An incredible amount has changed since Green Bay Packers quarterback Matt Flynn's historic performance against the Detroit Lions in the 2011 regular-season finale, much less his dismal performance in place of Aaron Rodgers at Detroit in 2010.
For that matter, much has changed since the Packers beat the Lions 22-9 at Lambeau Field on Oct. 6.
That afternoon, Rodgers lined up at quarterback with a full-strength offense. Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and James Jones were his receivers, Jermichael Finley his tight end and Eddie Lacy his running back. Don Barclay started at right tackle. Rodgers and Co. scored six times and rolled up 449 yards.
Matthew Stafford, on the other hand, didn't have either of his starting receivers. Calvin Johnson, arguably the most dangerous receiver in NFL history, and Nate Burleson, who actually led the Lions in receptions at the time, were inactive. Not surprisingly, the Lions' offense was limited to 286 yards and the only touchdown came with 2 minutes remaining.
The talent level will be tilted in the opposite direction on Thursday. Rodgers almost certainly will be wearing headsets rather than a helmet, and Flynn won't have Cobb or Finley. Stafford's offense will be full-go, with the indomitable Johnson leading the NFL in receiving yards and Burleson having returned last week.
"Those guys are important to our offense," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said during a Tuesday conference call. "Any time you're without guys, you always say you want the other guys to step up – and there's truth to that, but there's also truth that you want your good players out there and the guys that you're relying on. Those guys fit that bill.
"Nate was leading our team in receptions when he was injured and it seemed like he stepped up right where he left off (on Sunday against Tampa Bay). He made a lot of big plays for us, caught a touchdown pass and he also had run after the catch – things that he's always been good at that. It looked like he was never injured. Calvin, he's such a difference-maker on the field. He gets so much attention from opponents, frees things up for other guys. Even if he's not getting the ball, he's affecting the defense. It's important to have those guys out there. It's no excuse for the way we played. I don't think we played well on offense when we played up there the first time."
Asked if the outcome would have been different had he been on the field that day, Johnson simply said: "Yeah."
"You know, I'm not going to call it because it's neither here nor there to say that we would have won the game but it definitely would have been a closer matchup," Johnson added during his conference call.
Flynn, in his second tour of duty with the Packers, is practically a grizzled veteran when it comes to playing Detroit. A seventh-round pick in 2008, he saw his first extensive playing time when Rodgers was knocked out with a concussion when the teams met at Ford Field in December 2010. He completed 15-of-26 passes for 177 yards and an interception. Drew Stanton and the Lions won 7-3. Flynn started the next week's loss at New England, Rodgers returned the next week and the Packers' six-game winning streak ended in a shower of confetti in Super Bowl XLV.
Flynn's second NFL start came against Detroit on Jan. 1, 2012. The Packers won 45-41, but it wasn't Flynn's 480 passing yards that were the most impressive thing that chilly afternoon. Rather, it was that he put the Packers in front after trailing 9-0, 16-10, 19-17, 26-24, 34-31 and 41-38.
"That was a crazy game," Flynn said on Monday. "That was definitely a day that I'll never forget. Just seemed like everything was clicking. But that's two totally different teams now. I don't think you can expect anything like that, hopefully by either side."
Flynn made a lot of money that afternoon but couldn't win starting jobs in Seattle last year or in Oakland and Buffalo this season. Now, he's back in Green Bay, with the beat-up Packers' playoff hopes on life support and the Lions getting another chance to seize control of the NFC North after back-to-back upset losses.
"The only thing I can go on is recent history," Schwartz said when asked about Flynn's career progression. "You can read too much into the past. There's a lot of guys that won a lot of games a couple years ago that are no longer playing in the NFL. There's other guys that maybe weren't playing then that all of a sudden have stepped on the scene and are playing well. You've got to go on recent history. I thought he came into the Minnesota game in difficult circumstances – I think they were down 16 points early in the second half, the weather, it was cold. That's not a great stage for a comeback but he was able to lead them to a comeback and almost got them to an overtime win."
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.