Packers pull off miracle in Motor City

Weston Hodkiewicz
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Green Bay Packers tight end Richard Rodgers (82) pulls in a hail mary to win the game against the Detroit Lions during Thursday night's game at Ford Field in Detroit, Mich.

DETROIT – Scott Tolzien didn’t have any doubt the moment the ball sailed out of Aaron Rodgers’ grasp and descended into the end zone.

Sure, everything was pulling against the Green Bay Packers. Yes, they’d played arguably their worst half of football to open Thursday night’s game against the Detroit Lions. But the MVP quarterback was in his element in the final moments of what can only be termed “The Miracle in the Motor City.”

With the season was on the line, Rodgers heaved a Hail Mary nearly into the rafters at Ford Field. Tight end Richard Rodgers, whose responsibility was to box out on the play, completed his career day in pulling down the 61-yard touchdown to propel the Packers to a 27-23 win over Detroit in front of a stunned crowd of 63,207.

Tolzien, in his third season with the Packers, stood on the sideline as the final play unfolded. With a battered offensive line protecting him, Rodgers rolled right out of the pocket and but there wasn’t any surprise when the ball fell into the hands of the second-year tight end.

“When he escaped with nothing but green grass in front of him, you’re like, OK, he’ll for sure get this to the end zone, but will someone make a play on it,” Tolzien said. “Still, that was a beautiful throw and I was optimistic when the ball was up in the air. You see Richy’s big paws underneath the ball, it’s always a good sign.”

It looked like the Packers were headed toward their fifth loss in the past six games after Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford found T.J. Jones across the middle for a 29-yard gain just out of the reach of Quinten Rollins’ outstretched arms, converting a third-and-12 with Green Bay out of timeouts.

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Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) celebrates after throwing a game winning 61-yard pass as the clock expired against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field in Detroit December 3, 2015.

Aaron Rodgers had 23 seconds left to work with after the defense finally gave them the ball back. Two incompletions left only 6 seconds on the clock. The game appeared to be over after the final lateral play died in the arms of Rodgers, but Lions end Devin Taylor was flagged for a facemask on the hit.

Despite no time remaining, the game was extended for one last Hail Mary where Rodgers connected for the eighth and final time with the second-year tight end, who finished with a career-high 162 receiving yards.

“We practiced it a little bit in pre-game,” Rodgers said. “Aaron was throwing up really high balls and I was catching them. I’m kind of saw the same thing. I ran down there, saw the ball and made sure I was in the end zone, and went up and caught it.”

“It’s written in the playbook that it’s my job to box out and Davante’s supposed to jump and I’m supposed to wait for a tip. I might get an MA (missed assignment) for that. I’ll take it, I guess.”

The Packers encountered a lot of adversity even before the game started with right tackle Bryan Bulaga (ankle) and right guard T.J. Lang (shoulder) sitting out, and center Corey Linsley aggravating his sprained ankle in the second quarter and not returning. At one point, left tackle David Bakhtiari also left with a knee injury before returning on the next series.

It didn’t look like there would be any hope for a comeback early on when the Packers fell behind 17-0 in the first 14 minutes. Surprisingly, the Packers opted to start James Starks over Eddie Lacy, who was coming off back-to-back 100-yard performances.

The Packers finally deployed Lacy on their third series, but the drive lasted only two plays when Rodgers’ pass intended for James Jones was picked off in the middle of the field. The throw was high, but it flew through Jones’ hands and into safety Glover Quin.

The Lions scored on the next play with Stafford hitting receiver Calvin Johnson for a 17-yard touchdown to take a 17-0 lead with 1 minute, 2 seconds still left in the first quarter.

More troubling than the lack of offensive execution on the first three series was how the Packers responded after it. The defense held the Lions to two three-and-outs on its next possession and then a four-and-out before halftime, but the offense struggled to ignite.

When the Packers finally mounted a drive in the second quarter, Mason Crosby then missed a 41-yard field goal that bounced off the left upright and trailed 17-0 at halftime. It was the first time in 56 games the Packers were shutout in the first half of a game and extended their scoreless streak to four quarters.

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Looking to spark a running game that produced 16 yards in the first half, the Packers resorted to using rookie running back John Crockett in the backfield to start the third quarter. He said he was notified at the team hotel three hours before the game that he was going to be activated from the practice squad.

It seemed to work with Crockett tying the offense’s first half ground production with three carries for 16 yards on the series. The Packers converted their first down on the series with Rodgers hitting Richard Rodgers near the sideline for a 26-yard gain.

Starks then put the Packers to the Detroit 8 on a 26-yard screen pass. Starks fumbled on his next carry at the Lions’ 3, but the ball fell forward and into the arms of Cobb in the end zone for Green Bay’s first touchdown in nearly 70 minutes of play.

The defense then earned a much-needed turnover on the Lions’ first possession with Julius Peppers beating left tackle Riley Reiff around the edge and stripping Stafford of the ball at Detroit 12. Three players later, Rodgers connected with Davante Adams for his first touchdown since Week 11 of last season.

“It was huge because we needed the momentum,” said defensive tackle B.J. Raji of the play. “We needed a short field for our offense to score in a hurry. Pep has been doing it his whole career and he stepped up one more time.

The Lions looked to seal it when they went ahead 23-14 after Matt Prater’s 42-yard field goal with 7:06 left in the game after the 13-play, 34-yard series ate up almost seven minutes.

The series belonged to Aaron Rodgers, who converted a fourth-and-1 with a 16-yard pass to Cobb early in the drive. He then found Richard Rodgers on back-to-back gains of 26 and 11 yards before finishing the drive himself with a 17-yard touchdown scramble on third-and-10 to cut the deficit to 23-21.

One defensive stop later, the Packers were shouting in exhilaration after Rodgers completed his 24th and final pass to allow Green Bay (8-4) to escape with a much-needed victory after a grueling stretch of four games in 19 days.

Afterward, coach Mike McCarthy told his team in the post-game locker room to spring board off this victory. If so, the Packers know who to thank.

“He’s the leader of our team,” said Tolzien of Rodgers, who Rodgers completed 24-of-36 passes for 273 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. “He’s so resilient. He doesn’t flinch when the game is on the line. There’s no one you’d rather have the ball in the hand than him. He creates so much and that was just another example.” and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.

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