Published December 06, 2012
GREEN BAY, Wis. – The bad old days are back in Detroit.
The last time the Lions visited Lambeau Field, they were headed for the playoffs for the first time in a decade, and the combination of Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson, Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley made it seem it wouldn't be a one-time thing. But the Lions took a surprising step backward this season, and come to Green Bay for Sunday night's game essentially playing out the string, just as they did for so many years before.
"I think winning is contagious. Last year, it was contagious, and we got hot and had a lot of confidence, and we were just able to pull it off," Detroit offensive lineman Rob Sims said. "I think the confidence is still there, but it's just not happening for us like it was last year."
Detroit has lost four straight, the last three by a total of nine points. At 4-8, the Lions would have to win out just to finish the year at .500. That's going to be tough — especially considering they haven't won a game in Wisconsin in 21 years.
Green Bay's 21-game home winning streak against the Lions is the NFL's longest, and goes back so long the Packers (8-4) were still playing some of their games in Milwaukee when it began.
"It's one of those things, we've been able to squeak out some victories," Aaron Rodgers said. "It hasn't all been pretty, I know that. ... It's always really competitive games and, for whatever reason, we've come out on the right side of the last 20 or so."
The Lions aren't coming out on the right side of anything these days.
The Packers scored twice in the last two minutes of the game to beat the Lions three weeks ago. Then Detroit lost a heartbreaker in overtime to the Texans on Thanksgiving; officials awarded Houston a third-quarter touchdown because Lions coach Jim Schwartz tried to challenge a scoring play, then the Texans kicked a field goal in overtime. Last week's loss to the Colts was equally excruciating, with rookie Andrew Luck throwing a touchdown pass as time expired.
Detroit is the first team to lose three straight games when leading with 2 minutes left in regulation since San Diego did it in 2000, according to STATS LLC, and the first since at least 1983 to blow leads that late in three home games in a row.
"There's no lack of effort, there's no lack of desire to win football games," Stafford said. "We just haven't gotten it done for whatever reason."
It's certainly not lack of talent.
With 1,428 yards receiving, Johnson is on target to break Jerry Rice's single-season NFL record of 1,848 yards. Stafford leads the NFL in yards passing (3,742) and is second in completions. And Detroit's defensive line has been downright nasty. Suh, Fairley and fellow defensive tackles Corey Williams and Sammie Hill have more negative plays — a good thing for a defensive player — than any other group of DTs in the NFL with 30, and are tied for the most sacks with 12.
Suh ranks third among all DTs with 5 1-2 sacks, while Fairley is tied for fifth with 4 1-2 sacks. Two of Fairley's sacks were of Rodgers in last month's game.
"It's a great team," Rodgers insisted. "It's a very well-coached team, they've got one of the top quarterbacks in the league, probably the top receiver — he's playing like it, especially of late. They've got a real solid defense, they can get after you in a number of ways."
But they can't win.
Last year's 10-6 finish was Detroit's first winning season in 10 years. It was the first year with double-digit wins since 1995, when Barry Sanders was in the backfield.
"To keep coming up short in the end, it's just hard," Sims said. "Real hard."
It won't get easier this week, and not simply because of their stretch of futility when they cross the border.
Like the Lions, who lost Ryan Broyles to a torn ACL last week, the Packers have been hit hard by injury. But they've managed to plug the holes well enough to win six of seven after starting the season 2-3, and are beginning to get some of their big names back. Greg Jennings returned for last week's victory against Minnesota, DB Sam Shields is expected back and secondary leader Charles Woodson has been practicing this week.
Though running back James Starks is expected to miss the game with a knee injury, the Packers brought back veteran Ryan Grant this week and it's as if he never left.
"He came in and did a walk-through in no-huddle and didn't miss a beat," running backs coach Alex Van Pelt said.
And there is something about their division rivals that brings out the best in the Packers. They have won 10 straight against the NFC North, the NFL's longest divisional winning streak. They've also won 12 of their last 13 against the Lions.
But streaks have to end sometime. Just look at Detroit last year.
"They've got a good team, man. They've lost a lot of close games," James Jones said. "We know we're going to get their best shot. They wouldn't want nothing better than to knock the Packers off and try to make a difference in the playoffs. So we know it's going to be a tough game."
AP Sports Writers Larry Lage and Noah Trister in Allen Park, Mich., contributed to this story
Online: http://pro32.ap.org/poll and http://twitter.com/AP_NFL