With their backs against the wall in the fourth quarter, the Packers fought back
GREEN BAY − So often through the Green Bay Packers' five-game losing streak, there would come a moment in each game when they took a punch.
On Sunday, down 14 points in the fourth quarter and with their season on the line, the Packers punched back.
“You gotta swing. Gotta go down fighting,” cornerback Rasul Douglas said after the 31-28 overtime win against the Dallas Cowboys. “You can’t go down holding a play, wishing that you’d called this play or ran this play. You just gotta go. Whatever happens, live with it.”
Douglas has refused to sugarcoat his team’s struggles this season. As the Packers were gasping for life and falling down the hole of their losing streak, Douglas told PackersNews.com plainly, there were no excuses and “we suck because we suck.” But on Sunday night, even when the situation was ripe for another collapse, he saw something different.
“The whole time we knew we was gonna win,” Douglas said after the game. “This was like, the first time I've seen like, going down (the sideline) and just watching everybody like ‘we got this, bro, we got this.’ Usually it’s just a little like, ‘ahhh,’ it's a different feeling. Today was ‘we gonna win.’”
It was a bold statement, considering the circumstances. The Cowboys had a first down at the Green Bay 35-yard line, already up by a score. Dallas receiver CeeDee Lamb was left alone at the top of formation, with Packers corner Jaire Alexander playing off in zone coverage, one of the few times all night he played in zone. As Lamb came off, he sold an inside release, getting Alexander to bite and sit with his hips flipped inside. It gave Lamb the second he needed to pivot back toward the sideline.
The fake left Alexander and safety Darnell Savage, who attempted to save the play, scrambling behind Lamb for the wide-open touchdown.
“In my mind, I'm kind of cruising, honestly, but I’m expecting him to run an in-breaking route,” Alexander said after the game. “He didn't run an in-breaking route. So he just went to the corner. That’s on me. I normally don't guess on routes, but I guessed on that one because he was running so much over routes.
“I told (Savage) that he could have helped me out some more but Sav had nothing to do with the play. It was all on me.”
That was it. The Packers' game and season seemed over.
Too often in recent weeks, when the Packers started to curl in on themselves, it left Alexander and Douglas as two of the few fighting to get in some last licks, pushing those around them to do the same. Alexander even bemoaned the lackadaisical attitude this past week. Losing isn’t fun, he argued, so therefore attitudes should reflect that feeling.
“I really don’t like losing,” Alexander said Friday. “I just get passionate, emotional about it, so I just wanna pick everybody up. When a bad play happens, some guys drop their head. I’m like, yo, pick your head up … I just don’t like when people don’t care or have the same energy. I be just trying to bring the morale up.”
But on Sunday, the Green Bay sideline was ready to punch back.
Newly acquired safety Johnathan Abram, who is still learning everyone's name and where to park his car, strode up and down the sideline barking at his new teammates.
“We’re not gonna lose this game,” he told them over and over. “We’re gonna win by three.”
Alexander said after the game he vividly remembered Abram preaching the message.
“He was getting guys up, too. That's the kind of energy we need on that sideline,” Alexander said. “Today the team really rallied together. It was good to see, you know, like we was down 14. And nobody hung their head. And it was pretty inspiring.”
One could argue there’s a benefit in not knowing what you don’t know. Abram didn’t know the direction this team had taken over the past five weeks after moments like the Lamb touchdown. He just knew what could be.
“Just watching the game, you know, watching the momentum, we gave up a touchdown right before halftime so (the Cowboys) kind of felt like the momentum had changed, but it really didn’t,” Abram said Sunday. “We were controlling them on the line of scrimmage pretty much all night on both sides of the ball.
“Aaron (Jones) had a really good game running today, which opened up the pass game. And my boy, (Christian Watson), I kept telling him, you know, these drops eventually gonna turn into TDs and look, he had three of them tonight.”
Abram had known Watson for four days at that point and practiced with him only twice, but his reasoning for believing in the turnaround was simple.
“That’s my brother now.”
Abram was one of several sparks that were lit up and down the sideline, starting a fire that helped the Packers roar back.
“I’ll tell you what, I was really impressed with our entire sideline. Whether guys were suited up or not,” coach Matt LaFleur said Monday. “I know Abram, he did a fantastic job. You can feel his energy and, yeah, I think that positivity is needed.
“Here's a guy that's played a lot of ball and I know he was playing for us kind of in a limited role, mostly on (special) teams and just bringing great energy. But guys like Randall Cobb as well. Definitely felt his presence, so that was great. I felt like all in all, I thought our sideline was fantastic.”
Alexander joked that the Lamb touchdown woke him up. After three relatively light quarters with few targets toward him, he was lulled into a false sense of security.
“I’m gonna be honest. When you’re not getting that many targets, I tend to fall asleep,” Alexander said. “I went to sleep. But after that, it woke me up, I was ready to go. I gotta keep that same thing going all game.”
The Cowboys tested Alexander several more times throughout the fourth quarter and overtime. He gave up only one other catch: an underneath throw to tight end Dalton Schultz in overtime on second-and-19, wrapping him up in a form tackle to keep him short of the sticks. The next play, Alexander broke up a pass on Lamb that would’ve been a first down. The Cowboys attempted a fourth-down conversion instead of kicking the field goal and Dak Prescott was forced into an incompletion.
Three scoring drives on offense, two in the fourth quarter and one in overtime, gave the Packers their first win since Oct. 2 and a dose of complementary football that had been missing.
After the game, general manager Brian Gutekunst stepped into the elevator, leaned his head against the back wall, closed his eyes and let out a sigh of relief that had built for five weeks. Downstairs, president Mark Murphy stood to the side of the Packers locker room, hands in his pockets and smiling ear to ear, content to just watch as players milled around in celebration and exuberance. And at the podium, LaFleur choked back emotions as he talked about climbing out of the hole the Packers had found themselves in.
"We put a lot into this, and it is tough at times," LaFleur said after the game. "It means a lot to us, and to be down and fight and continue to fight, that’s what you want to see."
Is this the turnaround the Packers will need to make a run at a playoff spot? That’s still a long road ahead and one they must traverse on a short week, with the Tennessee Titans coming to town Thursday. But on Sunday, they found themselves backed against the wall and finally punched back.