Lions find themselves in unusual position on Thanksgiving: first place in NFC North
In Herman Moore's rookie season of 1991, the Detroit Lions finished 12-4, won the NFC Central and routed the Dallas Cowboys in the divisional round.
A few months later, they drafted three-time Pro Bowler Robert Porcher and the franchise's eventual all-time leading scorer, Jason Hanson. They won the division again in 1993 and, despite dropping a postseason heartbreaker to Brett Favre and the Packers, seemed to have everything in place to be a legitimate Super Bowl contender for the next several seasons.
The Lions have not won their division -- or a playoff game -- since.
"I was young and won’t even go as much as to say I was naive, [but] I was very optimistic that we would be a team of the '90s and beyond that would endure success," said Moore, who now serves as an analyst for the Lions. "We had some really good draft classes for the most part and had a good core of young talent. I thought we definitely were on the upside of things.
"If you look at the Cowboys, Packers, teams of that era, we had pretty good runs against them ... but they went on to win Super Bowls."
The opportunities like the one Detroit has Thursday have been rare indeed. The Lions will head into their annual Thanksgiving Day game tied for first in the NFC North, with a tiebreaker edge on Chicago and a half-game lead on 5-5-1 Green Bay.
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Is this the most important Lions game of the past 10 years? 15? Longer?
"Obviously, the Thanksgiving game is a big thing for Detroit and for the organization and we just want to come out and perform well," linebacker DeAndre Levy said.
No one in the Lions' locker room will admit to this being a make-or-break game for the season, but that's the reality. Another holiday loss -- which would be Detroit's 10th straight on Thanksgiving -- would drop the Lions out of the top spot in the division, with Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler almost ready to return for the Packers and Bears, respectively.
"We always talk about division opponents and NFC North and how you can count two in games like that," said Lions coach Jim Schwartz, referencing the swing in the standings these head-to-head matchups bring. "It's a team that's right there in contention. We need to play our best and we need to come out with a win. We have lost two in a row and we need to right that. There's no better opportunity than Thanksgiving Day at Ford Field."
There was a time, mainly during Moore's playing days, that the Lions' annual Thanksgiving Day appearance was more than background distraction for rowdy (if slightly awkward) family gatherings. Starting with a win over the Browns in 1989, Detroit took home victories in nine of 12 Thanksgiving games. Come hell or high water, the Lions could be counted on to deliver a stalwart showing while a national TV audience stuffed its face.
"People used to call it our Super Bowl," Moore said, "because we couldn’t go that far [in the playoffs]. But that Thanksgiving game ... we owned it.
"The way we’ve played the past eight, nine years, it's lost its luster."
Detroit's last Thanksgiving victory actually came against Green Bay, way back in 2003. Indianapolis hammered the hapless Lions by 32 the next year, embarking Detroit on a nine-game winless skid. Snapping that drought Thursday could be the difference between the franchise's first division crown since '93 and another fruitless season.
Of course, the Packers have just as much to play for -- plus the confidence that comes with having owned this rivalry.
"Everything is in front of us right now," Packers linebacker Clay Matthews said. "You've gotta have fun each and every game, but it's on Thanksgiving. Only a few teams have an opportunity to do this."
On paper, the Lions dodging an injured Rodgers for Matt Flynn should tip the scales toward the Motor City. It's no secret, though, that Flynn's crowning NFL achievement came against Detroit: 480 yards and six touchdowns in a Week 17 win two seasons ago. Not to mention that during Detroit's ongoing Thanksgiving slump, it has lost to quarterbacks like, oh, Joey Harrington.
Heck, losing to Flynn and the Packers would not even be as typically Lions as bumbling away last Sunday's game against Tampa Bay.
If nothing else, Green Bay is used to playing under a bright spotlight with the stakes raised. The Lions' chances to do the same have been few and far between. That is, aside from their yearly spot as the starter for football's Thanksgiving Day feast.
And for the first Thanksgiving in a very, very long time, Detroit actually has something to play for beyond pride.
"When we played, expectations were higher because we were expected to be competing for [a] division championship, so we expected to be competitive on Thanksgiving," Moore said. "With these guys, there’s been a struggle to break even and have something to play for in the postseason. It's understandable they haven't played as well on Thanksgiving because they haven't had a lot at stake." At least for this season, that's no longer the case.