Allen Park — As a rookie coach, Jim Schwartz made a promise to the fans, and then a plea to his players. But four years later, it sounds more like a demand as the subject turns to the Lions’ Thanksgiving Day tradition and what’s at stake.
“It’s a game that we need to get back to winning,” Schwartz said as his team prepared for Thursday’s nationally televised clash against the Packers at Ford Field.
It has been a full decade since the Lions last won on Thanksgiving, and 20 years since they won their division. A victory Thursday over their NFC North rivals would end the first hunger pangs, and it’d go a long way toward feeding the masses.
And for a coach who long ago promised to restore the Lions’ pride — “We’re going to put a barbed-wire fence around that Thanksgiving day game,” he told a town-hall meeting of season-ticket holders in January 2009 — this is no time to sit on the fence. A loss would put more than just their postseason plans in jeopardy.
“We need to play our best and we need to come out with a win,” said Schwartz, whose team is coming off an embarrassing home loss to Tampa Bay — and an ugly finish the week before at Pittsburgh — after seizing control of the division. “We’ve lost two in a row and we need to right that. There’s no better opportunity than Thanksgiving Day at Ford Field.”
Of course, the Lions have been saying that for years, to no avail.
The last Lions coach to win on Thanksgiving Day was Steve Mariucci in his first year. Led by an efficient Joey Harrington and Jason Hanson’s five field goals, the Lions beat Brett Favre and the Packers, 22-14.
But since then, nearly half the league — 15 teams — has won on Thanksgiving. Dallas, the other permanent host of a holiday game, has won six times. Even Harrington won again at Ford Field with Miami.
Yet, the Lions have lost nine straight by an average of nearly 20 points, three to the Packers. Recent games have been closer, but no less embarrassing — Ndamukong Suh’s infamous stomp against Green Bay was the story in 2011, just as Schwartz’s challenge-flag fiasco was in last year’s overtime loss to Houston.
They’ve come a long way since 2008, when at halftime of a 47-10 loss on Thanksgiving to Tennessee — Schwartz was the Titans’ defensive coordinator — CBS studio analyst Shannon Sharpe wore a paper bag over his head and moaned, “This is ridiculous. The Detroit Lions, every single year. This is what we have to go through.”
But they obviously haven’t come far enough. The fans expect more — it’s the playoffs or bust after that 6-3 start — and ownership probably does, too. And given what’s at stake Thursday — first place in the division with a clear shot at a home playoff game in January — best not to spoil the Ford family’s Thanksgiving dinner for a 10th consecutive year, right?
“Oh, yeah, I can imagine that they’re waiting probably more (impatiently) than everybody else,” said receiver Nate Burleson, an 11-year veteran in his fourth season in Detroit. “But we’ve talked about this before: When we talk about exorcising demons, I take pride in that. Like I said earlier, I’m not gonna shy away from the fact that we want a win, we need a win, people in the stands need to see a win, fans who’ve been supporting us through thick and thin need a win, management needs a win.
“I’m not gonna say we need to win it more than the Packers, because they’re in it just like we are. But it means a little bit more to Detroit that we get this win on this day. And there’s a lot of reasons for that.”
And reasons to think they will win, for a change. Because while the Lions have lost two in a row, the Packers haven’t won in more than a month. They’re 0-3-1 since starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers went down with a broken collarbone Nov. 4.
Rodgers was cleared to practice this week, but he won’t play Thursday, leaving the Packers’ playoff hopes — at least for now — in the hands of recently re-signed backup Matt Flynn, whose career highlight remains a record-setting, fill-in performance against the Lions in the 2011 regular-season finale.
The beleaguered Lions secondary looks ripe for the picking again — especially with starting cornerback Chris Houston xxxxxx — but the Packers have dealt with a rash of injuries. And as a result, the Lions find themselves favored by the Las Vegas oddsmakers on Thanksgiving for the first time since 2000, when they beat the Patriots, 34-9.
That’d be the same game a rookie quarterback named Tom Brady made his NFL debut, replacing then-Patriots starter Drew Bledsoe. Since that day, the Patriots have compiled a regular-season mark of 156-51, while the Lions have gone 60-146.
“But this team’s not like (it was in) some of those games we were in back in the day,” reminded center Dominic Raiola, the lone roster holdover from the last Lions Thanksgiving win. “I mean, it was hard. But we’re in a great place right now and all we can focus on is 2013.”
True enough. But it’s now or never, perhaps. Even in the middling NFC North, where last week all four teams managed to go winless despite the fact that two — the Packers and Vikings — were playing each other.
“A tie really felt like a loss coming off the field, knowing our situation,” said guard Josh Sitton, shortly after he’d upped the ante with his own comments in an interview with a Milwaukee radio station calling the Lions defensive linemen “scumbags” and the coaches something similar. “But then to hear they both lost, you know, it gives us a chance. And that’s all we need, is a chance.”
Sitting at 6-5 with a tiebreaker advantage over Chicago and a chance to go 1½ games up on Green Bay, Detroit still has the best chance in this turkey shoot, though.
“There’s no ifs, ands or buts anymore,” Raiola said. “Other teams helped us out enough. There’s no waiting for anything more to happen with all the people in this locker room. … We need take care of our business, because we’ve had enough chances.”