On Dec. 18, 1988, the Green Bay Packers took the field to play the Phoenix Cardinals (yes, they weren't always the Arizona Cardinals) at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Ariz., knowing exactly what their fate was. The two teams in competition with Green Bay for the top three picks of the draft, Dallas and Detroit, lost earlier in the day. So the Lions now stood at 4-12 and Dallas at 3-13.
Green Bay, 3-12, took the field knowing if they lost, they'd be tied with Dallas for the worst record in the league. But because the Pack would own the draft tiebreaker -- their foes would have a lower winning percentage than the Cowboys' -- a loss in Tempe to the 7-8 Cards would hand the Packers the first pick in the 1989 draft ... and mean Green Bay, in need of a long-term quarterback with Don Majkowski starting, would almost certain pick UCLA quarterback Troy Aikman. The Cowboys already were drooling over Aikman.
The Packers couldn't even lose right. Ron Pitts, then Green Bay's return man and now FOX analyst, returned a first-quarter punt 63 yards for a touchdown to start the scoring. Clint Didier, the former Redskin tight end, finished the scoring with a TD catch from Majkowski, and the Pack won, 26-17.
The Packers lost the number one pick. The top five picks in the draft the following spring:
1. Dallas, Troy Aikman, QB, UCLA2. Green Bay, Tony Mandarich, T, Michigan State3. Detroit, Barry Sanders, RB, Oklahoma State4. Kansas City, Derrick Thomas, LB, Alabama5. Atlanta, Deion Sanders, CB, Florida State
Five picks. Four Hall of Famers and Mandarich, one of the biggest busts in draft history.
Imagine how history would have been changed if the Packers just did what they should have done that day in Tempe and lost. Aikman a Packer. Barry Sanders, most likely, a Cowboy. And who knows what happens with the rest of the draft. But think further. With Aikman, the Packers likely wouldn't have been the pathetic team that hired Ron Wolf late in 1991 to be the GM. And Mike Holmgren likely wouldn't have been hired. And surely Brett Favre wouldn't have arrived in trade early in 1992.
"Wow,'' Jacksonville interim coach Mel Tucker Thursday afternoon. "Amazing. I never knew that. That makes you think."
Most amazing about the whole story is what would have happened to Favre. Wolf loved him. The first thing he did after hiring Holmgren was trade for Favre. At the time, the Falcons were fed up with their 1991 second-rounder. He'd ballooned to 248 pounds after a rookie season on the bench and out on the town. Is it possible that he'd have stayed on the bench behind Chris Miller and Billy Joe Tolliver, and maybe a couple of years later behind Bobby Hebert when he was acquired ... or would Jerry Glanville and offensive coordinator June Jones have given Favre a shot at some point to win the starting job?
So here we are, 23 years later, with three teams vying for position in the top three of the 2012 draft ... with as much or more at stake than there was back then.
And with no one playing the games Sunday seeming to care.
If the Colts (2-13) lose at 4-11 Jacksonville Sunday, Indianapolis will hold the first pick in April's draft, with a franchise-changer, Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, the likely number one pick. If the Colts win and the Rams (3-12) lose at home to the 12-3 Niners, the Rams get the number one pick. If the Colts and Rams both win, Indianapolis gets the top pick.
That makes the Indianapolis-Jacksonville game this week's Long-Term, Historic Game of the Week.
"I have not heard one mention of anything about the number one pick all week, except when I talk to the media,'' Tucker said from his office after Thursday's Jaguars practice.
I asked Tucker if GM Gene Smith or owner Shad Khan has mentioned anything to him this week about who to play, or how to approach this game ... my inference being that the Jags, in the same division as Indy, wouldn't want the Colts to be in position to draft another superb quarterback prospect.
"Absolutely not,'' he said. "Unequivocally not.''
In fact, Tucker said he'd just presided over a particularly spirited practice. "A hard practice, a tough practice, with players getting their assignments right,'' he said. "These guys will go out and play hard and play well Sunday. If I told them the game was in a parking lot, they'd go play in the parking lot. They want to play. They love to play.''
Now for the Colts. I tried to reach coach Jim Caldwell, but he was not made available to me. So I called Vice Chairman Bill Polian. He said he has "no conversations whatsoever'' with Caldwell about who to play, or how to play this game, in order to somehow pull out a loss at Jacksonville.
"I am proud to be part of an organization and part of a league where players and coaches give 100 percent effort in every game,'' Polian said. "Maybe that's why we're such a popular sport.''
I've been opposed to the NFL putting in a draft lottery, like the NBA, because I've never heard a credible account of a team tanking late in the year to improve its draft standing. Said Polian: "From what I've read there have been egregious and grievous violations in terms of the effort teams gave in the NBA, which I guess led to the league adopting a lottery. But there's never been a case of the NFL that I know of, and I can assure its' not going to start Sunday in Jacksonville.''
I told Polian fans want to know why. Why wouldn't the Colts even consider playing backups, or altering the game plan to not play their best game, if the reward was the most valuable draft choice in the NFL in years -- maybe decades?
"How can you build an organization with a culture of winning and look players in the eye and tell them to give their best effort every day but this one?'' Polian said. "And I'll remind you it was about 13 years ago, maybe midway through the  season when Ryan Leaf and Peyton Manning were rookies, that Leaf was the second coming and Peyton was the bust. In other words, like Brian Billick says, 'Nobody knows anything about the draft.' I'm in the middle of scouting this year's prospects, and I can tell you I don't know anything -- yet.''
Now for the rank-and-file.
Maurice Jones-Drew, who is a football fan and a bit of a historian, has two bits of motivation Sunday. He hates the Colts; they passed on him to draft Joseph Addai in the first round in 2006, and he's been determined to make them pay for it every time they play. And he's playing for his first rushing title. (Jones-Drew enters Sunday with a 128-yard lead on LeSean McCoy.) If you don't think that means something to him, you don't know Maurice Jones-Drew. That plus he wants his offensive line -- "They get no credit whatsoever, and I want them to get the attention for being the great players they are,'' he said -- to hear the applause that the lines of rushing champs get.
"Players, I can tell you -- the last thing they're thinking of is the draft,'' Jones-Drew told me Thursday. "Let me ask you this: How can a competitive person lay down for a guy so a team can draft a guy a few months later they don't even know? You're not even going to be here next year if you lay down. The 'Suck for Luck' stuff ... it's crazy. No player ever would agree to not go hard in a game, and I can't imagine any coach would ever ask him to do it.''
So: I like the Colts to win, and blow the first pick. But if they lose, Indy fans will be able to forever thank the player who hates the Colts unlike anyone in the league does, Jones-Drew, for making sure Luck plays in the division for the next 15 years.
Green Bay DT Ryan Pickett (number 79). While he took two weeks off after suffering a concussion against the Raiders ("I've never been hit like that before,'' he said this week), Pickett watched as the Chiefs and Bears, with some pedestrian running backs, ran all over the Packers. Particularly last week, when Chicago's Kahlil Bell and Armando Allen led a 199-yard Chicago rushing game. He'll be invaluable in making sure the Packers don't get run out of the playoffs. Green Bay has allowed 4.7 yards per rush this year, and even though the Pack was similarly generous last year, the way they've been playing the run late this season has been alarming to the coaching staff, particularly defensive coordinator Dom Capers. Look for Pickett, who returned to practice this week, to play some against the Lions Sunday.
Other than the Rams or Colts winning the first pick in the draft, of course.
1. Gerard Warren vs. his waterboy. Read Ian Rapoport's terrific story in the Boston Herald about Patriot defensive tackle Gerard Warren facing the kid who was his Florida high school waterboy, C.J. Spiller. And then tell me you won't be watching the highlights Sunday night to see if Warren and Spiller actually meet in a tackle -- or a broken tackle -- on the field in Foxboro Sunday.
2. Jason Taylor and Jim Kleinsasser going out with dignity. Which is how they played their entire lives. Very good men, and very valuable players. For old time's sake, I'm hoping for one last sack from Taylor, and one last square-up block of Brian Urlacher from Kleinsasser.
3. This might be it for LaDainian Tomlinson too, but I doubt it. Tomlinson hasn't had a double-digit-carry game in 2011, though he's been mostly healthy throughout. He'll be 33 next year. If he's willing to play for cheap next year in a cap-strapped league, he'll find a job.
4. Tim Tebow in his first NFL playoff game, with Romeo Crennel trying to win one for the resume. Denver's playing Sunday for a playoff spot, and the chance to host Pittsburgh or Baltimore (I'm guessing) on the Saturday night NBC Wild Card game. The Chiefs, are playing to make sure GM Scott Pioli hires Romeo Crennel as the full-time coach. Lots of motivation on both sides.
5. The sixth-seed race in the AFC. "Race'' might not be such a great word, considering that not a single one of the four teams competing for the final playoff spot in the AFC -- New York, Cincinnati, Oakland and Tennessee -- have a winning record in December. They're a combined 7-9 in the month. The Bengals win against the Ravens early Sunday afternoon, and they're in. The Bengals lose, and consult your local astrologer.
6. The Giants and Cowboys, for all the NFC East marbles. You talk about your cold teams. The Giants are 2-5 since midseason. Dallas is 1-3 this month. Playoff Fever! Catch it!
7. Black Monday loometh. Coaches in Tampa, St. Louis and San Diego (and quite possibly Indianapolis) will be waiting to hear the bad news Monday. And there's always one that will surprise you.
8. Robert Griffin III speculation. After Baylor's 67-56 Alamo Bowl win over Washington Thursday night, he said he'd make his decision about entering the NFL within two weeks. He actually has 17 days. The entry deadline is Jan. 15. My guess: He'll come out. If he doesn't, the number one pick become fare more valuable, because then the only automatic quarterback high in the draft is Andrew Luck.
9. Tom Brady's playing, but his shoulder could be an interesting playoff topic. It's his left shoulder that is hurt, and he didn't practice Wednesday or much on Thursday. Watch him closely on Sunday, but I doubt you'll see much difference in Brady, and in the Patriots, who haven't lost at home to Buffalo in the last 10 years.
10. Ben Roethlisberger's playing, and his ankle's definitely going to be an interesting playoff topic. The Steelers win the AFC North, the AFC's second seed and a first-round playoff bye with a win at Cleveland and a Baltimore loss at Cincinnati. So Roethlisberger, who is improved but still hobbled by the high ankle sprain suffered Dec. 8, will give it to ol' John Wayne.