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Niyo: Lions can change loser image by beating Packers

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford is sacked by Cowboys Benson Mayowa, grabbing Stafford's injured hand to bring him down, in the fourth quarter.

Arlington, Texas — The Lions left room in their luggage just in case they came home from Dallas with a playoff spot in tow.

But even before they flew home without one, they knew the baggage that awaited them back in Detroit. And they knew the true measure of how far they’ve come, or even how far they might go, wasn’t going to be taken Monday night at AT&T Stadium, where a spirited first-half effort against the NFC’s best team wasn’t nearly enough in a 42-21 runaway for the Cowboys.

No, it’ll come Sunday night at Ford Field in a nationally-televised game against a Green Bay Packers team that remains both the standard-bearer in the NFC North and a reminder of the Lions’ own futility as a franchise.

And unlike in recent regular-season finales against Green Bay — in 2011 and ’14 — this time there may be no safety net for Matthew Stafford & Co. The Lions still could back into the playoffs at 9-7 if the Giants win at Washington on Sunday afternoon. But if not, it’s all on the line that night.

“It’s a one-game season at this point,” said Stafford, who stepped gingerly to and from the podium late Monday night after taking a beating in a second-half shutout. “We go win, we win our division and get a home playoff game. …

Beginning of the year, if you tell us in Week 17 you’ve got a chance to play the Green Bay Packers at home for the division, I’m taking it all day.”

Ugly memories

Take it or leave it, they have no choice now. But every Lions fan knows the history, by rote. One playoff win since 1957. Two home playoff games since that last NFL championship. And the last of those? Well, everyone remembers how that one ended, with Brett Favre rolling left and Sterling Sharpe running right into the end zone to haul in a 40-yard touchdown that, as Chris Spielman accurately noted that day, “will be shown over and over until the end of time.”

It’s past time for the Lions to end that drought, and they know it. They know, no matter what progress they’ve made this season, or whose jobs they might’ve saved with that midseason rally — and all that’s still very much up the air, isn’t it? — the task at hand is paramount.

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Beating the Packers and securing their first division title since 1993 won’t rewrite history. But it could go a long way in reshaping the perception of the Lions, even from within their own fan base, a group that’s understandably bracing for the worst after two punishing losses to playoff-bound opponents.

The Cowboys have punished plenty of teams this season, with a dominant offensive line paving the way to a 13-2 record — that ties a franchise record in Dallas — and game-breaking talent on both sides of the ball doing just that every week. Any hopes the Cowboys might mail it in — they wrapped up the NFC’s No. 1 seed with the Giants’ loss Thursday night — probably went out the window right about the time Ezekiel Elliott leaped over the pylon to cap a 55-yard touchdown run late in the first quarter.

"There's just one way to play," said Dallas coach Jason Garrett, who refused to rest any of his key starters Monday night "There’s three hours each weekend to show people who you are. And that’s what we try to do: Be the best versions of ourselves."

And for about an hour or so — maybe 90 minutes — that’s what we saw from the Lions, as they matched Dallas score for score early on.

But watching the beating Stafford took in the second half, sacked four times and hit a handful more as the rejuvenated run game went AWOL, it quickly went from good to bad to something that resembled a worst-case scenario. Especially the way that secondary — sorely missing top cornerback Darius Slay — was getting picked apart by Cowboys rookie Dak Prescott, who finished 15-of-20 for 212 yards and three touchdowns. The Lions had no answer for Dez Bryant, who caught two touchdown passes and even threw one to add insult to injury.

“There isn’t anything to it,” cornerback Nevin Lawson said. “We just couldn’t stop them.”

Still on the table

There isn’t any time to dwell on it, either. And maybe that’s a good thing, though with a quick turnaround they’re at a disadvantage both in terms of physical recovery and mental preparation. Green Bay had a two-day head start on game-planning after playing Minnesota at home on Saturday afternoon.

“Can’t do anything about it,” Stafford shrugged. “Just gotta go play.”

And embrace it.

Lions can lose to Packers, still make playoffs with help

“There are a lot of other teams that would love to be in this position,” veteran safety Glover Quin said. “A game for the championship on your home field? A lot of teams playing next week, their season is already over.”

Still, consider that every other NFC team has won at least three division titles since the Lions won their last. In the NFC North, and the NFC Central before that, it’s at least four titles each for Green Bay, Chicago and Minnesota. (Even Tampa Bay, which left the division in 2002, won it again before departing.)

And consider the scene we’re expecting for Sunday night’s winner-take-all showdown in the NFL’s oldest continuously-running rivalry, a game flexed to prime time precisely because of the stakes involved.

DeAndre Levy called it “a big, big, big game.” And the next one would be even bigger, hosting a wild-card game with Green Bay a possible opponent — just like it was at the end of the ’93 season.

Honestly, that’s how this streak needs to end, if it’s ever going to, for Detroit.

Green Bay has won four of the last five NFC North titles and eight of the last 14, and for more than a generation now, they’ve had everything the Lions lacked, from the continuity to the quarterback.

Since that division-clinching win over the Packers to cap the regular season in 1993, the Lions have won just 12 of their 48 meetings with Green Bay.

Aaron Rodgers, who succeeded Favre, is 12-3 in his career against the Lions, throwing 30 touchdowns to only six interceptions with a 108.0 passer rating. Meanwhile, Stafford, who followed a succession of failed quarterbacks in Detroit, is 3-9 against the Packers, with three times as many interceptions.

But those three wins have come in the last four years — once each in 2013, ’14, and ’15. And a win Sunday night against Green Bay would surely count for more, wouldn’t it?

Especially the way the Packers are playing right now, winners of five in a row — all of them by double digits — after their season looked like a lost cause.

“They’re playing some really, really good football right now,” Lions receiver Golden Tate said. “But they’ve got to come to our house.”

That’s where all this homegrown angst really got started, and that’s where it’ll have to end. For the Lions, it’s finally time to unpack all that pain.

If not now, when?

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

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