The Lions will play their 70th Thanksgiving Day game Thursday against Green Bay. It has been a Detroit tradition since 1934, and since he was hired in January, coach Jim Schwartz has been on a mission to protect it.
"This isn't just another game," Schwartz said. "This isn't just one of 16 for us. This is a special tradition and something we need to embrace and uphold."
As the Lions have struggled in recent history, they have also struggled in their showcase event. They have lost their last five Thanksgiving games -- all by large margins, each embarrassing in its own way.
In 2004, Peyton Manning threw six touchdown passes in three quarters, then watched the rest of the Colts' 41-9 victory. In '05, a 27-7 loss to the Falcons led to the firing of coach Steve Mariucci. In '06, quarterback Joey Harrington threw three touchdowns against his former team in a 27-10 Dolphins victory. In '07, the Lions lost to the Packers 37-26 as Detroit fizzled after a 6-2 start.
Last year, Schwartz was the Titans' defensive coordinator as they obliterated the Lions 47-10, contributing to the NFL's first 0-16 season. Even before the game, there was talk in the media that the NFL should take away the game from the Lions. It only intensified afterward.
When Schwartz interviewed for the Lions' head coaching job in January, the subject came up, and after Schwartz was hired, he told season-ticket holders in a town-hall meeting he wanted to put "barbed wire" around the game and not give anyone reason to talk about taking it away.
Finally, when the Lions held an open practice at Ford Field in August, Schwartz took the microphone and addressed the fans. More than 15,000 had come despite gloomy weather. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was visiting.
"I just said, 'Hey, look, anytime I hear somebody around the country talk about taking that game away from Detroit, I'm going to remind the commissioner about 15,000 people standing in the rain for two hours to see a practice,'" Schwartz said. "I think that says something about our fans. I think that says something about our tradition here. That needs to be remembered, and it needs to be rewarded."
Asked then about the possibility the Lions could lose the Thanksgiving Day game, Goodell said: "I don't see that in the near future."
"I don't know about ever," Goodell said, laughing. "Give me a chance here."
Now Schwartz has to back up the talk. He kicked off the short week of preparation by giving his players a history lesson and emphasizing the game's importance. He said he had more in store, but he declined to give details.
"It goes way back to before I even got the job, talking about this," Schwartz said. "Saying it doesn't make it. But we want the players to understand the significance of this game."
If anything, the players should be motivated by their only chance to play on national television all season.
"It's not just everybody watching," Schwartz said. "It's everybody with relatives, everybody meeting up with families. They're all sitting around the living room waiting for the turkey and the pumpkin pie, and they're going to turn the game on. ... You're on national television. And there's also a pride thing. You want to perform well in front of a national audience."
Schwartz remembers watching the Lions on Thanksgiving when he was growing up in Baltimore.
"Everybody always watched the Lions because the family got together and everybody was waiting for the turkey to get done," Schwartz said. "So you always caught the whole Lions game, and then you watched maybe a half of the Cowboys game before you fell asleep on the sofa. We were always getting to my grandmother's house. The Lions game was on."
SERIES HISTORY: 159th meeting. Packers lead series, 87-64-7. The Lions have lost eight straight to the Packers, including a 26-0 loss Oct. 18 at Lambeau Field. Detroit has hosted Green Bay more than any other team on Thanksgiving: 19 times. The Lions are 11-6-1 vs. Packers on Thanksgiving, but they have lost five straight Thanksgiving games, all by large margins, including a 37-26 loss to Packers in 2007.
Will Stafford play on Thanksgiving?
Quarterback Matthew Stafford didn't practice Tuesday and said he didn't know if he would play Thursday. But he said his left shoulder was improving, and he laughed when reporters said they were giving him the eyeball test as he took off his jersey in the locker room. He pulled it over his head normally. Asked if the shoulder felt good enough to play, Stafford said: "Today, probably not. It's moving in the right direction."
BY THE NUMBERS: 23.4 -- Average margin of defeat for the Lions over their last five Thanksgiving Day games.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "This game's been going on for such a long time, and it's a great chance to be on national TV and show the nation kind of what we're about. It's just something you want to keep around. You want to play on Thanksgiving Day. It's a great opportunity. It's great fun. It's awesome to be able to say you're one of two teams that gets to do it every year." -- Rookie quarterback Matthew Stafford, on the Lions' Thanksgiving tradition.