When it was over, when Eddie Lacy had sprinted past the first-down marker and then smartly slid to stay in bounds and keep the clock running, Ted Thompson slammed his hand onto the counter in exultation. Heads turned throughout the M&T Bank Stadium press box, but the Green Bay Packers normally unemotional general manager couldn’t help himself.
“I shouldn’t have done that,” he then said, sheepishly.
Before it began, T.J. Lang had a similar moment of raw emotion. The Packers veteran guard, having been named on Friday as one of the team’s three captains for the game, had started formulating his thoughts for a pregame speech in case he was called upon. When coach Mike McCarthy gave him the go-ahead right before the team would run onto the field, Lang was ready. Sort of.
"I had a big long speech I was going to give, and then last minute, I kind of scrapped that and just started talking. I might’ve gotten a little passionate about it," Lang recounted, seemingly embarrassed that he’d been outed as the day’s motivational speaker. "(Expletive), I think I was more nervous about that than I was about playing."
In between Lang’s emotional address and Thompson’s emotional reaction, all the Packers did was deliver what could turn out to be the defining moment in their season: A 19-17 victory over the defending Super Bowl-champion Baltimore Ravens on their turf. Besieged by adversity, reeling from the loss of injured wide receivers James Jones and Randall Cobb, and with their struggling offense relying on the defense to keep them in the game until they could find a way to make a play, the Packers (3-2) just might’ve shown the world exactly what they’re made of.
"Days like today remind you of why you love this game so much," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said with a small grin. "If you ever question how much you love this game, that feeling we had in the locker room, those are the moments in 20 years you can look back and remember. Probably not the score or that stats or the final drive, but those times with your teammates."
Or, as McCarthy put it: "We talked about adversity. Our theme for the week was 'True Grit,' and we had all of that and then some today. … That's real football. That was a knock-down, drag-out (game). I'm very proud of our football team."
Not only did the Packers overcome injuries to Jones (leg) and Cobb (knee), whose prognoses are unclear; not only did the defense play brilliantly for most of the game (five sacks, only 47 rushing yards allowed) and overcome a few glaring mistakes without four-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Clay Matthews (broken thumb) and glue-guy inside linebacker Brad Jones (hamstring); not only did Lacy (23 carries, 120 yards) carry the offense when the passing game stalled without two of its top players; not only did Rodgers and last-man-standing Jordy Nelson connect on a gutsy, thing-of-beauty 64-yard touchdown that reminded everyone of how good both can be; but the game was decided on four turns of events:
The goal-line stand. It came midway through the second quarter, with the Packers up 3-0 and the Ravens punting from their own 30-yard line after another three-and-out series. Tight end Ryan Taylor burst through the line and blocked Sam Koch’s punt, but veteran fullback John Kuhn inexplicably tried to pick it up beyond the line of scrimmage. When he bungled it, the Ravens recovered and had a fresh set of downs. Two plays later, on third-and-10, quarterback Joe Flacco hit tight end Dallas Clark for a 45-yard gain, and the next thing the Packers knew, it was first-and-goal at the 4-yard line.
That’s when the Green Bay defense rose up, stuffing running back Ray Rice on first, second and third down and Bernard Pierce on fourth down to keep the Ravens off the scoreboard. The tone had been set.
"We believe we can stop pretty much any team in this league," defensive tackle B.J. Raji said. "You’re not going to stop them every play. They got a few runs on us because they’re a good team with good players, but ultimately, we feel like we can stop the run enough to win games."
No pity party. Cobb had just been hit low in the right knee by Ravens safety Matt Elam and had to be helped off the field. The players’ concern for the team’s top pass-catcher and one of its most-liked players was palpable. Then, on the next play, kicker Mason Crosby, who’d made his first 10 field-goal attempts of the regular season and was on a 23-kick streak without a miss (including last season and preseason), was wide right on a 44-yarder.
But then outside linebacker Nick Perry beat left tackle Eugene Monroe around the edge, hit and stripped Flacco in the pocket and first-round draft pick Datone Jones scooped the loose ball up and returned it 20 yards to the Baltimore 13-yard line. With two ticks left on the clock, Crosby was able to come back out and nail a 31-yarder to make it 6-0 at the break, despite it all.
"Those three points we got were big," Jones said. "I feel like if we didn’t get those three points right then and there, maybe it’s a different game."
There were plenty of those moments to come.
The clock-eater. After the bomb to Nelson made it 16-3 and the Ravens responded with a touchdown drive of their own to make it 16-10, the Packers took over at their own 16-yard line with 11 minutes, 52 seconds left in the fourth quarter. With James Jones and Cobb sidelined – Cobb watched the second half on crutches in the bench area – a three-and-out would have kept the crowd of 71,319 on its feet and intensified the Ravens’ momentum.
Instead, still playing almost every snap with two receivers (Nelson and Jarrett Boykin), two tight ends (a combination of Jermichael Finley, Andrew Quarless and Taylor) and Lacy, the Packers went 72 yards in 12 plays while chewing up 7 1/2 minutes of clock. From Rodgers’ third-and-1 strike to Nelson for a 9-yard gain to Lacy gashing the blitzing Ravens with a 17-yard run to Lacy’s second effort converting a third-and-2, by the time Crosby made his fourth field goal of the day to make it 19-10, only 4:17 remained in the game.
"That was big for us to run that clock," said Nelson, who finished with four catches for 113 yards, including the 64-yard TD. "We scored just enough to get it done."
The finishing blow. The stakes weren’t as high as they were in January 2004, but when the Packers had the Ravens in fourth-and-21 at their own 19, the game should’ve been over. Instead, safety Jerron McMillian tripped over himself while covering Baltimore wide receiver Tandon Doss on a deep ball down the middle, giving up an inexcusable 63-yard gain. The next play, the Packers coaches failed to get a defensive play call in – according to McMillian, at least – when the Ravens went no-huddle and Flacco hit Clark over McMillian for an 18-yard touchdown that made it 19-17 with 2:04 to play.
With the 2-minute warning and all of their time outs, the Ravens were primed to force a three-and-out and win the game. Instead, after Lacy was stopped for a 1-yard gain on first down and the 2-minute warning hit, the Packers got aggressive.
On second down, McCarthy called a quarterback keeper on which Rodgers faked a handoff and took off around left end, gaining 6 yards to set up third-and-3 at the Green Bay 27. And the third-down call was even gutsier.
While Rodgers (17 of 32, 315 yards, three sacks, one touchdown, one interception, 84.8 passer rating) may not have been as sharp as he normally is, he threw a laser to Finley, hitting the big tight end between the numbers on a quick crossing route at the Packers’ 36, and Finley was off to the races. And while Finley mistakenly went out of bounds at the Ravens' 21 at the end of the 52-yard gain, Lacy made sure it didn’t come back to haunt them. After being stopped for a 1-yard loss on first down, Lacy barreled up the middle – breaking at least four tackles against nine defenders – for 9 yards on second down. On third-and-2 with 1:32 to go, he got the left edge on Ravens defenders Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata and Arthur Jones, then slid down after the 4-yard gain, leading to Thompson’s – by his standards, anyway – outburst.
"We won this as a team. Obviously I’m a defensive player, I’m always going to be proud of this defense. But it’s ironic at the end that the offense stepped up and got that drive going to end up winning the game," Raji said. "That’s the type of team we have, and I’m proud to be a part of it."
When Rodgers knelt for the final play, victory was theirs. And while they don’t know what the week ahead (with injury news) or the months ahead (with plenty of games still to play) will bring, on this day, the Packers had reminded themselves what this whole thing is about – just as Lang had presciently reminded them in pregame.