The Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions have a much stranger history than they’re often credited for. That’s probably in part because out of the Packers’ three division rivals, the Lions have the least built-in hatred.
Packers fans have hated the Bears since approximately the dawn of time, and since it’s easy to root against a team with garish purple uniforms and a giant horn in their stadium, the Lions find themselves well behind the Vikings, too.
But don’t sleep on the Packers/Lions rivalry, because it has its merits, too. Take the year 1994, for instance. Due to scheduling quirks, the Packers and Lions tangled five times in that calendar year.
The first game came at the conclusion of the 1993 season, when the Packers and Lions met for a very unusual Week 18 matchup on January 2, 1994. The The NFL ran a one season experiment in 1993, offering teams two bye weeks, pushing the final week of the regular season into 1994.
Like this season, the contest was a de facto division title game, with the two 9-6 teams vying for the NFC Central crown. The Lions picked off Brett Favre four times and put up two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to secure a 30-20 win.
The victory was all the more impressive because it came with Barry Sanders on the sideline. He’d been injured and missed the final five games of the 1993 season.
For all their trouble, the Lions earned the honor of facing the Packers again in the Wild Card round, and the January 8, 1994 matchup proved to be much different. Sanders, now healthy, ran wild, piling up 169 yards on 27 carries. But he was no match for Brett Favre and Sterling Sharpe, who hooked up for three touchdowns. The last one was a legendary game winner, putting the Packers up 28-24.
The two teams renewed their rivalry in Week 10 of the 1994 season. On a 48-degree November afternoon in Milwaukee, the Packers sprinted to a 31-7 lead at the half and cruised to a 38-30 win. Favre was again magnificent, completing 23 of 33 passes for 275 yards and three touchdowns. Sanders was limited (in part by the score) to just 47 yards on 15 carries.
Sanders turned the tables when the teams met just under a month later. On the fast track at the Pontiac Silverdome, Sanders gashed the Packers for 188 yards on just 20 carries. Favre threw two interceptions; the second was a backbreaker on a 3rd and 3 pass from the Lions’ 17-yard-line with just over three minutes to play. Detroit prevailed, 34-31.
The 1994 playoff race was truly bizarre. The Vikings took the NFC Central with a 10-6 record, but the Packers, Lions, and Bears all finished at 9-7. Thanks to the NFL’s Byzantine tiebreakers, all three made the playoffs, leaving the New York Giants on the outside looking in with a 9-7 record of their own.
As a result, the Packers had the chance to host the Lions on the final day of 1994. Green Bay proceeded to put together one of the best defensive performances ever, holding Barry Sanders, the NFL’s leading rusher, to -1 yard on 13 carries.
The five-game series was remarkably close. The cumulative score was 133-130 in favor of the Packers, and both sides saw dominant performances at times from their stars. In a way, the 1994 calendar year personified the highlights and shortcomings of the two brightest stars on the field: Brett Favre and Barry Sanders.
At his best, there was nothing the Lions could do to stop Favre. What defense could you design that could reasonably be expected to stop the guided-missile strike that beat the Lions in the 1993 playoffs?
At his worst, Favre all but handed games to opponents, and the Lions benefited from that tendency in the December 4 game.
Likewise, at his apex, Barry Sanders was almost literally untouchable. Even if you did get a hand on him, it often didn’t do you any good. The Packers learned that lesson the hard way at the Silverdome in the 1993 playoffs and during the 1994 regular season.
But like Favre, Sanders could be victimized by his own success, and was often corralled behind the line of scrimmage as he tried to make something out of nothing. The Packers gave him a whole lot of nothing to work with in the 1994 playoffs, to iconic results.
After 1994, the Packers and Lions went in dramatically different directions. The Packers, ascending with their young star quarterback, made deep playoff runs for most of the rest of the decade, including two Super Bowl appearances and one victory. The Lions, meanwhile, appeared in just two more playoff games through the rest of the Barry Sanders era, exiting meekly both times.
Recent seasons have renewed the rivalry somewhat. The 2015 season saw to that, with a spectacular Hail Mary win for the Packers and the Lions’ first win at Lambeau Field in a generation. But unless Sunday’s contest in Detroit turns into an instant classic, nothing will match the strangeness of the 1994 calendar year.