DETROIT >> It’s not the biggest game in the history of Ford Field, though it’s probably the biggest that’s actually involved the Detroit Lions.
Motown’s new football stadium opened in 2002, and since then it has hosted a Super Bowl and a Final Four. The Lions, however, have never had an opportunity in the building quite like this weekend, when they host the Green Bay Packers on Sunday night with a chance to win Detroit’s first division title since 1993.
Whoever wins this game takes the NFC North, and whoever loses could be out of the playoffs.
“I can’t wait,” Lions receiver Golden Tate said. “I’m excited for this team. I’m excited for this city. We have a great opportunity to do something that hasn’t been done in a long time.”
It will certainly be a memorable atmosphere in downtown Detroit, but this is actually a scenario Lions fans were hoping to avoid. Detroit was two games ahead of Green Bay after improving to 9-4 with a win over Chicago. Then the Lions lost on the road against the Giants and Dallas, allowing the Packers (9-6) to pull even atop the division. Green Bay has won five straight.
Detroit (9-6) can put a lot of its recent angst in the past with a win Sunday, but a loss could end the Lions’ season . If Washington beats the Giants earlier in the day, the Detroit-Green Bay loser would miss the playoffs.
The Packers are pleased to be in this position. They were 4-6 after a 42-24 loss to Washington on Nov. 20, but since then, Green Bay has been on a tear, with Aaron Rodgers directing the offense — and the much-maligned defense forcing quite a few turnovers. The Packers have 12 takeaways over the past three games.
When his team was 4-6, Rodgers said he thought Green Bay could “run the table” — and now the Packers are a win away from a division title.
“That’s the confidence he has in our team and our offense and himself,” Green Bay receiver Jordy Nelson said. “We just needed to clean a few things up and we’d be in the situation that we are right now.”
Here are a few things to watch in the final game of the NFL’s regular season:
SAFETY NET: The Lions and Packers could both be in the postseason by the time their game kicks off — if Washington loses. Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy said his team would stick with its normal pregame routine, but he wasn’t sure how much that will allow players to watch what is going on elsewhere.
“We have a system of when TVs are on and when they’re off,” McCarthy said. “I don’t know the time that the TVs go off by heart.”
QB HEALTH: Rodgers showed more mobility last week against Minnesota, indicating that his sore right calf is feeling better. Regardless of how his legs are doing, he’s on a roll with his arm, having gone six straight games without an interception.
“It’s nice to be feeling a lot better,” Rodgers said. “My injuries have definitely subsided, the rehab has continued but I’m healing up at the right time.”
Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford has been dealing with a finger injury on his throwing hand for the past three games. He’s thrown four interceptions and lost a fumble during that span.
DEFENDING THE PASS: The Packers have given up at least 353 yards in the air each of the past two weeks, against Chicago and Minnesota. That’s partly because Green Bay built up big leads, forcing the Bears and Vikings to play catch-up. The Packers have also had injuries in the secondary to cornerbacks Damarious Randall and Ladarius Gunter. They were back at practice this week.
Detroit cornerback Darius Slay (hamstring) was also able to practice this week after missing the game against Dallas.
REMATCH: The NFC North also came down to the final game in 2014. Green Bay, playing at home that time, beat Detroit 30-20 to win the division by one game over the Lions. Detroit made the playoffs that year as a wild card. But the Lions had to go to Dallas, where they lost. Then the Cowboys went to Green Bay, where they lost.
LACK OF BALANCE: Neither team has shown a particularly impressive running game this season. Detroit’s has been particularly anemic, ranking 30th in the league.