DETROIT – It was one of the more entertaining games of the 2011 season, but one that should have raised some red flags heading into the playoffs.
When Green Bay beat Detroit 45-41 in the regular-season finale, the two quarterbacks combined for 1,000 yards passing and the lead changed hands six times in the second half alone. Then the Lions were run off the field in New Orleans a week later, unable to overcome their porous defense. And Green Bay met a similar fate in its playoff opener against the New York Giants.
The Packers and Lions meet again Sunday at Ford Field in a much different situation. Detroit is in last place in the NFC North and facing a difficult schedule the rest of the way. Green Bay is banged-up and has its own work to do to wrap up a postseason spot.
"I really don't spend much time thinking about the past because every year is different. Every time we line up going into the season we always view ourselves as a different team," Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy said. "You prepare in the offseason and spend a lot of time on your division opponents and you usually play them in the first five or six weeks. Not playing the Lions now until Week 11 has been different for us."
The Packers (6-3) trail Chicago by a game in the NFC North. They've won 20 of their last 23 games against the Lions, including last season's sweep. Aaron Rodgers didn't even play in that regular-season finale. Backup Matt Flynn threw for 480 yards and six touchdowns, barely getting the best of Detroit's Matthew Stafford, who threw for 520 yards and five TDs.
The Lions (4-5) haven't been quite as explosive this season, and that's one reason they're at the bottom of the division. Stafford has thrown for only 11 touchdowns, and star receiver Calvin Johnson is struggling to reach the end zone.
But Detroit still has a chance to be heard from in the NFC playoff race. This weekend is the first of three straight home games for the Lions.
"It's going to be a very, very important stretch for us," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. "They're all important, but division games mean more."
Packers linebacker Clay Matthews will miss Sunday's game with a hamstring injury. After four straight wins, Green Bay had a much-needed open date last weekend, with receiver Greg Jennings and defensive back Charles Woodson also out with injuries.
Detroit has been weakened in the secondary seemingly all season, so Rodgers may have a chance to take advantage. It was ironic that the Green Bay star had no role in last season's high-scoring thriller between these teams, but he did throw for 307 yards and two touchdowns in the Packers' 27-15 win at Detroit on Thanksgiving.
That game became infamous because of Detroit defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh's ejection. Suh was later suspended for stomping on Green Bay offensive lineman Evan Dietrich-Smith. Dietrich-Smith said Suh called him to apologize a few days later.
Dietrich-Smith is now a big part of the Packers' offensive line, especially with left tackle Bryan Bulaga out for the rest of the season with a hip injury.
"We hold our own destiny in our hands," Dietrich-Smith said. "We've got to go out there and perform and it's going to come down to what we do as a team. We can't sit here and depend on everybody else to go out there and help us out. We've got to make sure we help ourselves out and get ourselves in the right position, as opposed to letting other teams dictate what might happen in the postseason."
After playing six of their first nine games on the road, the Lions are eager for a good performance in front of a friendly crowd, But Detroit hasn't been very sharp early in games this season: The Lions have trailed at halftime in every game but one.
If that happens again this weekend, a raucous crowd could quickly become an anxious one.
"Sometimes you're maybe pressing a little bit," Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said. "It's like trying to get a 3-point shooter to get hot early in the game. You know, if he's worried about the ball going in then it's probably not. So we've got to just go out and execute. One of the things is, even last week we had a good start to our drive (but we) got derailed with a penalty. Those are the things that stop your drives."
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