History will remember the play and for good reason.
It's not every day quarterback Aaron Rodgers uncorks a 61-yard touchdown pass to tight end Richard Rodgers with no time remaining to beat the Detroit Lions 27-23 and prevent the Green Bay Packers from stumbling to their fifth loss in six games.
However, amid the pandemonium of victory was an image coach Mike McCarthy won't soon forget. The sight of the second-year tight end swarmed in a sea of hugs and high-fives from teammates and coaches. For a moment, weeks of frustration were absolved. The offense no longer was struggling, and lapses in preparation and accountability were non-existent.
On this night, everything finally went right for the Packers when it truly mattered most.
“Outside of the Super Bowl, to me, that’s our greatest regular-season win,” said McCarthy, who admitted Monday he had a hard time going to sleep once the team arrived back in Green Bay. “Obviously, (there’s) the play, but the reaction on the sideline -- that’s the stuff you remember. I get the biggest kick just seeing our guys, the joy that they had and the excitement and the locker room. It was phenomenal.”
The play showcased Rodgers’ exceptional arm talent and erased the bad taste of an atrocious offensive performance in the first half. The Packers started the game 0-for-6 on third downs and were shut out during the opening 30 minutes for the first time in 56 games, according to CBS Stats. Trailing 17-0 at halftime, it appeared the Packers were unraveling at the seams.
Eddie Lacy’s limited usage was difficult to grasp at first, but his return to the bench made sense after Friday’s revelation that the third-year running back and rookie Alonzo Harris missed curfew Wednesday night. Harris was released hours before the game, and Lacy touched the ball only six times (all in the first half) on 19 snaps.
The lack of a consistent run game along with a banged-up offensive line played a role in the Packers falling behind early, but McCarthy still told his team at halftime that he felt it wouldn’t lose so long as the offense fixed some of its operational issues. Too often, it was starting in first-and-20 situations.
“We’re down 17 points but just the reality from the way we were playing and the things were happening to us,” McCarthy said. “Offensively, the penalties and the long down-and-distances. We could not overcome that. It really was a pretty big factor in our offensive production.”
The offense’s turnaround in the second half – 27 points and 235 total yards – was a product of an unexpected spark from running back John Crockett, increased production from Richard Rodgers and the brilliance of the NFL’s reigning MVP quarterback.
After Aaron Rodgers completed the comeback, head official Carl Cheffers reminded McCarthy his team needed to kick the extra point. McCarthy laughed, telling him, ‘It’s going to be a couple minutes. I’m not stopping this.”
McCarthy and his team have been on the losing end of a few last-second comebacks in recent years, mostly notably to the Seattle Seahawks. After the infamous Fail Mary game against Seattle in 2012, Green Bay fell victim to another disappointing late-second loss in January's NFC championship game.
Thursday's remarkable comeback led to a humorous exchange between coach and official when McCarthy said he’d kick the extra point with the game no longer in question.
“(Cheffers) said, ‘You’re really going to kick it?’” McCarthy recalled. “I said, ‘I’ve never really been in this spot before, Carl.’ Then, I said, ‘Well, I should just kneel on it.’ He says, ‘Oh yeah, that’s what he would do.’ I said, ‘OK, let’s kneel on it.’
“It was good to have great help from the officiating,” he then deadpanned.
Many players agreed they’d never been a part of a victory like that, and the excitement afterward in the locker room reflected it. McCarthy’s challenge to his team afterward was to use the victory to springboard the Packers in their final four games of the regular season.
If they didn’t pull through, the narrative around the team would have been drastically different Friday morning after Rodgers and the offense failed to pull off fourth-quarter comebacks in home losses to the Lions and the Chicago Bears last month.
Thursday’s game ended a stretch of four NFC North games in a span of 19 days and pulled Green Bay (8-4) back to within a half game of Minnesota for the division lead. If the Vikings should falter Sunday against Seattle (6-5), the Packers would surge back to the top thanks to their 30-13 win over Minnesota two weeks ago.
“It’s one win. It’s a division win, but I think this stretch that we talked about, the second stage of our season," McCarthy said. "We knew this was going to be the trials of our schedule, and it’s definitely been that. There’s a lot to learn from what we’ve been through, and we need to carry it forward.”
One win won’t erase all of the Packers’ problems, particularly on offense. Lacy’s demotion only intensifies the nagging questions about whether Green Bay has enough firepower around Rodgers to sustain a lengthy playoff run.
On this night, however, the Packers were winning again and finally made the plays necessary to pull off the unthinkable. Now, they hope the jolt of badly needed momentum can catapult them into the final quarter of the regular season.
“When the score is at that point, it can go one of two directions – you can tank it or you can battle,” backup quarterback Scott Tolzien said after the game. “Guys battled back and I think that’s what makes it special that there was no give up. That’s why the final play will be the best memory, but we’ll remember all the adversity we overcame in the game, too.”
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