ARLINGTON, Texas – Just believe, man. Just believe.
Josh Sitton was done. Done believing. Done hoping. Just … done.
The Green Bay Packers veteran guard knew he and his teammates had fought the good fight. He was proud of how they hadn’t quit in the face of a 23-point halftime deficit, how they’d battled back, shown some character, given the Dallas Cowboys all they could handle in the second half. But now, well, this was just too much.
The AT&T Stadium clock showed 7 minutes 55 seconds remained, and the once-stunning rally seemed dead. Sitton and his teammates had just watched Tramon Williams’ interception get overturned upon replay review – a play that would have given them the ball at the Dallas 8-yard line. Instead, the Cowboys had converted the ensuing third down – thanks to a Mike Neal offsides call that was almost as suspect as the reversal of Williams’ INT – and marched 80 yards for yet another touchdown. Rather than being on the verge of taking the lead, the Packers were back down by 12.
And so there Sitton sat, on the Packers’ bench, realistic and resigned. Until quarterback Matt Flynn happened by.
“I was a little down in the dumps after that,” Sitton confessed afterward. “But Flynn came up to me and said, ‘Just believe, man. Just believe.’ And I said” – Sitton paused here, for dramatic effect – “ ‘Hell yeah! Let’s do it.’”
And then, they did it. In the same building where they won Super Bowl XLV three years ago, the Packers pulled off a 37-36 victory that was more miraculous. Maybe not as meaningful – we’ll have to wait and see on that – but given that the 23-point halftime deficit they overcame tied the biggest comeback in team history, matching a 35-23 victory over the Los Angeles Rams in the 1982 season opener, it might’ve been more improbable than the six-game winning streak they went on en route to the franchise’s 13th NFL title.
“It kind of felt the same. Which was kind of cool,” kicker Mason Crosby said, comparing Sunday to the Super Bowl. “Then you have to take a step back and say, ‘All right, this wasn’t the Super Bowl. We have to keep working.’ But for that moment, it was a big moment. Awesome, awesome to come back and win like that.”
Added wide receiver Jordy Nelson: “This one was great, obviously. This could lead to something that could be like that. It’s given us an opportunity to get to our ultimate goal. It’s been a crazy season, but we still have an opportunity. We just have to continue to play good football.
“Even in the second half, there were ups and downs. We thought Tramon had a pick and we had the ball at the 8-yard line, and we’re jacked. Then they overturn that and go down and score, and it’s like, ‘Man, we just can’t catch a break.’
“But you have to keep playing. Crazy things can happen in this league – and they did. You just have to give yourself a shot.”
And now, the Packers have done just that. With their second come-from-behind victory in as many weeks – their only two triumphs since starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers suffered that fractured left collarbone on Nov. 4 – and their first victory over the Cowboys in Dallas since 1989, they now sit at 7-6-1 with two games to play. They remain a half-game back of NFC North-leading Chicago (8-6), but with the Bears, they control their own destiny. Beat Pittsburgh next Sunday and then beat the Bears at Soldier Field on Dec. 29, and they’ll finish at least a half-game ahead of Chicago.
The Packers will need help to finish ahead of the Detroit Lions, of course; Detroit enters its Monday Night Football game with Baltimore at 7-6, meaning the Lions must lose one more time to give the Packers the opening they need.
Just believe, man. Just believe.
“I don’t think any of us can explain the feeling we have right now,” said Flynn, who finished the game having completed 26 of 39 passes for 299 yards with four touchdowns and one interception (113.1 rating). “What a feeling. We were taking knees at the end and we were like, ‘Is this real? Is this happening?’
“We fought so hard. Playing so bad in the first half, coming out in the second half and playing like we did offensively and defensively, I think says a lot about this team.”
And the Packers were bad in the first half. The defense allowed an astronomical 332 total yards and 17 first downs, and Dallas scored on six of its seven first-half possessions. That the Cowboys (7-7) settled for four field goals to go along with their two touchdowns was actually an accomplishment.
“We couldn’t stop them on defense. They did it pretty much running it, throwing it. They had over 300 yards at halftime,” veteran defensive tackle Ryan Pickett said, shaking his head. “We didn’t weather the storm, but we took their best punch, and we just knew if we could just get some stops that our offense would get rolling. Coming back out, even though it looked bleak, we always believed.”
Offensively, Flynn was by his own admission awful (10 of 17, 117 yards, one interception, two sacks), running back Eddie Lacy had very little room to run (eight carries, 31 yards) and the sure-handed Nelson even dropped a pass. Of their 132 net yards, 39 came on a completion to James Jones that set up their only points (a 57-yard Crosby field goal) and 34 came on an empty-yardage catch-and-run by Lacy against the worst defense in the 32-team NFL.
“I played pretty poor in the first half. I couldn’t really get in a rhythm,” said Flynn, who would be near-perfect in the second half (16 of 22, 182 yards, four TDs, 136.7 rating). “That first half, I was still sticking on my first one or two guys too long, waiting for them to get open. That’s what you saw on the pick.
“We were pretty frustrated. We knew that there was a chance that we could do it, but I think more of the conversation at halftime was, ‘Let’s be men right now. Let’s be men. Let’s show what we’re made of, show our pride, go out there and execute the way we know how to.’ Something was said about winning, but we told each other that we had to look down deep and dig ourselves out of the hole from that first half playing so bad.”
Just believe, man. Just believe.
At halftime, coach Mike McCarthy told his players that they were facing “the biggest adversity situation that we’ve been in in our time together” and that “our season’s on the line,” but the words of injured defensive end Johnny Jolly and backup inside linebacker Jamari Lattimore had an even greater impact.
“Jolly had a lot to say. He was talking about how, ‘Just keep playing, keep fighting.’ And actually Jamari Lattimore really spoke from the heart, got real emotional,” defensive lineman B.J. Raji said. “I think the guys really felt them on that.”
Talking was one thing; making a play to get things started was another. And that’s precisely what Lacy did on the first snap from scrimmage of the third quarter, exploding off left tackle for a 60-yard gain. Three plays later, Nelson went up over backup cornerback Orlando Scandrick to snare a 13-yard touchdown pass from Flynn that made it 26-10.
It would be the first of five touchdowns on five straight possessions against a reeling Dallas defense that had given up scores on all eight of the Bears’ meaningful possessions during a blowout loss at Soldier Field on Monday night.
“We ran [that play] once [earlier in the game] and it wasn’t as big as we thought it would be,” said Lacy, who finished with 141 yards and eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark for the season. “But we came back to it and it was a big hole. Everybody made their blocks and it created a big hole for me.”
It was the first of many plays the Packers would make in the second half. After the Cowboys answered with a field goal, Flynn led the Packers on another 80-yard drive, picking up a crucial third-and-8 with a 22-yard completion to tight end Andrew Quarless, then hitting Nelson for 21 yards to convert a third-and-10. When Flynn hooked up with Quarless on a 3-yard touchdown to make it 29-17, the comeback was officially on.
The Packers defense followed with a three-and-out stop – one that included a 13-yard sack of Tony Romo by Clay Matthews and Datone Jones – and Micah Hyde’s 26-yard punt return put the Packers back in business at the Dallas 22. Five plays later, James Starks’ 11-yard touchdown on a middle screen made it 29-24 with 12:47 to play.
Then came Williams’ interception that wasn’t, as referee Walt Coleman overturned the call upon further review. Instead of having the ball at the Dallas 8 with a chance to take the lead, the Packers watched the Cowboys go right down the field en route to Dez Bryant’s 5-yard TD catch. At 36-24 with 7:55 to go, the Packers looked finished.
But just like they had the week before, rallying from a 21-10 halftime deficit to beat Atlanta, they answered. Flynn engineered the Packers’ third 80-yard touchdown drive of the game, with Quarless (a 14-yard catch on third-and-6) and Jarrett Boykin (a 27-yard back-shoulder catch to the Dallas 7) setting up Jones’ 3-yard TD catch with 4:17 to play.
Just believe, man. Just believe.
“I was on the sideline talking to Sam (Shields) and Morgan (Burnett) and I was like, ‘We just need to score before the 4-minute mark.’ And we did,” Williams said of his thoughts after the overturned INT and ensuing touchdown. “I was like, ‘OK, we’re good. We’re in this.’ We just needed to make a stop at that point. And we did.”
Did they ever. After converting a third-and-12 with a 13-yard completion to Bryant, Romo faced second-and-6 from the Dallas 35 with 2:58 to play. Inexplicably, he audibled out of a run call and instead threw across the middle to Miles Austin, who had a step on Shields on a slant. But somehow, Shields recovered, snatched the interception and gave Green Bay the ball at midfield.
Asked if he was surprised the Cowboys threw the ball at that point, Shields replied, “I was, but he was open. As you could see. He was open. I just used my speed to get back up and get the ball.”
After the game, Cowboys coach Jason Garrett told reporters of Romo’s decision and said of his quarterback, “He’ll be the first one to tell you now that we probably should have run the ball in that situation.”
Said Romo: “They overloaded the side we were going to run the ball to. I ended up throwing to the man that was 1-on-1. It was my fault for obviously putting the ball in a position where the defense could make a play.”
Romo would do that again later, too – but not before the Packers took the lead. Quarless’ 18-yard catch started the drive, and Lacy had runs of 4-, 7 and 9 yards before bulling for a 3-yard gain on third-and-1 from the Dallas 4. On the next play, Lacy crashed in from a yard out for the 37-36 lead with 1:31 to play, with defensive linemen Mike Daniels and Raji in as extra blockers. It was the first time the Packers had led all day.
“We kind of were talking on the sideline [before that], ‘Let’s just get this thing to the wire. Let’s get this thing to the fourth quarter and the last couple minutes,’” Flynn said. “Kind of like I said last week, this one feels so great because it was such a team victory. It wasn’t one-sided. It was offense and defense both stepping up in that second half and really feeding off each other.”
The defense still had to come through one more time, knowing a field goal could still win the game for Dallas. But when Romo and wide receiver Cole Beasley got their signals crossed on a quick out route and the ball was flung too wide to the sideline, Williams came off Austin and plucked the ball inches off the ground. Although side judge Rick Patterson vehemently signaled incomplete, Williams knew better.
“I never felt more sure about a catch in my life,” he said.
And he was right.
Just believe, man. Just believe.
“Just to see the emotion of guys, what we overcame, I don’t have the words. My vocabulary’s stuck right now,” McCarthy said. “I need some water, frankly. It was incredible. It took me everything not to cry.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.