DETROIT — The last time Aaron Rodgers and the Packers came to Detroit, they looked like anything but Super Bowl contenders.
Of course, the Green Bay quarterback has a perfectly valid explanation for why the Lions slowed him down.
“They gave me a concussion,” Rodgers said.
Rodgers recovered from that jarring December loss, leading the Packers to a Super Bowl title, but the way the Lions shut down their NFC North rivals still resonates. This trip to Detroit to face Ndamukong Suh on Thanksgiving could be the toughest remaining test of the regular season for the unbeaten Packers.
“Another game, another opportunity to get after another great team,” said Suh, Detroit’s imposing defensive tackle. “They’re a great offense, and one that’s very potent.”
It’s hard to imagine now, but the Packers were actually in danger of missing the playoffs after they lost 7-3 in Detroit last season. Rodgers left with a concussion toward the end of the second quarter, but Green Bay was sputtering even while he was in the game.
Rodgers missed the following week’s game, a loss to New England, but the Packers have won 16 straight since. Green Bay (10-0) hasn’t been held under 21 points this season, and Rodgers has thrown 31 touchdown passes with only four interceptions.
The Lions (7-3) face a daunting task if they’re going to end their seven-game Thanksgiving losing streak. The last time they won their traditional holiday game was in 2003, when they intercepted Brett Favre three times in a 22-14 victory over Green Bay.
“We want to make sure that the players understand the tradition of this game, its importance to the city, its place in the history of the National Football League,” Detroit coach Jim Schwartz said. “When you wake up downtown and they’re setting up for the parade, I mean, it’s not just a normal day. Thanksgiving in Detroit is different than other cities.”
This entire year has been different so far for the Lions. Their resurgence actually began with that victory over Green Bay, the start of a four-game winning streak to end last season. Detroit also won its first five games this season.
The Lions beat the Packers last year with third-string quarterback Drew Stanton. Now, starter Matthew Stafford is healthy. He’s started every game this season, throwing 25 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
Detroit had lost three of four and trailed 24-7 in the first half last weekend against Carolina, but Stafford rallied the Lions with five touchdown passes, and they won 49-35. Because of injuries, Stafford has faced Green Bay only once in his career, throwing four interceptions against the Packers in a 34-12 loss on Thanksgiving of 2009 — his rookie season.
“It’s special,” Stafford said. “It’s a challenge for us. It’s a challenge for Green Bay, everybody playing on Thanksgiving that played last Sunday. … It’s a special one for us. We’ve got the 10-0 Packers coming in.”
Green Bay can already think about locking up a playoff spot. In fact, the Packers can clinch one this week if they win and a couple other things break right. Coach Mike McCarthy says trying to extend this undefeated run is no burden.
“I don’t think you need to hide from it. We really keep it simple here and focus on winning games and just staying really in touch with the quality of play and work on performing better each week,” McCarthy said. “We feel great about being 10-0, but we don’t waste a whole lot of time talking about it, that’s for sure.”
Both the Lions and Packers have struggled to run the ball at times. Detroit’s Jahvid Best has been out with concussion problems, but Kevin Smith stepped in and ran for 140 yards last weekend. Green Bay running back James Starks has been dealing with knee and ankle issues.
But it takes more than an injury to a running back to halt these two offenses. Neither Rodgers nor Stafford was at full strength the last time Detroit and Green Bay met. It’s a different story this week.
“Being a sports fan growing up, you get used to watching the Lions on Thanksgiving and appreciate the fact that Thanksgiving reminds you of family, and knowing that you’re going to be able to be on TV in front of a large audience,” Rodgers said. “Personally, I have a lot of family watching, and that’s exciting.”