By Jason Keidel
For a sport that trades on parity, on the notion that every game is essential, it’s fitting that the final game of the NFL season will decide the final playoff spot.
The Detroit Lions host the Green Bay Packers on Sunday night, and the winner will be crowned kings of the NFC North. Depending on earlier games, the loser may well toil in winter purgatory, watching the very party they were four quarters from joining.
Not only are they eternal divisional foes, with epic clashes dating back to Vince Lombardi and Bobby Lane, they both enter Sunday’s game at 9-6. But despite their identical records, it feels like they are going in inverted directions.
Indeed, the Packers are sizzling, winning six straight, while quarterback Aaron Rodgers is on a late-season crusade for NFL MVP. Perhaps he didn’t declare a midseason mantra, like his R-E-L-A-X monologue a couple years ago, but no QB has been more lethal than No. 12 the second-half of 2016.
Last week Rodgers put on a clinic on the Frozen Tundra, completing 28 of 38 passes for 347 yards, while scoring five touchdowns (four passing, one rushing). If that weren’t enough, Rodgers was the first QB this season to pass for over 300 yards on the Minnesota Vikings.
And with the reemergence of Jordy Nelson – who caught nine passes for 154 yards and two touchdowns last week – Green Bay, as usual, is getting hottest when the skies turn coldest.
There was even more midseason turmoil than usual in Green Bay, with pundits musing over Mike McCarthy’s ability to kickstart the offense and motivate his players. But not only have Rodgers & Co. silenced the cynics, the defense has come on, led by Clay Matthews, who has played through the pain of a brittle shoulder, haunting quarterbacks like he did five years ago, with his trademark blonde locks curling from the back of his helmet.
Detroit may be the home team, but it feels like that’s the only edge they have this week. After a 1-3 start, they won eight of their next nine games, darting out to 9-4. Matthew Stafford was in every barroom debate for league MVP, while head coach Jim Caldwell was a sleeper pick for Coach of the Year. For such a forlorn franchise, it was nice to see them revive their “Restore the Roar” battle cry. It’s hard to think of a team or a town that needed it more.
But the Lions have lost their last two games, and seem to look exponentially weaker with each one. After trading blows for 30 minutes with the Cowboys, the Lions seemed to simply run out of Roar, getting doubled up in Dallas, 42-21.
It’s hard to figure them out. Despite their current slide, the Lions had a streak of eight games in which they did not surrender more than 20 points, the best mark in the sport, until Dallas broke it. The Lions are a story in contrasts. When Calvin Johnson retired last season, the doomsday cliches landed on Motown. The offense was supposed to regress back to the wishbone. But instead, Stafford evolved, if not improved, finding more time (and passes) for Golden Tate and offseason acquisition Marvin Jones. In fact, there were three straight games during which TE Eric Ebron was the leading receiver.
You’ll be challenged to find an expert riding high on the Lions this weekend, despite the fact that they’re 6-1 inside Ford Field this year. If they were playing anyone but the Packers, perhaps there would be a little more momentum on Detroit’s side. Especially against Rodgers, who has made a demo reel against Detroit, including that Hail Mary pass, in Detroit, last year, which has to reach the archives as one of the greatest end-game passes in history. A play Rodgers himself says he’s cherished on YouTube more than once.
But given the bipolar nature of pro football, it shouldn’t shock you if the Lions somehow doused the sizzling Packers. Just don’t count on many folks betting on it.