in rookie receiver Randall Cobb, who's taken back both a kickoff and punt for scores this year.
Since only one team in NFL history has made through a full 16-game schedule undefeated, odds are the Packers are going to slip up sometime in the coming weeks. And with a Detroit defense capable of taking Rodgers out of his comfort zone and spoiling his unbelievable run of excellence, not to mention an immense amount of motivation with the arrival of the reigning world champions into the Lions' den on a national stage, this could be that day. Green Bay has still been able to answer every challenge that's come it's way, however, and a team that reached the Super Bowl by winning three straight weeks on the road last season isn't going to be intimidated by either the hostile environment or the magnitude of the moment. Expect plenty of points from two offenses that can light up the scoreboard, and for the more reliable Packers to make one or two fewer mistakes than their hungry opponent that provides the difference.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Packers 34, Lions 31