The safest bet about today is that Thanksgiving dinner in most Wisconsin households (in our case, with some of these recipes) will be some time after 3 p.m.
Today’s Packers–Lions game is the renewal of what used to be their yearly event, a Thanksgiving game in Detroit. The Packers have played in 19 of the 71 Lions’ Thanksgiving games, including every year from 1951 to 1963.
One of the great things about Packer coach Mike McCarthy is that, like former coach Mike Holmgren, he embraces Packer traditions. McCarthy said earlier this week he thought his team was looking forward to playing again five days after beating Tampa Bay, thus getting what amounts to a second bye week. Other coaches might whine about a lack of preparation time, disruption to their precious schedules or whatever. But if coaches don’t surrender to distractions, players are less likely to.
Others have pointed out the eerie similarities between this season and the last time the Packers were undefeated this late, 1962. The undefeated season ended abruptly with a 26–14 Thanksgiving loss in which Packer quarterback Bart Starr was sacked 10 times. The 1962 game is claimed to be the birth of the “lookout block,” in which Packer offensive tackle Fuzzy Thurston is said to have yelled “Look out!” at Starr upon a failed block just before Starr hit the Tiger Stadium turf. (Starr reportedly called his offensive lines turkeys, or worse, in the huddle after that.)
That turned out to be the only loss for the team that arguably was Vince Lombardi’s best and one of the best in NFL history. So if today’s game turns out the wrong way, as 1962’s game did, consider that as your consolation, along with the fact that the Packers went into today with a three-game lead in the NFC North.
The most entertaining game might have been the 1986 matchup, which swung from a 10–0 Lions lead to a 10-point Packer halftime lead to a 40–30 Lions lead. Packer wide receiver Walter Stanley scored two points for the Lions when, fielding a kickoff at the 1-yard line, he backed into the end zone thinking that would result in a touchback. It resulted in a safety instead. Stanley made up for his brain fart, however, by catching two touchdown passes and returning a punt 85 yards for the game-winning touchdown in the Packers’ 44–40 win.
This week’s winner of the Most Strained Metaphor Award may be ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert, who compared the Packers to James Bond and the Lions to John Rambo:
The Packers’ surgical precision is embodied by quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who leads the NFL with a 72.3 completion percentage and, these days, limits his on-field emotion to an occasional fist pump. (“The Belt” has recently been reserved for paid advertisements.) The Lions, meanwhile, play every game as if they’re avenging past injustices. They are emotional, often angry and not beyond pushing the far boundaries of the rules.
One approach will prevail Thursday over the other. The Lions will either overwhelm the Packers with energy, trying to win their first Thanksgiving Day game in seven years, or the Packers will slice through that emotion with professional calculation.
A fellow football aficionado, who is not a Packer fan, surprised me earlier this week by predicting a Packer win. He thinks the Lions peaked earlier this season (and they certainly appeared to be running on fumes until their 49–35 win over Carolina Sunday) and is overrated anyway. The Lions appear to be trying to emulate the 1970s Oakland Raiders defense for their familiarity with the personal foul, and the non-Packer fan believes that a couple early personal fouls on the Lions might intimidate their defense.
The Packers’ defense is the sole sticking point in this year’s 10–0 team among many fans. But Sports Illustrated’s Jim Trotter notes what’s actually important:
If there is a more overrated statistic in football than total defense, it has yet to be found. The stat, which is often tossed around by casual fans to differentiate good defenses from bad … sounds good but means little without proper context.
… Teams with high-scoring offenses typically don’t rank in the upper echelon in total defense because they surrender a lot of yards late in games, while the other team is playing catch-up … The Saints won the Super Bowl two years ago with the league’s highest scoring offense and its 25th-ranked defense. The Colts won the title in ’06 after tying for second in scoring and ranking 21st in t
A statistic more connected with postseason success — even more than points allowed — is scoring differential (points scored minus points given up). Fifteen of the past 21 Super Bowl champions have finished first or second in this category. The Pack was second in 2010 and is No. 1 this year with an average differential of 14.3 points per game.
Trotter also points out which statistic negates yardage given up: turnovers, where the Packers are number one in interceptions and tied for fourth in takeaways. Moreover, during their 10–0 start, the Packers have yet to trail in the fourth quarter, and during their 16-game winning streak, the Packers have never trailed by more than a touchdown, which speaks volumes about the NFL’s top-scoring offense. And points are all that count.
The upcoming month will feature a collision of sports and other activities, including other sports. On Saturday, while the Badgers play Penn State, I will be announcing the Ripon College men against Illinois Wesleyan. On Dec. 18, Ripon College hosts Monmouth while the Packers are at Kansas City. (That’s assuming the NFL doesn’t shift the Packers–Chiefs game to Sunday night. In either case, all three games — in fact, all Ripon College conference and home nonconference basketball games can be viewed at www.pennatlantic.com.) If things work out, perhaps I can emulate ABC-TV’s Brett Musburger, who, during ABC’s Kansas State–Oklahoma State game, was doing simultaneous play-by-play of the LSU–Alabama game, which was over on CBS.
Saturday’s game between Wisconsin and Penn State for the Big Ten Hayes Division title (which should be the name of the Leaders Division) demonstrates the truth that seasons can be redeemed from bad losses. Wisconsin lost on the last play and in the last minute of consecutive games, which made fans think the season was lost. (Standards are now such that a non-Rose Bowl season isn’t such a great season, particularly given the buildup to this season.) However, Penn State lost a game, which turned out to be the least of their troubles this season.
In fact, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Penn State’s Board of Trustees considered canceling the season after the revelations accusing a former Penn State defensive coordinator of repeated sexual assaults of boys resulted in his arrest and the firings of Penn State coach Joe Paterno, college football’s winningest coach, and Penn State’s president for their roles in covering up the sexual assaults. The Capital Times comments:
The fact some members of the board at least considered calling off the remainder of the season shouldn’t come as a surprise. It was an idea being floated by some nationally, and the New York Times earlier this month posted a series of commentaries that examined the question, “Should Penn State cancel its season?”
The Chronicle, however, notes the idea to call off the games never gained much traction because there was a feeling among Board of Trustees members that the move would harm the student-athletes who had nothing to do with the ugly and tragic situation.
The decision also would have cost Penn State and the Big Ten Conference millions of dollars in ticket revenue alone. Penn State lost to Nebraska before a crowd of 107,903 at Beaver Stadium on Nov. 12 before beating Ohio State 20-14 before 105,493 at Ohio Stadium Nov. 19.
As crass as that last paragraph may sound, the fact is that so-called “revenue sports” — football and basketball, and at UW, hockey — pay for all the other sports. So losing “millions of dollars in ticket revenue alone” would have affected not just the football players “who had nothing to do with the ugly and tragic and situation,” but other student–athletes, as well as fans of Penn State and its opponents. Nor would that have done anything at all to attempt to make the victims whole.
Unlike many in the media, the Wall Street Journal got it right (as in correct) about Paterno:
As everyone has noted and Mr. Paterno himself now seems to accept, the coach fulfilled his legal obligation, but not his moral duty, to look after the well-being of that child and others who may have been victimized later. He is now paying for that lapse in judgment with a tarnished end to a long and distinguished career.
This is not to endorse all the media moralizing, which revels in schadenfreude that another man of great reputation has been revealed to be flawed. We live in a culture that worships celebrity but seems not to want heroes, or even figures of respect. The icons of our age are the Kardashians.
Mr. Paterno has done enormous good across six decades at Penn State, especially for young people, and that legacy should not be forgotten amid the denunciations. Given the relentlessness of modern public scrutiny, and the thousands of young men who have traveled through the Penn State football program, it’s something of a miracle that Mr. Paterno could coach for 46 years without a previous notable blemish. We doubt it will happen again. It’s also something of a relief that in a culture as libertine as ours at least some behavior—sexual exploitation of children—is still considered deviant.
The events at Penn State are indeed a tragedy, and doubly so because they give new license to cynics who want Americans to believe that no one who achieves prominence in public life can be honorable.
One has to believe the Big Ten fervently hopes for a Wisconsin win Saturday. No one wants the first Big Ten football championship game in Indianapolis Dec. 3 — or even worse, the Rose Bowl Jan. 2 — to be the sidebar of a rehashing of the Penn State situation, but given how the media operates, Penn State’s going to Indy or Pasadena would make Penn State, not the game, the story.