Tom Oates: Packers set up for NFC North success after hard-fought win over division-rival Lions

Tom Oates: Packers set up for NFC North success after hard-fought win over division-rival Lions

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Jamaal Williams - Packers vs. Lions

Green Bay running back Jamaal Williams finished with 136 yards from scrimmage and a receiving touchdown on Monday night in the Packers' 23-22 win over the Detroit Lions at Lambeau Field in Green Bay. 

GREEN BAY — The Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions squared off Monday night in a battle for early season supremacy in the NFC North Division.

Just like everyone thought.

OK, so no one thought the Packers and Lions would be arm-wrestling over first place six games into the season. Instead, almost everyone outside of Wisconsin and Michigan had the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings as the teams to beat in the division.

But in an NFC race where 11 teams have records of 3-3 or better, the North has emerged as the deepest division and the Packers and Lions both had a chance to take early control of that division race in their nationally televised game at Lambeau Field.

In the NFL, the fastest and safest road to the playoffs goes through the division and, especially for the Packers, a victory over the Lions Monday night likely would set them up for a late-season push to the division title. The Packers had already beaten Chicago and Minnesota and beating Detroit would give them a 3-0 division record and a huge leg up on their three biggest rivals, especially with another round-robin of division games scheduled for December.

Somehow, the Packers got that done. They moved to 5-1 on the season and 3-0 in the division, but none of that looked even remotely possible until Mason Crosby's 29-yard field goal on the game's final play gave the Packers a 23-22 victory over the Lions.

Instead of what looked like a probable loss for about 3 hours, the first-year coach Matt LaFleur's magical mystery tour through the NFC North continued. The Packers won despite a comedy of errors in the first quarter, despite losing the turnover battle 3-0, despite quarterback Aaron Rodgers having to put up 10 fourth-quarter points while throwing to a bunch of no-name wide receivers and despite never leading until the game's final play.

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Packers 23, Lions 22
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Packers 23, Lions 22
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Packers 23, Lions 22
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Packers 23, Lions 22
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Packers 23, Lions 22

The Packers overcame all that to post a gritty victory, one that will serve them well later in the season.

"That was just a tough four-quarter battle," LaFleur said. "We knew they were going to be a tough challenge. Things didn't go our way obviously early, but I think it speaks a lot to the character that we have in that locker room, for our guys sticking together. We talk about never blinking, and they fought. I was so proud of the effort. We had a lot of guys that had to step up."

The Packers, whose 4-1 record coming into the game was built largely on fast starts, went in the opposite direction for the first time under LaFleur. In fact, they couldn't get out of their own way in the first quarter.

Darrell Bevell, the former University of Wisconsin quarterback who is in his first season as the Lions offensive coordinator, fooled the Packers — especially cornerback Kevin King — with a 66-yard flea-flicker on the game's opening play. The Packers limited the damage to a field goal, but the blunders were just beginning.

King let another wide receiver get behind him for a 58-yard catch. Running back Aaron Jones, coming off the best game of his career, lost a fumble in the first quarter and dropped a touchdown pass from Rodgers in the second. Wide receiver Geronimo Allison and tight end Jimmy Graham also dropped passes, Graham's coming in the end zone.

Amazingly, the Packers trailed only 13-10 at halftime after falling behind 13-0 and looking bad doing it. Credit the penalty-plagued Lions for some of that, but the Packers lacked the sharp execution early in games that had marked the first five games of LaFleur's tenure. After giving up three first-quarter points all season, they gave up 10 against the Lions. Had the defense not toughened up near the goal line, that 13-0 deficit could have been 21-0.

The Packers tied it at 13-13 in the third quarter, then fell behind again, this time by six. Rodgers quickly moved them to the 15, but on the second play the Packers returned to their bumbling ways. Wide receiver Darrius Shepherd tried to make a sliding catch at the 1, but Rodgers' pass bounced off his facemask into the hands of cornerback Justin Coleman, who returned the interception 55 yards. Undeterred, Rodgers drove them to a touchdown and a field goal even though No. 1 wide receiver Davante Adams didn't play and veteran wide receiver Geronimo Allison left with an injury.

But if the Packers are still in first place when December rolls around, they won't remember the gory details. They'll just remember the win that put them in the pole position for the division title.

In the first 17 years of the North Division, the Packers won the title nine times. They had no more than two division losses in any of those nine seasons. And of their 12 playoffs appearances, only once did they have three losses, when they went 3-3 in 2015.

Clearly, the Packers' fast start in the division bodes well for their future.

"To be 3-0 for the first time since 2012 is pretty fun," Rodgers said. "We know what's in front of us. We've got a stretch now of seven games out of the division and finish with three in the division, so we have put ourselves in a position to make a run. We've done our part so far in the division because obviously our division is deep and we've got some really good teams."

So far, the best of them is the Packers.

Contact Tom Oates at toates@madison.com

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