GREEN BAY — It might have been the earliest must-win game in Green Bay Packers history.
Entering their eighth game of the season and their second without quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the Packers had a green-and-golden opportunity Monday night at Lambeau Field to show that the rest of their season won't be an exercise in futility.
Indeed, conditions were never going to be more ideal for a team that must prove it can win games with the NFL's best player standing on the sideline in street clothes.
First, the opponent was the Detroit Lions, who had a three-game losing streak and win games on Wisconsin soil about once a decade, if that.
Second, the Packers were coming off a bye week, which is usually when coach Mike McCarthy and his staff do their best work. Green Bay was 9-2 after bye weeks since 2006.
Finally, after slogging through a sea of injuries to open the season with a 4-3 record, the Packers were as healthy as they've been since the opener. Other than Rodgers, every starter was ready to play against the Lions.
With both teams already chasing the 6-2 Minnesota Vikings in the NFC North Division, the game was basically a survival test. But the truth is, the game was about much more than keeping within shouting distance of the division leaders.
More than anything, the Packers had to show they can function at a competitive level without their star quarterback, the one player who has the ability to erase all their mistakes. If they can't do that, the standings aren't going to matter anyway. To succeed without Rodgers, the Packers needed a concentrated effort from everyone in the operation.
Replacement quarterback Brett Hundley had to show he can throw the ball consistently downfield. The running game had to show it can thrive even when defenses know it is the Packers' No. 1 option. The defense had to show it can keep an elite quarterback — in this case, Matthew Stafford — from marching the ball up and down the field at will. And McCarthy had to show that he's willing to take some chances despite having a young quarterback directing his team.
With so much at stake and so much to prove, what did the Packers do?
They failed miserably on almost all fronts in a 30-17 loss to the Lions. They played timidly on offense out of the gate, never did find an answer for Stafford and never gave themselves any kind of chance to win the game.
All in all, the game looked suspiciously like Hundley's first start, a 26-17 loss to the New Orleans Saints leading into the bye week. Even with two weeks to prepare for the Lions, the Packers showed that nothing has changed.
Now they're facing an uphill battle in the division race, trailing the Vikings by two games. But talking about this team making the playoffs is wasted energy at this point. Rodgers' importance to the Packers was never more evident than it was Monday night and he will return for the final game or two at the earliest. By then, he might not be needed.
"If we keep playing like this," cornerback Davon House said, "it's not going to be pretty."
Things looked promising when Green Bay took the opening kickoff and nickel-and-dimed its way to Detroit's 20-yard line. But Mason Crosby's field-goal attempt was blocked when the snap from Derek Hart, Green Bay's third long-snapper this season, was low and to the right.
One of the cardinal rules of playing with an inexperienced quarterback is that everyone has to elevate his play and help the new guy out. The Packers didn't do that on offense, defense or special teams.
On Detroit's opening series, the Packers forced a third-down incompletion, but defensive end Mike Daniels was penalized for head-butting a Lions lineman after the play. Yes, this was the same self-appointed team spokesman who promised that the defense would play with attitude and play to the whistle. Instead, he committed what McCarthy called a "bonehead" penalty well after the whistle.
McCarthy's approach was curious as well. Much like the Saints game, Hundley was reduced to throwing short, safe passes, mostly screens and passes to the flat. Hundley said downfield passes were called but weren't available. Still, it wasn't until the second half that he completed a pass with a throw that carried 10 or more yards down the field, a big reason Green Bay was 2-for-9 on third-down conversions.
But that wasn't all. Nothing buys a young quarterback time to throw more than a running game, but McCarthy all but abandoned it after the opening drive.
Still, the biggest problem was the defense. Much like Drew Brees and Atlanta's Matt Ryan earlier in the season, Stafford moved his team up and down the field virtually at will, completing 26 of 33 passes for 361 yards and two touchdowns.
The Lions were 8-for-13 on third-down conversions and never once punted. In fact, the Packers haven't forced on in six quarters, a startling indictment of coordinator Dom Capers' continuing inability to get his defense up to speed against top quarterbacks.
Afterward, McCarthy defended his young quarterback.
"Brett Hundley played better today," he said. "I have great faith in Brett Hundley. Brett Hundley's not our issue right now."
If he's not, then everything else is.