Across SB Nation, this week is Rivalry Week. Here at Acme Packing Company, we will be examining the Green Bay Packers’ greatest historical rivalries and those against their current divisional rivals. Today we begin with a look at the team’s second-oldest rival, the Detroit Lions.
The early NFL was a mix of teams in large cities and those in small ones. While Chicago and New York were well-represented in the late 1920s and early 1930s, so too were a pair of small towns: Green Bay, Wisconsin and Portsmouth, Ohio. The latter remains a small town — even smaller than it was then — and is located along the Ohio River, bordering Kentucky.
The Portsmouth Spartans formed in 1928, beginning their existence as an NFL team in 1930. In their third season, they would play for an NFL title, but after just four years, a new owner would come along to buy the team and pack them up, moving them north to Detroit, Michigan, where they would be christened with a new name: the Lions.
The Green Bay Packers’ history with the Lions goes back to the days of Portsmouth, when the two cities were by far the smallest to have NFL teams. The franchise became a divisional rival of the Packers’ in 1933, when the league first went to a divisional setup, and has been ever since.
Here’s a look at the history of these two teams’ trajectories since their first meeting 90 seasons ago.
Overall Series History
Regular season: Packers lead 100-72-7
Postseason: Packers lead 2-0
Longest streak: Lions W11, 1948-54
1930s: Portsmouth and early Packers dominance
In 1930 and 31, the Packers won NFL titles by virtue of having the league’s best winning percentage. They played the Spartans twice in those two years, both in 1930, with one 47-13 win and a 6-6 tie. The two teams finished 1-2 in 1931, but did not play each other; the Packers were awarded the title with a 12-2 record, while the Spartans finished 11-3. The Spartans split their two games with the Packers in 1932, as Green Bay handed Portsmouth its only loss before a 9-0 defeat at the hands of the Chicago Bears in the 1932 title game, the first in league history. They then split again in 1933 — the first season after the league went to a divisional format, giving the Packers a 3-2-1 record against the Spartans before they moved to Detroit in 1934.
Once the Lions were established in Detroit, the Arnie Herber-era Packers had a good run against them, going 10-3 the rest of the decade for a 13-5-1 overall record in the 30s. The Packers won four titles in the decade, in 1930, 31, 36, and 39, while the Lions won the title in 1935.
1940s: Lambeau’s Packers own Detroit despite late-decade dip
After a solid string of success in the late ‘30s, the Lions tailed off to start the next decade, bottoming out with an 0-11 campaign in 1942. That year, they scored just 38 points and allowed 263, losing ten games by double-digits. That included 38-7 and 28-7 drubbings by the Packers. The nadir was a 42-0 loss to the Bears in which the Lions turned the ball over twelve times. Detroit rebounded to go 76-3-1 in 1944 and 7-3 in ‘45, their only two winning seasons that decade.
The Packers remained excellent through the first half of the decade, winning another title in 1944, but they had some cracks starting to show in the following seasons and they dropped off a cliff in 1948, falling to 3-9.
The head-to-head results show this, with the Packers winning ten straight from 1940 to 1945 and 15 of 16 through early 1948. All told, this decade ended with the Packers going 16-4 against the Lions. The last meeting in 1949, however, would be the start of the longest streak by either team in the rivalry.
1950s: Detroit dominance
The 1950s were the Packers’ first period where they were truly bad for a sustained period. They went 6-6 twice but were 4-8 or worse in seven of the other years in that decade. Only in 1959, when Vince Lombardi took over as head coach, did the team begin to show signs of breaking out of that slump. Meanwhile, this was the Lions’ golden age, as they won three titles (1952, ‘53, and ‘57) and lost in the 1954 championship game in their bid for a three-peat.
As one would expect, Detroit dominated in this decade. Starting with that last game in 1949, the Lions won 11 straight meetings, sweeping the Packers through the 1954 season before the Packers finally got back on top with a win in early ‘55. The Packers ended up going 4-15-1 against the Lions in that decade, with two of those four wins coming in Lombardi’s rookie season in ‘59.
1960s: Lombardi struggles a bit with the Lions
For all of Vince Lombardi’s successes, the Lions were frequently a pain in his teams’ collective behind. Detroit was good for most of the decade, with a very good 11-3 season in 1962. They split with the Packers that year, but unfortunately for Detroit, their one victory was the Packers’ only loss, and they cruised to a 13-1 record and an NFL title.
However, in a decade that saw the Packers win five NFL championships and the first two Super Bowls, they only swept the Lions twice: in 1964 and in a title year in ‘66. All told, the Packers still held the upper hand, but with a record of 11-7-2. By the end of the decade, however, it looked like the two teams were moving in opposite directions following Lombardi’s departure.
1970s: Competing mediocrity
As the 70s began, it looked like the Lions were off to a good start. They made the playoffs with a 10-4 record (losing to Dallas 5-0 in what must have been a thrilling Divisional Playoff game) and were second in both points scored and allowed. Meanwhile, the Packers dipped to 6-8 and the Lions swept the two matchups. But as the decade would wear on, Detroit would struggle to break out, finishing with 6, 7, or 8 wins in eight straight years before a 2-14 implosion in 1979.
The Packers, like Detroit, would make just one playoff appearance, after a 10-4 1972 campaign, and leave the decade without a postseason victory. They had more pronounced struggles, however, finishing with five or fewer wins five times.
In the rivalry, the playoff teams each swept their rivals, but the Lions had the upper hand until about 1978, as Green Bay swept in ‘78 and ‘79. All told, the teams appropriately finished with 9-9-2 records against one another.
1980s: More of the same
The ‘80s saw these two teams continue their moribund trends from the decade before, as they made a combined three playoff appearances in the decade — with two of them coming in the 16-team postseason in 1982 following the strike-shortened season. That year, the Packers won the NFC Central at 5-3-1 and won their first playoff game since 1967, while the Lions got a wild card berth at 4-5. Detroit won the Central the next season, but they lost in both postseason games. After that, it was back to mediocrity. Neither team would be better than .500 until 1989, when the Packers finished 10-6 and just outside of the postseason.
The Lions actually dominated in the early part of the decade, however, winning seven of the first eight games including all four in ‘82 and ‘83. They would split the rest of the decade en route to a 13-7 Lions edge over Green Bay.
1990s: Brett vs. Barry
After decades of mediocrity for both teams — five combined playoff appearances in the previous two decades — the Packers and Lions would both see major resurgences in the 1990s thanks to the arrival of some star power on both rosters. Each team would make the postseason six times in the decade, though the Packers would of course claim the greatest overall success with a Super Bowl XXXI title.
The Lions drafted Barry Sanders in 1989, and under head coach Wayne Fontes, the team began to be a contender again. The 1991 team was actually the best Lions squad of the decade, as they swept the Packers in the regular season and destroyed the Cowboys in the Divisional Playoffs, losing to Washington in the NFC Championship.
It looked like Detroit was poised to dominate the NFC Central until the following season, when Ron Wolf hired Mike Holmgren and acquired Brett Favre from the Atlanta Falcons. While the Lions would win one more division title in 1993, they would split the season series and face the second-place Packers in the Wild Card round for the two teams’ first postseason matchup. In the Pontiac Silverdome, the Packers won their first playoff game since 1982 with a legendary go-ahead touchdown pass from Brett Favre to Sterling Sharpe with a minute left in the game.
After that point, it was always the Lions chasing the Packers. The two teams would meet as Wild Cards the next year, with the Packers winning 16-12 at home. From then on, the home team dominated the series for the rest of the decade — the only team to win on the road again before the turn of the millenium would be the ‘96 Packers. Overall, the Packers held an 11-9 edge in the regular season, but they won both postseason matchups.
Green Bay would win three division titles in the decade, coinciding with Favre’s three MVP awards — one of which he would share with Sanders in 1997. Detroit remained mostly competitive though, with five Wild Card appearances in the decade, including in 1999, the year after Sanders’ abrupt retirement. But Detroit did not win a postseason game after that 1991 run to the conference championship, while the Packers would bring home a title and a second Super Bowl appearance.
2000s: Packers dominate the lowly Lions
The dominance of the home team in the 1990s would carry over for one more year into 2000, but after an early Lions win in Detroit that year it would effectively be all Green Bay for the rest of the decade. While the Packers won four division titles and made six playoff appearances, the Lions had just one winning team — a 9-7 squad in 2000 — and lost double-digit games eight times. They also had their second no-win season in 2008, going 0-16.
Meanwhile, the Packers oversaw major transitions in the organization — from GM/head coach Mike Sherman to Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy, as well as at quarterback from Favre to Aaron Rodgers. All the while, they dominated the Lions, losing just three times and not once at Lambeau Field. The ten-game win streak that the Packers posted from 2005 through to early 2010 matched the Packers’ longest in the rivalry and the second-longest for either team.
2010s: Lions break the streaks and become competitive again
In 2010, the Lions broke the Packers’ ten-game streak with a 17-3 victory at Ford Field, in which Aaron Rodgers suffered a concussion. However, he returned to lead the Packers to a playoff run and a title in Super Bowl XLV. That was the second year in an eight-year playoff streak for the Packers, which continued well into the last decade. Over the past ten seasons, the Packers have made four NFC Championship Game appearances, one more than the number of playoff berths the Lions have earned in that time.
That means that the Lions returned to playing competitive football, however, particularly under head coach Jim Caldwell. They made the playoffs twice in his four seasons and had three seasons with winning records, more than the previous 13 years combined. That alone makes the team’s decision to fire him after 2017 particularly puzzling, especially given their two double-digit loss seasons since.
Still, the Lions broke a pair of notable streaks in the past decade. First, they snapped that ten-game winning streak overall in 2010 with the win at Ford Field. Then in 2015, they won their first game in Green Bay since before Favre’s arrival, snapping the Packers’ 24-game run at Lambeau Field. That contest, an 18-16 victory, buoyed the then 1-7 Lions, who finished 6-2 down the stretch for a 7-9 overall record. Of course, one of those two later losses that season came on a certain miracle Hail Mary throw at the end of regulation.)
Since then, the two teams have met in week 17 four straight years, and each of those years has seen a sweep by one team or the other. The Packers swept the 2016 and 2019 games, while the Lions ripped off a four-game streak in between, with both Lambeau wins coming with Rodgers out (with a broken collarbone in 2017) or knocked out early in the game (concussion in 2018).
For the decade, the Packers lead 12-8, bring competitiveness back to the rivalry after the previous decade of terrible Lions football.
Looking ahead to 2020s
Moving forward to the start of the next decade, the Packers look to be in the driver’s seat. With new blood at head coach and general manager and a big investment on the defense leading to a 13-3 season in 2019, the Packers look to sustain last year’s success into the next decade. The team also has a new quarterback waiting in the wings, as the franchise hopes to make it a third straight elite signal-caller.
The Lions, however, are coming off a pair of disappointing seasons under head coach Matt Patricia, whose defense fell apart in 2019. He will need to turn around the team’s fortunes quickly after a 3-12-1 campaign or else the Lions will be back cleaning house once again in an effort to return to relevance.