The second-biggest play from the Green Bay Packers' miraculous win in Detroit last week easily could be forgotten.
That’s what happens when there’s a game-winning Hail Mary. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ magic is like a black hole absorbing everything else that happened — the good, the bad, the inept.
The Packers don’t beat the Lions without that 61-yard moon ball, which almost scraped the rafters before falling into tight end Richard Rodgers’ hands.
They probably wouldn’t have been in position to send up that prayer if not for outside linebacker Julius Peppers’ strip-sack of Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford.
“That’s a huge play,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “It’s a huge momentum changer, and it puts us back in the game.”
With 5:44 left in the third quarter, the Lions lined up for first-and-10 from their 20-yard line. Peppers, quiet in the game to that point, beat Lions left tackle Riley Reiff off the snap. His right arm hooked Stafford’s right arm as the quarterback was preparing to pass, and rookie inside linebacker Jake Ryan fell on the fumble at Detroit’s 12-yard line.
The Packers had just scored their first touchdown to cut the game to 20-7 before the fumble. Three plays later, on third-and-6, Aaron Rodgers found receiver Davante Adams for an 8-yard touchdown that cut the deficit to 20-14.
“I think it was a little bit of momentum change,” Peppers said. “We got them going deep in their territory. Aaron got a touchdown for us. So I think that was one of the turning points in the game.”
It was fitting the Packers' defense made a play to give their offense a chance. For most of the season, especially the past six weeks, it has been the defense keeping the Packers afloat.
It was the defense’s temporary struggle that led to the big, early hole against the Lions.
The Packers allowed 17 points in the first quarter. Of course, the offense didn’t help. The Lions’ final touchdown “drive” of the first quarter was one play and 17 yards following an Aaron Rodgers interception on a high pass intended for receiver James Jones.
When the second quarter started, the Packers’ defense was a different unit. They forced four straight punts, including three straight three-and-outs. The Lions mustered only two field goals the rest of the way.
Nose tackle B.J. Raji said the Packers' defense did whatever it took to keep the game from getting out of reach.
“Division game,” Raji said, “they’re very unique. This team has very good personnel on offense. They’re very familiar with us. Just coming off a game against us a few weeks ago, they did some good things early and kind of had us on our heels. We fought back and kept it close enough for our offense to come back and win it.”
In what has been a rough season since the start of November, there’s a silver lining for the Packers. Their defense, a weakness in years past, has turned into a strength this season. If the offense ever gets on track, the Packers defense has shown it's good enough to reach the Super Bowl.
The defense is not without flaws. The Packers have allowed too many yards this season. Entering Sunday's round of games, their pass defense ranked No. 18 in the NFL with 245 yards allowed per game. They also ranked No. 23 against the run with 111.8 rushing yards allowed per game, mostly because of their struggles containing scrambling quarterbacks.
Still, the Packers ranked sixth in the league with 19.8 yards allowed per game. The scoreboard is what counts, and allowing fewer than 20 points per game should be good enough with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback.
“That’s not always going to be the case,” linebacker Clay Matthews said, “as you’ve seen this year. We’ve had some games — 17, 14, 21 (points) — those grinders all the way until the end. Unfortunately, in a few of them, we haven’t come out on top, and in some we have. That’s the parity of the league, but at the same time it puts extra emphasis on the defense.
“I’m not sure of the numbers or anything along those lines, but we’ve been doing a pretty good job for the most part. Obviously, there’s a few scoring drives throughout the past several weeks that we would like to have back, but for the most part I think we’re keeping the run in check, limiting those big plays and getting off the field on third down. We need to keep that going.”