CLEVELAND – Brett Hundley smiled as he shook hands in the far corner of FirstEnergy Stadium’s visiting locker room. He was in no rush Sunday afternoon. Slowly, cutting up with teammates, the Green Bay Packers quarterback pulled over his grey suit jacket, covering a black dress shirt and silver-cross necklace.
Hundley was savoring this moment, his biggest accomplishment. The Packers' 27-21 overtime victory over the Cleveland Browns wasn’t their first win with him at quarterback. And never mind the fact Cleveland hasn’t won a game all year, becoming the first NFL franchise to start consecutive seasons with 0-13 records.
Here, on the shore of Lake Erie, the Packers quarterback might have crossed his finish line. Aaron Rodgers is not medically cleared yet, but the two-time MVP’s return this upcoming week appears promising. With his third win since replacing Rodgers, Hundley ensured the Packers will give their all-world starter a plus-.500 record (7-6) and puncher’s chance at the playoffs, should he return in Carolina.
“My No. 1 thought going into it,” Hundley said, “was keep our hopes alive to make the playoffs, and we’re still in it. At the end of the day, whatever happens, happens. I’m just here. When my number’s called upon, I’ll be ready. But in the meantime, that was my No. 1 goal.
“And we’re still in it.”
The Packers are still in it because, on this afternoon by the lake, Hundley swam when he could’ve sunk. He’s made plays late in games before. Clutch throws to Davante Adams in Chicago. The read-option keepers in overtime against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers one week ago.
Never has Hundley made this many plays with a game on the line.
For three quarters, the Packers looked like an underdog to the worst team in football. They trailed 21-7 entering the fourth, and though Hundley wasn’t costing the Packers, he sure wasn’t doing enough to win. That has been a frequent trend over these past eight games without Rodgers: clean, but unremarkable production from their quarterback position.
Then Hundley came alive over the final 15 minutes and change. He completed 21 of 29 passes for 176 yards, one touchdown — on a blown coverage — and a 99.2 rating through the first three quarters. In the fourth quarter and overtime, Hundley completed 14 of 17 passes for 89 yards, two touchdowns and a 127.7 rating.
“His instincts and awareness,” coach Mike McCarthy said, “particularly when he has to extend plays, is exceptional. He’s always played that way. You could see that all the way back in college, the way he steps out of sacks. He made some key, key plays with his feet, and I thought did a heck of a job. He got to run, manage a wide-open offense, and that was the first time we really cut it loose like that.
“He plays his best football when the game is on the line. You can’t teach that. He’s a winner.”
Hundley has shown he can make big plays with his legs. The difference, on this day, was his ability to deliver several critical passes in crunch time.
It started with a 13-play, 75-yard touchdown drive early in the fourth quarter. On third-and-1 near midfield, the situation called for running back Jamaal Williams to hammer it between the tackles. Instead, McCarthy called Hundley’s number, a 5-yard pass to tight end Lance Kendricks.
In all, Hundley completed 8 of 9 passes for 62 yards on the drive, which cut the Browns’ lead to 21-14 with 12:50 left.
“In crunch-time situations,” Hundley said, “big-time players make big-time plays. My dad used to say it over and over growing up. That sort of resonates in these kind of situations with me. It’s still football. You’ve got to perform. I wish we could do this from the start and carry it forward for 60 minutes instead of making it so intense, but we did what we had to do.”
The Packers got one last chance from the Browns’ 25-yard line with 2:20 left. Again, McCarthy kept the football in his quarterback’s hands.
Hundley was called upon on the final five plays of the game-tying drive: two runs, including a 5-yard scamper up the middle that put the Packers one foot from the goal line, and three completions. His last, a 1-yard back-shoulder fade to Davante Adams with 17 seconds left, knotted the score at 21.
“Brett threw a great ball,” Adams said. “Back shoulder over there. It looked easy, and it was easy, based on the ball and the placement where he put it.”
By the time Hundley completed his game-winning, 25-yard catch-and-run pass to Adams, it was clear the quarterback found his groove. Just in time, perhaps, for Hundley to hand his job back over to Rodgers.
Better late than never.
It has been a marvel to watch Hundley morph into a clutch quarterback in three victories. Each came against teams with losing records, but without beating the Bears, Bucs and Browns, there would be little reason for Rodgers to return. That Hundley can make game-winning plays doesn’t surprise his teammates.
For all the smiles and handshakes in the postgame locker room, Adams said he sees another side of his quarterback in tight games.
“Those clutch situations,” Adams said, “when it calls for somebody to step up and make a play, that’s what kind of brings out the best in him. You can see it in his eyes, you can see it in the huddle. He commands the huddle really well in those situations. For a young guy, it’s really impressive to see that.”