Ryan Grant hadn't been gone that long, had he? The last time the veteran running back had been part of the Green Bay Packers' offense – just last season – quarterback Aaron Rodgers was filling the skies with footballs, the Packers were scoring almost at will on their way to the second-most points in NFL history, and the running game was a play-calling afterthought.
But when things were on the line Sunday night – in a tie game, in the snow, in the fourth quarter – Packers coach Mike McCarthy took it on the run. The coach who constantly describes his offense as quarterback driven – including, it would turn out, later that very night – turned the keys over to the running backs and the offensive line.
And they most certainly ran with it.
"That's not necessarily what I'm used to," Grant – signed at midweek off the street – said with a laugh after the Packers' 27-20 victory over the Detroit Lions at Lambeau Field. "But we appreciate it."
Tied at 17-17 when they took over with 14 minutes 49 seconds left in the game, the Packers ran the ball seven times – Alex Green four times for 24 yards, Grant once for 13 yards and practice-squad call-up DuJuan Harris twice for 19 yards, including the go-ahead 14-yard touchdown – while the reigning NFL MVP happily handed it off again and again and again. If there was ever a question that this team is different than last year's, this was it.
"A couple passes in there would've been nice," joked Rodgers, who failed to throw a touchdown pass in a victory for the first time since Oct. 31, 2010 at the New York Jets – and didn't seem to mind at all.
"I've put up plenty of numbers in the past and we've won a lot of games here. When you go through a season like last year, you realize that the numbers and the wins in the regular season are nice, but it's all about the championship, especially after you've accomplished a lot of individual goals.
"We'd love to be a more explosive offense at this point in the season, but we have to get healthy in some areas and we're going to have to win some games like this."
The Packers (9-4) have now won enough games like this that they find themselves alone atop the NFC North, a game ahead of the Chicago Bears (8-5) in advance of next Sunday's showdown at Soldier Field. A victory next Sunday would clinch the division title.
"You have to feel good about where we're at. We're not perfect right now, but we keep finding ways to get these wins," cornerback Tramon Williams said. "That doesn't come easy in this league. We just have to keep getting better. Hopefully we can do that."
In addition to their first-place standing in the division, the Packers stayed a half-game behind San Francisco (9-3-1) in the race for the conference's No. 2 seed and a first-round playoff bye. While by this time last season they'd already won the division and were well on their way to the conference's No. 1 seed at 15-1, everything fell apart in an NFC Divisional Playoff loss to the eventual Super Bowl-champion New York Giants.
In an interview with Bob Costas that ran before NBC's Sunday Night Football broadcast, McCarthy had confessed that sometimes last year's high-powered offense was detrimental to the team as a whole. "We were almost a fast-break offense. It was wide open," McCarthy told Costas. "I don't know if it was always the best thing for the rest of our team, particularly our defense. I hate to say that we're designing to score less points, but I think we're a little more conscientious of field position, time of possession, things that will make us a more well-rounded football team."
Somehow, it's working – although on Sunday night, the Lions (4-9) sure helped the cause. For while the Packers running backs delivered what would turn out to be the game-winning TD drive, it was an old high-school running back-turned-defensive lineman who turned the game around, thanks to quarterback Matthew Stafford.
After getting out to a 14-0 lead and still up 14-3 with 6 minutes, 26 seconds left in the first half, the Lions had first-and-10 from the Green Bay 32-yard line. The Packers defense, playing with just four healthy defensive linemen, would spend the entire game in their sub packages (nickel, dime) with only two down linemen on the field, and to that point, the Lions were having their way with them. There was no reason to think the defense would rise up and force a punt, much less stem the tide.
But then Stafford lost control of the ball when he cocked his arm for a screen pass to the left, then watched as rookie defensive end Mike Daniels – a running back and linebacker in high school who'd been converted in college at Iowa – scoop up the loose ball and return it 43 yards for a touchdown. Instead of a 21-3 Lions lead, the Packers were within 14-10.
"I think it was a turning point in the game," admitted Lions coach Jim Schwartz, whose team according to Elias Sports Bureau tied an NFL record by losing its third consecutive game in which it had led by 10 points or more at some juncture. "But we had plenty of time after that to get things going."
Added Stafford, who then threw an interception to Sam Shields on the ensuing possession to squelch another scoring chance: "That was a big play. We had all the momentum. I thought we came out in the first half and played really good football – on both sides, really.
"We've been in every single game we played this year, but being in games doesn't mean (expletive) in this league. It's about getting wins."
And that's precisely what the Packers are finding a way to get. Getting the ball to start the second half, they drove 74 yards in eight plays, with Rodgers pulling the ball down on a third-and-4 play from the Detroit 27-yard line and taking off for paydirt, splitting two Lions defenders before holding the ball out in front of him for the final 8 yards or so. When the ball crossed the plane, the Packers had a 17-14 lead.
"For him to score from that distance I think speaks volumes about his athletic ability," McCarthy said. "He's our guy, he's our ace, it's built around him. And he played well again tonight."
It may be built around him, but the run game proved to be a welcome complement Sunday night, as Rodgers failed to throw a touchdown pass for just the eighth time since taking over as a starter to open the 2008 season.
"I don't remember the last time we did something like that," said Grant, who joined the Packers in 2007. "(But) the backfield will take it, the line will take it and Aaron will take it as well."
While the Packers' undermanned run defense was getting things figured out – after allowing 117 yards on the ground in the first half, the defense gave up only 18 yards the rest of the way – the Packers run game finally got its chance. On the two drives after Rodgers' TD run – one ending in a punt, the other in a 51-yard missed field-goal attempt by Mason Crosby – McCarthy called only three runs out of 11 plays.
When 42-year-old kicker Jason Hanson – who dropped to 0-22 all-time against the Packers at Lambeau Field, where the Lions haven't won since 1991 – missed his own 51-yarder after tying the game on a 46-yarder earlier, McCarthy dialed up Green on four straight runs (4-, 2-, 10- and 9-yard gains), brought in Grant for his first snap (a 13-yard run off left guard) and then turned it over to Harris, who watched right guard Josh Sitton and right tackle Don Barclay seal a hole that pulling left guard Evan Dietrich-Smith cleared of linebacker DeAndre Levy to spring him for the TD.
"It opened up beautifully, and I had to hit it," said Harris, who finished with a career-best 31 yards on seven carries. "It was right there."
And now, despite their replacement referee-caused, asterisk-worthy last-second loss in Seattle, the Packers are right there, in position to do what they failed to do last year – win a title. The team is hoping to have outside linebacker Clay Matthews (hamstring), veteran safety Charles Woodson (collarbone), wide receiver Jordy Nelson (hamstring) and left guard T.J. Lang (ankle) back for the Bears, and if they play like themselves, another hot finish – like the one they rode to the Super Bowl XLV title in 2010 – could be in the offing.
"All of the things we've been going through, we just talked (as) players, it's just preparing us for something great. That's how we look at it," veteran defensive tackle Ryan Pickett said. "All of the injuries we have, and we're overcoming it. This has been a tough year for us, and we've just been finding ways to win. So I just think this is preparing us for something great.
"Fifteen and one is great. I wouldn't mind being that right now. It's been tough. We've had to earn everything we have this year. It's been a learning experience."
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on "Green & Gold Today" on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.
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