Rivals Get Too Close For Comfort

Green Bay and Detroit share one major similarity even though their seasons have gone opposite directions. Why are the Lions a disappointing 2-10? Detroit coach Jim Schwartz discussed the plight of his team heading into Sunday's game at Ford Field.

The Green Bay Packers are 8-4 and very much in the hunt to win the NFC North and earn a first-round bye in the playoffs.

The Detroit Lions are 2-10 and very much in the hunt for a sixth last-place finish in the last eight years.

And yet, these mismatched NFC North rivals, who will meet Sunday at Ford Field in Detroit, have something in common: Their inability to consistently make the plays necessary to win close games.

You know the Packers' story: All four of their losses have come by three points – two on overtime field goals and two on next-to-last-play field goals.

For Detroit, the close game history is equally abhorrent.

There was the opener at Chicago, when Calvin Johnson's game-winning touchdown grab was taken away via a technicality. They rallied in the fourth quarter to almost beat Philadelphia in Week 2. In Week 4, the Packers came up with one clutch fourth-quarter drive to run out the final 6 minutes and avoid what could have been an embarrassing upset loss. The Giants led by only four points when Detroit turned it over while driving late in the fourth quarter in Week 6. The Lions blew a fourth-quarter lead and lost in overtime to the Jets in Week 9. They were a botched two-point conversion from forcing overtime against Buffalo. After lopsided losses against Dallas and New England, they lost a fourth-quarter lead against Chicago after a highly questionable penalty on stud rookie Ndamukong Suh kept the Bears' game-winning touchdown drive alive.

Put it together, they've lost six games by five points or less.

"You know, in a different way, there's some similarities between us and Green Bay when it comes to that," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said in a conference call with Packers beat reporters on Wednesday. "Green Bay has four losses this year and all have been by three points. So, they're a really good team that is right on the fringe of being the best team in the league if they can find their way over those.

"We're in a different stage in our development as a team but we're just as close. We've had some situations that have come up: We haven't been able to keep our quarterback on the field. This will be my fourth game against the Packers and we'll have a fourth different starting quarterback for all of them. Some of those things have – I don't want to say set us back, but have slowed our progress down a little bit. We're confident that we'll be able to end up on the right side of a lot of those close games."

The Lions have built their franchise around quarterback Matthew Stafford, the fifth overall pick of the 2009 draft. Stafford started the final 34 games of his career at Georgia but hasn't been able to stay on the field in Detroit. As a rookie, he was sidelined twice totaling six games with injuries to a knee and his left (non-throwing shoulder). This season, he's been sidelined twice with injuries to his right (throwing) shoulder.

In all, he's played in 13 of a possible 28 times entering Sunday.

In just three games this year, Stafford threw six touchdown passes with one interception. The Lions went 1-2 in his starts but they were winning when he was hurt in Week 1 against Chicago and again in Week 9 against the Jets. He also lit up the Jets' and Redskins' defenses – two units that gave the Packers fits.

"He's the guy that we built our offense around," said Schwartz, who anticipates Stafford will play again this season. "He's going to be the marquee player on our team. He's had some setbacks in his career, none of which are going to affect him long term. He's going to do great things for this franchise.

"We know how this is a quarterback-driven league. Even though Shaun Hill and even Drew Stanton have done a good job of filling in for Matt, there's nothing like having your franchise quarterback. The people in Green Bay know what that's like when you've had Favre for so long and then pass it off to Aaron Rodgers. The consistency that those two guys have given the Packers franchise has led to where they've gone over the last 15 years or whatever it's been."

Without Stafford, the Lions' talented young roster has yet to take off. To be sure, the Lions are an incomplete team. Their offensive line is mediocre and the back seven of the defense is horrific. Still, with Stafford, running back Jahvid Best, receiver Calvin Johnson, tight ends Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler and a deep defensive line that features Suh, Detroit has as many playmakers as any team in the league.

"I don't think their record really correlates with the way they're playing," Rodgers said. "They just played our division leader tight and were ahead in the fourth quarter. So, they're playing real well. Defensively, up front, when you look at that front four, it's a very talented group. I think Cliff Avril is a guy you've seen on film improving. I think he's made some really good strides. And obviously with Suh."

Still, talent "on paper" doesn't mean much. There are tickets available for the game as a disillusioned fan base has thrown in the towel for the umpteenth season in a row. It's little wonder: They've lost 26 consecutive road games and 19 straight against division foes. Schwartz's record is 4-22 and he's starting to feel some heat. Subtly, he stated his case on why he should return.

"We know exactly what we were getting into here and we knew that it would take a lot of determination," he said. "We knew it was not going to be easy. If it was easy, we wouldn't be here for this job. We need to build it the right way. We need to not get impatient. We need to understand the circumstances that have led to where we are and not lose confidence in what we're doing just because we haven't found the success in the record book that we need to have. That's been the most disappointing part. But there have been some positives, and at the end of the season, we'll evaluate all of those."

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.

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