I caused a little stir this Thursday on Cheesehead Radio when I made my Packer/Lion game prediction. You see, I predicted a win. A big win. Packers 45, Lions 17.
Now, this caused a little bit of a collective jaw-drop among my co-hosts, who are used to me being the "pessimist" in the group. Yes, usually I'm the one who thinks the Packers will struggle against good teams, and fret about trap games with bad teams.
But, I think sometimes I get the "negative" label because I am a realist...and the big score I predicted isn't one out of blind faith, it's one out of necessity. The Packers need to win, and they need to win big. Yes, over the Lions.
The Packers have a huge problem, and it is a problem they helped create. They are sitting a game behind the Bears in the NFC North, a situation completely attributable to a Monday Night loss to the Bears back on September 27. A three-point loss to a team that should have been whipped soundly, even if it was in Soldier Field. The fact that a wild-card is a tenuous situation is because the NFC West will likely take a playoff spot from a more deserving team, and that team could well be the Packers if they don't win the division outright.
But the biggest problem is that this game against the Lions is the last of the gimmee-games the Pack will have this year. There are no more Buffalos, no more 49ers, no more Vikings from this point on. The Packers have four more games and only one of them, this game against the Lions, is the last of the lesser opponents.
It's not a trap game. This is an easily winnable game. That's not the point. The Packers have to win, and they have to play their hardest, start to finish. The Packers cannot afford to escape from Michigan with a win...they need to conquer the Lions, defeat them soundly, and carry all that momentum into next week against the Patriots.
In the mid-90's, I signed a contract to coach our local eighth grade basketball team. I did it at the behest of the seventh grade coach, who couldn't convince anyone else to coach with him. You see, he was a bit of a jerk, and convinced me that the low number of eighth graders coming out meant they would likely dissolve the team. I figured I'd collect a paycheck for a couple of weeks and be done.
Well, they didn't dissolve the team, and I was signed on for the entire season. For the most part, the three boys that came out for eighth grade team were merged into the seventh grade team, and essentially played exhibitions with the backup seventh graders. I was the "assistant coach" with this guy who just liked to win.
He actually had a pretty talented group among the seventh graders. Oh, we took our lumps when we went to play some of the tougher teams in the league, but most of the time, they won. I watched as we rode our way to a 9-3 record and won the conference championship.
But the one thing that always stood out to me was the day we played one of the poorest teams in the conference...it could have been the eighth grade team I was supposed to be coaching. Not having a ton of height, we ran a pretty innovative motion offense that was ahead of its time, and the boys ran it well. When we played another team that didn't have much height either, there was no stopping our dribble-drive offense.
I watched as our team poured it on, 20-2, 30-2, 40-5. Yes, he substituted in the backups, but because of the eighth grade team's need for the seventh grade backups (and each player was limited to four quarters of play), the seventh grade starters had to play much of the game.
He had a wicked smile on his face, as did the players and their parents cheering loudly behind us, clapping each other on the back. But, having coached many times on the other side of a score like that, I found myself looking at the dejected faces of the other team, the angry, frustrated shouts of the other coach, and the grumbles coming from the stands.
As you can probably imagine, I didn't have the "killer instinct" at that time, and probably still don't. I finally tugged on my co-coach's shirt as he stood up to argue a call with the ref while up by forty points and asked if we should "call off the dogs".
It was at that point he said something to me that stuck with me for a long, long time. He looked at me and said, "You can never coach a team to go backwards."
Now, he said a lot of other things that were far more full of bravado, like, "If you don't play to win, take down the scoreboard," and "It's their job to stop us, not the other way around." But that "backwards" statement made a lot of sense to me. When you coach a team to do the opposite of what they are supposed to do, that's what they are practicing and learning.
Now, perhaps seventh grade is a little young to be playing like that (but you've watched youth sports lately, you'll see he was also ahead of his time). But it is a concept that is easily applied to a professional team like the Packers, who will be facing an opponent so inferior this week that we could expect to see Matt Flynn handing off to Dimitri Nance by the middle of the third quarter.
Yes, it is a nice thing to do, putting in your scrubs and running out the clock. But this is a critical game, not for the game itself, but because of what the Packers will take from it. The Packers will leave Ford Field and face three games against opponents that are a combined 27-9, and the Packers need every single win.
The first battle is to not lower yourself to the level of your competition, something the Packers had a lot of trouble with early in the season (and why they are in the situation they are in right now). Yes, the Lions are the best 2-10 team in football and stay in every game...blah, blah, blah. It doesn't matter. The Packers need to win this game like they belong with those 27-9 teams, not like they belong with the teams that aren't going to make the playoffs (the scenario they find themselves in anyway).
The second battle is not to let up. Yes, it sounds cruel and unsportsmanlike. But the Packers have made enough mistakes this season letting up and playing unfocused. If this team expects to make the playoffs, much less advance (as so many of us predicted in the preseason), the Packers must practice they way they wish to play.
I don't want to see smiling faces and messing around on the sideline while the game is still going on. I want to see more touchdowns thrown by Rodgers. I want to see James Starks run for 100 yards and then have Brandon Jackson gash them for a long touchdown on a screen. I want to see Clay Matthews set the NFL single-season sack record. And I don't want to see Matt Flynn until there's a few minutes left in the game.
I sincerely feel sorry for the Lions, especially if this is the scenario that happens tomorrow. They've been a team that simply doesn't know how to win, coming off of a decade of complete mismanagement. Sincerely, I root for them to get some wins here and there, and wished like heck they would have gotten a couple against the Bears.
But this isn't about the Lions. They have their own issues, and at the end of Week 17, their season is done. The Packers need to train to win games against what looks to be three playoff teams in order to even make the playoffs, and then they'll need to beat actual playoff teams. This is no time to allow any level of mediocrity in your play. The Lions are the win we expect, but they are also the win we need to set the table for the rest of the path to the playoffs.
The Packers are in a completely different league than the Lions. Tomorrow, they have to play like it.
Because if you play at their level, you're going backwards. The Packers need to keep going forward, and the Lions are simply the team in the way.