The last two games the Packers played on Thanksgiving in Detroit, in 2007 and ’09, were characterized by slow-arriving crowds, numerous empty seats, and very little charge to the atmosphere once the Lions surrendered early leads.
Count on something a little different on Thursday. This year’s Packers-Lions Thanksgiving showdown might be the biggest Lions game to date in the short history of Ford Field, which has never seen the Lions finish with a winning record nor qualify for the playoffs since opening in 2002.
“They won’t have any empty seats this time,” Packers fullback John Kuhn said.
No, they won’t. Not with the Packers 10-0 – just like they were on Thanksgiving in 1962, when they lost their only game of the season in Detroit – and the Lions 7-3. Green Bay can take a four-game lead on Detroit in the NFC North with five games to play, or the Lions can pull within two games of the Packers, knowing they still have one more shot at them on Jan. 1. The stakes are significant, and the din will reflect it.
“I think everyone’s expecting a pretty crazy environment,” right tackle Bryan Bulaga said. “It’s going to be loud. It’s going to be intense in there.”
Without question, the volume and intensity will matter most when the Packers have the ball on third downs.
The Green Bay offense ranks second in the league on third down, converting 51.2 percent of the time, behind only New Orleans (53.3). Meanwhile, the Detroit defense ranks first on third down, holding opponents to a 28.6-percent conversion rate, the only defense under 30.
Something’s got to give, and it will give one way or the other with the noise at its most ear-splitting levels.
“Some people call the NFL a third-down league, and rightfully so,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. “Third down is a bigger challenge, especially playing on the road in that noise, and it will be no different for us on defense. It’s a critical down.”
This critical game is loaded with offensive star power, which should entertain a national television audience. Quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford are among the league’s elite. So are receivers Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson and Calvin Johnson, as well as tight ends Jermichael Finley and Brandon Pettigrew.
In matchups like this, sometimes it’s the least likely suspects that make the more prominent impact.
Green Bay receiver Donald Driver’s two biggest games over the past four-plus seasons have come on Thanksgiving in Detroit, with 147 yards in ’07 and 142 yards in ’09. Taking a back seat this year to the big-play guys at his position, Driver is coming off his most productive game of the season, catching four passes for 72 yards last week against Tampa Bay.
There’s also the Packers’ Randall Cobb, who has returned a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns in prime-time games this season. Over the last two weeks, the Lions have surrendered a punt-return for a touchdown to Chicago and a kickoff-return for a score to Carolina, while Cobb has posted punt-returns of 80 and 55 yards in his last two games.
“As a returner, he’s getting more comfortable in the scheme,” Special Teams Coordinator Shawn Slocum said of Cobb. “He is getting acclimated to the blockers in front of him, and vice versa. I think the blockers are feeling his running style, and our punt-return game is starting to mesh.”
The Packers are hoping for the same from their offensive line, which spent part of the week re-living on film their worst performance of last season, at Ford Field.
The Lions’ front four controlled the line of scrimmage and, as a result, the game, holding Green Bay’s running backs to 31 yards on 15 carries and posting four sacks. Rodgers was knocked from the game with a concussion following a scramble on which he didn’t slide soon enough, and backup Matt Flynn didn’t fare much better against the Lions’ disruptive front as the Packers fell, 7-3, the only time in their last 66 games they haven’t scored more than once.
“It hurts, man, it does, being an O-lineman,” said guard T.J. Lang, who had entered that game as an injury substitute. “You never want to see your quarterback go through that. We watched the film (Monday) from the game last year, and there was definitely a dirty taste in our mouth leaving that room.”
The taste of victory wasn’t all that sweet last week, either. The Packers beat the Buccaneers but weren’t thrilled with their overall play. The crisp, dominant performance from the previous game against the Vikings wasn’t repeated.
So both last year and last week are serving as historical backdrops for the Packers as they embark on preventing this game from becoming historical for their opponents, as the much-talked-about ’62 Thanksgiving game did for the Lions.
“We know where we were then (last year at Detroit), and we know where we are today,” Offensive Coordinator Joe Philbin said. “We have to elevate our game from Week 11 of the 2011 season. We want to continue to improve, and Thursday is another step in that journey.”
Starks questionable: Running back James Starks (knee, ankle) is listed as questionable on the injury report for Thursday’s game. McCarthy said whether or not he would play will be a game-time decision, but he won’t be on a snap count if he’s active.
“If James Starks goes tomorrow, he’s playing,” McCarthy said after Wednesday's practice, shortly before the team headed for the airport to fly to Detroit. “We’re not going to put players in the game that can only go so much. Ryan Grant is ready to go, Brandon (Saine) is ready to go, so we’ll be fine either way. If James can go, he’s going to be part of the rotation.”
Other than tackle Chad Clifton, everyone else on the Green Bay injury report is probable. That includes outside linebacker Frank Zombo, who has missed the last two games with a hamstring injury and has played in only two games all season due to various injuries.
McCarthy said Zombo is ready to play and is under consideration for the 46-man active gameday roster. Additional coverage - Nov. 23