When the 7-8 Green Bay Packers travel to the 8-7 Detroit Lions this New Year’s Eve, it will be the last calendar day of 2017 and the last day of both teams’ 2017 seasons.
The Lions were in the hunt longer, not losing their last hope until last week in Cincinnati against the six-win Bengals. During that game, Detroit was ahead in every quarter, but the quarterback threw a terrible pick right before halftime, the kicker missed a long one after a receiver dropped a third down, the defense extended a fourth quarter drive by holding, and then the offense killed the next drive the same way. Somehow they found a way to lose to Andy Dalton by nine points. Yes, these are the same old Lions.
SCOUTING THE LIONS
For a detailed look at the names and jersey numbers of this ultimate opponent, please consult our November scout, published just before they humiliated Brett Hundley and Mike McCarthy (it was the game after our bye week) at Lambeau Field, leading 30-10 before a meaningless touchdown on the last, untimed play of the day.
Not much has changed about the Detroit football team since we wrote that Week 9 preview. The only starter on injured reserve is strong safety #32 Tavon Wilson, who has been replaced by the slot back #28 Quandre Diggs shifting further inside, freeing up playing time for the rookie draft pick #30 Teez Tabor to play outside, while their weakest link, #24 Nevin Lawson, plays the slot.
Right corner #23 Darius Slaymade the Pro Bowl this year, and last week he flashed some of that talent, breaking up a couple of early passes and drawing offensive PI against all-worlder A.J. Green. But Green had the last laugh, eventually catching 60% of his targets—including a huge third down on the game-winning field goal drive—and earlier he put Slay on the ground with this move after the catch. As we said back in November, Slay is considered the rainmaker for this defense, but he is often left high and dry.
The only other good player in the secondary is free safety #27 Glover Quin, and even he lost track of a backup tight end to allow the Bengals’ first touchdown and first lead.
Right end #94 Ziggy Ansah had two monster sacks against Andy Dalton, one where he swallowed the left tackle whole and another where he slalomed around him as if the track home had rails.
The offensive line has been battling injuries all year. Packer fans who had been reading right guard #76 T.J. Lang’s injury reports for half a decade will not be surprised that the overcompensated old man coming off hip surgery had his back clench up early in the year, then suffered a concussion mid-year, and missed the win-or-die Bengals game with a foot injury. Perhaps it’s the same one he re-broke in his last game with the Packers this past January? If he’s a no-go, then at least two starters are out, one’s out of position, and even a backup will have to shift over one spot. Even when healthy, though (as we said back in November), this unit is overpaid and ineffective.
The only receiving weapon we didn’t mention in November that we should have is wide receiver #11 Marvin Jones, who is leading the team with 1,020 yards and 8 touchdowns, primarily because it’s still #15 Golden Tate that draws most of the safety help.
Scatback #25 Theo Riddick, all five foot nine inches of him, is now the nominal starter on all three downs because #21 Ameer Abdullah got benched. But when they need hard yards on early downs, now the ball goes to undrafted rookie #38 Tion Green, who stands a full three inches taller.
HOW THE PACKERS MATCH UP
As shaky as this Detroit secondary usually is, Lambeau this November was an exception. That game was decided in the first three quarters, and during that stretch Brett Hundley threw 25 passes to gain 97 yards. Less than 4 yards an attempt. By the time he got the ball in the last quarter, the score was 20-3, and so he padded those stats some against a prevent defense.
As bad as the defense had been in big spots this season, and in even bigger spots over the past seven years (as we lamented in last week’s column), the fulcrum of failure this season has been at quarterback. With a healthy Rodgers, no one doubts that we’d be at double digit victories by now, even with Dom coaching the D and Mike coaching whatever it is Mike coaches when Aaron is healthy (because Aaron coaches the O).
Saturday night at chilly Lambeau was yet another bread crumb in the trail that would lead any competent scout in the NFL to conclude that Hundley should head north for Canada. Four-down football is just too much for him. So how did our personnel people, who got to watch every practice for three years, not know this? And why did Ted not sign Colin Kaepernick as soon as Rodgers went down?
With a competent NFL quarterback starting these past two months, we wouldn’t have just squeaked by the Bears, Bucs, and Browns—we’d have won those games going away—and we probably would have found some way to win a couple three of the six Hundley has lost so far. We could have been at minimum an average NFL offense, instead of embarrassing ourselves most weeks. Last week, when the defense held the Vikings to their lowest yardage total of the season (helped by Case Keenum misfiring several), Brett Hundley proved to be by far the worse of the two backups.
True, there was that one deep ball Trevor Davis could of had if he’d seen it, but the rest of ‘em were too far off even to get intercepted. And then there were the open receivers we could see from the balcony, but he couldn’t from the pocket, or especially when he rolled out. There were also the two interceptions, which were each awful in their own ways.
On the first, if the cover safety underneath the route didn’t pick it, the deep safety over the top would have. If there’s a possible way to throw two interceptions on one play, a man named Brett could discover it.
On the second, it was desperation time, but instead of at least heaving up a prayer, he checked down on fourth down! With two minutes left and sixteen points still to score. And the guy he checked down to was wearing the wrong colors.
Bob McGinn, ever the contrarian, insisted this week that Hundley “showed maturity beyond his years” in the two-interception, zero-point effort.
Tom “Spoon” Silverstein, McGinn’s former colleague and now rival, was much more clear-eyed. Spoon described Hundley as “a backup quarterback who through eight starts plays like he’s a hologram programmed only to do two things: scramble and throw the ball away out of bounds and overthrow receivers running deep.”
Ted’s failure to sign Kaepernick and Mike’s Fox-News-approved stubborn sass when asked if the available veteran might be better than the in-house garbage is the epitaph by which this season should be remembered. “The quarterback room is exactly where it needs to be,” sums up 2017 about as well as “We’re nobody’s underdog” encapsulated 2010.
If Hundley wins in Detroit on Sunday, it’ll be because the Lions no longer care. For the three quarters this season when this average defense did mind if the ball moved, Hundley obeyed their commands.
If we win this last game, the Lions will still finish second in the division because of tiebreakers. But even when the standings don’t matter, the games still do.
Especially against a border rivalry that predates football. Just as every skirmish against the Vikings can be seen as a continued ritual of violence between our Ojibwe and Dakota ancestors struggling for control of Minnesota and Wisconsin, ancient fires also burn on either side of the Great Michigan Lake.
On the Wisconsin side, the Ojibwe presence is still strong—six of our eleven federally recognized reservations are Ojibwe (also known as Chippewa)—and in Milwaukee everyone knows the Potawatomi are still here, as they are one of the largest private employers in town, and their local landholdings are expanding.
In order to get to Wisconsin, according to the old stories, the Ojibwe and Potawatomi passed through Michigan first on their way from the salty Atlantic coast hundreds of years ago. Going back in time, the name for these early American travelers was simply Anishinaabe—meaning “original people” in the Algonquin language—but as the migration lengthened so, too, did the distances between groups, and around Michigan many of them became known as the Council of of Three Fires—the Ojibwe, the Potawatomi, and the Ottawa—separate, but still allied.
The Ottawa never crossed Lake Michigan in significant numbers, but their presence on either side of Lake Huron—in Michigan and Canada—has been a defining pivot in the international history of the region. Two hundred and fifty-four years ago, in late spring, the Ottawa attacked the same city the Packers will on Sunday.
That war began on a Saturday, the seventh day of May, 1763. “The Detroit Indians struck first,” wrote Richard White in his definitive history of our region from 1650 through 1815, “but they believed that surrounding peoples had already determined to go to war. Pontiac, in his speech to the Detroit Indians urging them to attack, asked them to do only what their neighbors had already decided to do.”
Pontiac was an Ottawa leader, and although most modern historians—including White—believe his role in plotting the entire theater of battle was later exaggerated in the 19th and 20th centuries (the war is still often called “Pontiac’s Conspiracy”), there is no doubt that it began with an attack he led on a Saturday in Detroit.
Fort Detroit never fell, even though eight others would, from the top of lower Michigan to the eastern shores of Lake Erie.
It was a revolt of the Great Lakes against the British, and it began three weeks shy of 12 years before “the shot heard round the world” was fired on a mid-April Wednesday in Massachusetts.
That Wisconsin schoolchildren know more today about Lexington in 1775 than Detroit in 1763 is a great tragedy of our region’s curriculums. The shores of our mighty lakes have been molded by legendary footsteps. The Green Bay Packers and the Detroit Lions are part of a proud tradition of resistance. On Sunday, the last day of 2017, they will do battle for the 177th time.
Even if the rest of the world will soon forget what happens this Sunday noon, Packer fans will be watching and remembering.
Exile was watching last week, during his non-triumphant return to the holy land. He opens the show with that story, then Bob and Jeff complain about too many Vikings fans too close to the field. Curious wants to know about the “cage rush,” and then, in the second hour, Wildcat Mark and South Side Jim preview all the college bowl games.