Clay Matthews thought DeMarco Murray was gone.
From behind the play, the Green Bay Packers linebacker saw the gap open in the defensive front. He figured it was only a matter of milliseconds before the Dallas Cowboys running back cut through it for a large, painful gain.
Then, Julius Peppers appeared. A week shy of his 35th birthday, the 6-foot-7, 285-pound outside linebacker swam past pulling guard Zack Martin and lunged toward Murray, who's notorious for leaving too much air between him and the ball at times.
The ball popped out and was recovered by Packers defensive end Datone Jones. It was Peppers' second forced fumble of the game and changed the course of the game, which the Packers eventually won 26-21. Before that play, Green Bay's offense was forced to punt on its first possession of the second half, trailing 14-10.
The Packers used the field position to drive down for a 30-yard Mason Crosby field goal.
"Pep really had a great game today, especially in limited reps rushing the passer," Matthews said of Peppers, who played 33 of 55 defensive snaps (60 percent). "That was a huge play. I was on the back side, saw that hole and thought he was going to hit it. To have that at the point of the game – I think we recovered it and went down and put some points on the board is huge."
Peppers finished with six tackles, a sack and two forced fumbles in his first playoff game since the Chicago Bears' 21-14 loss to Green Bay in the 2010 NFC championship game. He also came close to tipping one of Tony Romo's passes in the first half.
The play was reviewed to determine whether Peppers tipped the pass before a defensive pass interference call on Tramon Williams. It was close on the replay, but officials upheld the ruling.
Peppers wasn't alone in pursuit, however.
Outside linebacker Nick Perry had 1½ sacks on back-to-back plays at the end of the third quarter and beginning of the fourth to give Green Bay the ball back and a chance to retake the lead.
The Packers' finished with four sacks and eight hits on Romo. Three came courtesy of the outside linebackers.
"That was huge, just getting back-to-back sacks," said Perry, who had three during the regular season. "We knew we had to go out there and stop them. That was a big crucial play during the time. From there on, we kind of overturned everything and kept it going."
Although Peppers didn't speak in the locker room after the game, his teammates made it clear these are the kind of games the Packers signed him to play in. Peppers' forced fumble on Murray was a game-changing moment that set the course for a second-half rally.
The defense did its job against Dallas' seventh-ranked offense. DeMarco Murray had 123 rushing yards, but constant second-half pressure on Romo helped limit his production through the air to 191 yards with only 77 coming in the second half.
"You look at the guys when they're moving around," Matthews said. "You have me moving inside, outside. Playing coverage as well as Nick Perry, Mike Neal and Julius being able to rush from the inside as well as drop into coverage. It definitely shows the versatility of the 3-4 defense, especially the outside linebackers here. Quite honestly, that's what these defenses are based on – aggressive, versatile outside linebackers who do it all. You saw that from Nick Perry's sacks to Pep disrupting the quarterback and down the line."