Big gamble pays off for Packers
By: By Tom Oates, The Wisconsin State Journal, Superior Telegram
GREEN BAY -- There is no such thing as a sure bet in the unpredictable NFL, but the Green Bay Packers had the next best thing Sunday night at Lambeau Field.
All they had to do was beat the Detroit Lions at home, something they've done like clockwork over the past two decades, and they would win their season-long roll of the dice. Just one more victory over a team they've beaten at home every year since 1992 and the Packers would successfully milk their roster through a siege of injuries and emerge intact (relatively speaking) and in contention just in time for next week's NFC North Division showdown with Chicago.
The Packers' big gamble looked shaky for a while, but they turned in a strong second-half effort to continue the Lions' misery within Wisconsin's borders, handing Detroit a 27-20 loss and assuming first place in the division with a 9-4 record.
As accommodating as the Lions were, the Bears were just as accommodating Sunday, losing to Minnesota -- Chicago's fourth loss in five games -- to fall to 8-5. That presented the Packers with an opportunity to clinch the division title as early as next week.
But Sunday's game wasn't just a good bet for the Packers, it was a great bet because, well, the Lions never win on Wisconsin soil. Green Bay's 21-game home winning streak over its division rival is the longest such streak in NFL regular-season history. And it's actually 22 since the Packers also beat Detroit in Green Bay in a playoff game.
Although the previous two games between the teams at Lambeau were decided by six points and the Lions have a better quarterback (Matthew Stafford) than they had for most of the past 20 years, they had to have doubts when they arrived at Lambeau. After all, they couldn't even beat Green Bay in the season finale last year despite backup Matt Flynn at quarterback for Green Bay with Aaron Rodgers taking the day off.
It was little wonder, then, that the Packers felt secure in not rushing Clay Matthews, Charles Woodson, T.J. Lang and Jordy Nelson back into the action Sunday. Some or all might have played had this been a playoff game. Instead, they should make their return when the Packers and Bears meet at Chicago in a game that will probably determine the division champion.
"We're excited about the opportunities that we continue to create," coach Mike McCarthy said. "You get what you put into it. Our guys have a great frame of mind. ... We're not in it just to get to the playoffs or to have a winning season. The opportunity we've created is to win the division championship in Chicago and that's what we'll turn our sights to next."
McCarthy has played it safe with injuries all season, often bringing back players a week late instead of a week early. The plan from the start was to forget about going 15-1 again and instead get the team into the playoffs in any way possible and have it hitting its stride in the postseason.
Since the Packers all but have a playoff spot locked up and expect to get most of their walking wounded back next week, the wager clearly has paid off.
"When you go through a season like last year, you realize that the numbers and the wins in the regular season are nice, but it's all about the championship," Rodgers said. "We're going to keep on preparing. We'd love to be a more explosive offense at this point in the season, but we have to get healthy in some areas and we're going to have to win some games like this."
Indeed, it hasn't been easy. The Packers haven't been truly impressive since their victory over the Houston Texans on Oct. 14. Yet they've won seven of their past eight games and quietly have become one of the teams no one wants to face in the playoffs.
Still, their performance against the Lions was just as uninspiring as many of the others during their recent run.
Green Bay's offense was noticeably out of sync again. The Packers ran only 16 plays in the first half. They had more than that on one drive in last week's victory over Minnesota.
However, fresh legs at halfback saved the offense and helped the Packers dominate the second half. DuJuan Harris and prodigal son Ryan Grant, both getting their first carries of the season for the Packers, sparked a running game that produced on the Lambeau turf for the second consecutive game.
The Packers' defense wasn't much better in the first half. Relying heavily on the run, Detroit pushed Green Bay all over the field and should have led by more than 14-10 at halftime.
The Lions looked like they were on the verge of throwing an early knockout punch when Stafford had the ball slip out of his hand as he attempted to throw and rookie Mike Daniels returned the fumble 43 yards for a touchdown. Of course, that was just the Lions being the Lions, which they usually are when they come to Wisconsin.
And Green Bay's victory was just the Packers being the Packers. They've beaten the odds and set themselves up to be a serious title contender from here on out.
-- Copyright (c)2012 The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.)/Distributed by MCT Information Services