The last time Detroit played at Lambeau Field it knew the game was, by some definition, meaningless.
It was the final week of the 2022 season. Seattle had won earlier in the day, eliminating the Lions from the playoffs. Green Bay, however, had everything to play for; a wild card was there to be had.
Detroit won anyway, 20-16.
The Lions' effort was fueled in part because they are professionals, in part because they wanted to keep their rivals from the playoffs and in part because sending the Packers reeling might help push Aaron Rodgers out of town.
And thus out of the NFC North.
Sure enough, Rodgers left, heading to the New York Jets of the AFC East. You could practically hear the sighs of relief — if not screams of joy — in Chicago, Minnesota and Detroit.
The NFC North was formed in 2002, a byproduct of the shuffling needed when the expansion Houston Texans joined the NFL. Ever since, it’s been dominated by one franchise — Green Bay. The Packers have captured it more than half the time (12 of 21 seasons) while winning more than two-thirds of its divisional games (84-40-2). A lot of that can be credited to two players — Rodgers and his Packers quarterbacking predecessor Brett Favre.
So when Rodgers left, the thinking went that maybe, just maybe, everyone else might have a chance during an uncertain Packers' rebuild.
In other words, the Jordan Love era.
Detroit returns to Green Bay on Thursday, a battle of 2-1 teams, and it is the first real chance for Love to prove himself. Can he live up to this elite lineage? Can he own the division? Can he at least keep the Pack competitive?
Love, like Rodgers before him, is a former first-round draft pick that spent multiple seasons learning under a legend. It’s the Green Bay way.
He is, by no means, Favre or Rodgers — Super Bowl champs, league MVPs and either current or future Hall of Famers. Certainly not after three games.
Love is a guy with a 53.1 percent completion percentage. That said, he has looked at times more promising than maybe most predicted. He’s thrown seven touchdowns against one interception. He can run. He carries himself like a pro. He was pretty sharp in the preseason, for whatever that is worth.
Either way, this is when the work begins. Part of Green Bay’s formula for excellence over the last couple decades was built on owning the NFC North and skating to the playoffs with homefield advantage. It posted 5-1 marks in the division seven times and perfect 6-0 campaigns twice.
Green Bay won an absurd 66.7 percent of intra-divisional games from 2002-2022. That included a 30-11-1 mark (.714) against the Bears and a 29-13 record (.690) against the Lions. A slightly more modest 25-16-1 (.610) against the Vikings is the closest thing to competition.
This is similar to what New England did during its Tom Brady heyday, winning the AFC East 17 of 19 times. Brady himself went 86-22 (.796) against divisional opponents while in Foxborough.
The thing is, when Brady left for Tampa Bay in 2020, the Patriots didn’t just install another Tom Brady the way Green Bay did with Favre to Rodgers. The Pats haven’t won the division since. (In 2021, Brady, for good measure, went 4-0 against the AFC East as a Buc.)
So you can understand the NFC North’s Green Bay-inspired PTSD.
Love is already 1-0 in the division after throwing three touchdowns to help the Packers win at Chicago. Beating the Bears this season probably isn’t much of an accomplishment, though.
Detroit should be. It was the Lions, despite having never won the NFC North, who were the preseason betting favorite to take the division.
Part of why the Lions became a popular Super Bowl pick despite not having won a playoff game in over three decades is because the NFC North looked like an open lane. The Bears looked bad, the Vikings were questionable (both are currently winless) and Green Bay was a mystery at QB.
Love is less of a mystery now. Not a finished product. Not a star. Certainly not as good, on paper, as the Lions' Jared Goff. Love hasn’t been terrible though. And it’s still early.
That’s part of what makes this game — a Thursday in September — carry more neighborhood meaning than at first glance.
Detroit, just like its last visit, is trying to make it clear this is a new day.
Jordan Love is looking to prove that he can help carry the past into the future and this division still runs through Green Bay.