The urgency, importance and necessity of Sunday night’s NFC North title game was greatly diminished about 60 minutes before kickoff when the Washington Redskins lost to the New York Giants. That defeat meant that both the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions would qualify for the playoffs no matter what happened on Sunday Night Football. But there was, of course, the matter of the division championship and the home playoff game that comes with it and Green Bay came out the winner. Or did they?
With the 31-24 victory over Detroit, Green Bay earned the No. 4 seed (the lowest for a division champion) and a home date with the top wild-card team, the New York Giants. By virtue of their loss, Detroit snuck into the playoffs as the second wild-card team, just ahead of the Redskins. As a No. 6 seed, the Lions will travel to the home of the third-seeded Seattle Seahawks for their wild-card game next weekend.
If only it were so simple.
Green Bay hosts the Giants, who went 11-5 in the best division in football and have allowed 10 points or fewer in three of their past four games. Two of those three performances came vs. playoff teams and the other was Sunday against the Washington team that should have been. With that defense, an explosive Odell Beckham Jr. and Eli Manning, who loves nothing more than slowly plodding through playoff road games en route to a surprise Super Bowl, is that a team you want to see? Green Bay knows the answer. The Giants are 5-0 in their last five playoff road games and two those five games came at Lambeau in 2007 and 2011, the years Manning won his two Super Bowls. Prior to 2007, Green Bay had lost two playoff games ever at home (and ever goes back to 1939). In a five-year stretch, Eli Manning and the Giants doubled that.
Meanwhile, the Seahawks barely beat a 49ers team that was playing in the midst of a palace coup. Yes, they were 7-1 at home and a less-than-mediocre 3-4-1 on the road, proving the importance of CenturyLink Field, but six of those seven wins were against Miami, San Francisco, Buffalo, Philadelphia, Carolina and Los Angeles, no murderer’s row. The seventh win wasn’t really a win at all – it was their annual home-game gift from the officials, when Richard Sherman mugged Julio Jones and wasn’t called for a pass interference penaltythat would have set up a game-winning field goal by Atlanta. If we give that one to the Falcons, then Seattle was 6-2 at home with one win over a playoff team – and we use that term as loosely as possible – with its two-point victory in Week 1 over the Dolphins, a team that started 1-4 before winning nine of 10 to clinch a wild-card berth. This is hardly the Seahawks we’ve come to know over the past five years.
Sure, that stadium in Seattle is the equivalent of a tin coffin outfitted in speakers borrowed from the set of a Fast and the Furious movie. It’s loud. It’s obnoxious. Just hearing Seattleites talk about the 12th man is enough to sap your will to even play the sport. That doesn’t even mention that the ‘Hawks have won their last nine postseason games at home and are 9-1 at the stadium in its history, making for just as good a home-field advantage as Lambeau. Still, you can’t help but get the feeling this Seattle team is vulnerable and Green Bay is the team to prove it – the Packers went to overtime in Seattle in the 2014 NFC championship, narrowly losing a game in which the Pack held a 19-7 fourth-quarter lead. The same way the Giants know the Packers can be had at Lambeau, the Packers know the Seahawks can be had at CenturyLink.
Those stadiums aside, home vs. road doesn’t mean much in the opening round of the playoffs. Road teams swept last year’s wild-card games and are 24-24 over the past 12 seasons.
Of course, these team have their eyes on more than just the wild card. With a win, Detroit would be assured of traveling to top-seeded Dallas for the divisional playoffs, not exactly an enviable assignment. But if Green Bay wins its game and the Lions don’t, the Packers would travel to Dallas (and Seattle would play at No. 2 seed Atlanta). It’s about a 50/50 shot Green Bay will have to play at Dallas anyway – not that the Cowboys are the end-all, be-all of the NFC. Winning at the Georgia Dome isn’t exactly an easy task either.
The only game that matters is the one in front of you, but if you’re the look-ahead type (like all those Redskins fans who spent this week figuring out where they’d travel as that No. 6 seed) the scenario looks like this:
No. 4 Green Bay: vs. Giants, at Cowboys or Falcons
No. 6 Detroit: at Seahawks, at Cowboys
I’m taking the “worse” draw every time.
The Packers are on a six-game winning streak and Aaron Rodgers may have just clinched the MVP with a four-touchdown night in Detroit. Who or where they play may be irrelevant. But it’s now the NFL playoffs and nothing will come easy nor will anything be handed to you. The Green Bay Packers were going to have a tough ride to their ultimate destination – Houston on Feb. 5 for Super Bowl LI – no matter what happened on Sunday night. It just so happens that the tougher ride came with the spoils of victory.
So if Green Bay lost by winning, did Detroit win by losing? Eh, not so much. The Lions have lost three straight games and didn’t defeat a single team in the 2016 playoff field. At this point, I’m not sure I’d pick them to win their wild-card game even if they somehow got to host the Browns.