It Doesn't Matter If the Packers Lose to the Lions on Thanksgiving

The undefeated Green Bay team can still go on to win the Super Bowl, even if it falls to Detroit tomorrow—as it learned a half-century ago

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Reuters

Though fans who discovered pro football in the age of television don't know it, the marriage of the NFL and Thanksgiving Day dates all the way back to 1934, but in 1951, for reasons not interesting enough to relate here, the Detroit Lions were sanctioned by the league as the "official" Thanksgiving Day home team. (In 1966, the Dallas Cowboys lobbied for and were also granted an annual Turkey Day game.)

Detroit was and still is a curious place to play a holiday game. The Lions never had much of a football history to boast of, winning just four championships in the old NFL and, since the Super Bowl was inaugurated after the 1966 season, none at all. The yearly game was often the biggest turkey that Lions fans had to swallow—despite their presumed home field advantage, the Lions have won just 33, lost 39, and tied two. 

It comes as no surprise, then, that you have to be over 50 to remember the most remarkable game in Detroit football history. Fifty seasons ago, on November 22, 1962,  just as the NFL was bursting into the consciousness of the American sports fan, Vince Lombardi's defending champion Green Bay Packers came to Detroit with a perfect 10-0 record to face their archrivals, who were 8-2 and spoiling for a fight after being the only team to have come close to beating Green Bay earlier in the year, losing 9-7 on a last-minute field goal.

The 1962 Thanksgiving Day game was an upset that stunned a national audience: The Lions' sturdy defense sacked Green Bay quarterback Bart Starr 12 times, ran up a 26-0 lead, and won 26-14.  In no game before or after was Starr sacked more than twice during that season.

Tomorrow, another 10-0 Green Bay team, a defending champion like its 1962 ancestor, will play in Detroit against their still-archrival Lions, who are 7-3 and looking for their best season in nearly half a century.  As of Tuesday night, the Packers are 6 1/2-point favorites, just as they were in 1962.

So will history repeat itself?  As Yogi Berra might put it, even if it did, it wouldn't.

No matter what happens Thursday at Detroit's Ford Field, the differences between the Packers and Lions of then and now are so vast as to provide a virtual cutaway view of how the game has evolved. First, and most obvious, there are more players. Rosters in 1962 were just 40 men; now an NFL team is allowed to have 53 players at its disposal and suit up 45 at game time. Players today are specialists, not required to run, block, kick, and even throw like the most publicized star of he 1962 Packers, Paul "Golden Boy" Hornung. Now there are specialists for each different task. 

Players are nearly 60 pounds heavier per man today, with most of that weight concentrated in a few positions on the offensive and defensives lines. In 1962, the Packers had, by consensus, the best offensive line in football with three future Hall of Famers—center Jim Ringo, left guard Fuzzy Thurston, and offensive tackle Forrest Gregg—and a fourth, nine-time All-Pro guard Jerry Kramer, who should be enshrined in Canton.

But the Packers weighed around 245 pounds a man across that line, and on this day, at least, they could not control the larger and more powerful Detroit linemen, who included 300-pound tackle Roger Brown and future star of Monday Night Football and Blazing Saddles, Alex Karras.  Why was Green Bay outmanned up front?  For the simple reason that pro football in the early 1960s was primarily a game of ground attack, supplemented by occasional air support. The way Lombardi's Packers played offense, the point was to out-finesse opposing defenses and wear them down with a battering-ram running game.

Presented by

Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and TheAtlantic.com. His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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