In the West the mighty fell. In the East the Giants proved, rather conclusively, that they were the mighty. Ten days ago the Green Bay Packers appeared to be the invincibles of pro football; the New York Giants, believed to be long in the tooth and apt to stumble on the hard home stretch, were considered lucky to be leading. After last week it is the Giants who seem invincible; the Packers, victims of a fearful beating at the hands of the Detroit Lions, seem something less than that. On Thanksgiving Day, the Lions overpowered Green Bay, 26-14; the Giants erased their strongest competitors, the Washington Redskins, with ease and aplomb, 42-24, three days later.
The Giant power has grown, week by week, almost unnoticed. Phil King, the big back from Vanderbilt, at last is playing up to his potential and has become a violent, hard-blocking and hard-running fullback. Bill Winter, the rookie linebacker, fits into the old Giant defense more neatly each week. This is, paradoxically, an old team growing better as the season goes along—and 2½ games ahead with only three to play.
Detroit's power had grown from week to week, too, although for some reason its improvement was more widely recognized. Emotionally, the proud Lions had been looking forward to their game with the Packers since the Packers beat them 9-7 in Wisconsin on October 7. Despite their loss, the Lions felt that they were the better team on that day and they were dedicated to proving it before their home following last Thursday.
"They should have given that defensive line a saliva test," one of the Packer assistant coaches said after the game. "They looked like they were on the needle," said Bart Starr, the cool intellectual who runs the Packer offense from quarterback and who spent a great deal of the cold, blustery afternoon in Tiger Stadium staring up at the overcast sky from beneath a half-ton of Detroit defensive linemen.
The Lions were excited. So were their followers. The tension was palpable as the crowd gathered for the game; the bleachers were crowded with people who had been standing in line since 11 o'clock the previous night, waiting to buy the handful of seats left for this game. Once during the night a police squad had been called out to control the exuberant standees in front of the ticket booth.
Now, with the game beginning, the more affluent spectators were just as excited as the bleacherites. They howled steadily through the thin snow which fell and melted and they had more than enough to howl about.
The Detroit defensive line and the Detroit linebackers played with an ascending fury. ("They were by us before we could find them," a bewildered Packer tackle said. "I never saw anyone get off so fast with the snap of the ball.")
They not only moved with rare quickness, they moved on a pattern wholly unexpected by the very good Green Bay offensive line. This may be the best offensive line any pro club has put together in the last 20 years, but it was a confused and uncertain unit in the first half of the game. Like most great defensive teams, the Lions have enormously effective players, and do not need tricks to be good. They and the Colts and Giants of recent years can, man for man, defend their positions with considerable strength in simple alignments with each man handling the man in front of him and handling him well. This had worked for them all season and was their defense in their first game with Green Bay. But suddenly in Detroit they began to look very much like the Chicago Bears, a team which depends almost completely on guile in stopping its adversary.
"They came out stunting," said Tackle Forrest Gregg. "They blitzed almost every play, and we couldn't seem to recover. Most of the time their defensive line comes straight at you. The tackle and end come straight in. You would know where they should be and would be set up to block them. But they traded routes in this game. The tackle circled to the outside, where ordinarily you would expect to find the end. The end came inside, on the tackle's route. We couldn't find them. We weren't ready and it took us a half to pick up the stunts."
Bart Starr, who spent what must have been the longest afternoon of his career at quarterback, is a quiet man who never criticizes his teammates. He did not after the Lions game, although he was the victim of the inadequacy of the Packer offensive line. He was thrown for a miserable 110 yards attempting to pass. Often he had no chance to look for a receiver, let alone release the ball.
"It was one of those games," he said, "where no matter what you do, the other side is always a play ahead of you. Once, since they had been sending in the linebackers on a blitz nearly every play, I called a quick look-in to Ron Kramer. Wayne Walker had been coming in and he moved to the line as if he were going to do the same thing again, but when the ball was snapped, he dropped off with Kramer and I couldn't complete the pass."
Other things also bothered the Packers. Fuzzy Thurston, who has been an all-pro guard, played under a mental handicap. His mother had died on the Monday before the game, and his wife was ill. He played under a physical handicap, too. In front of him was possibly the best defensive tackle in pro football—300-pound Roger Brown, who moves with exceptional speed for so big a man. Thurston handled him well enough on running plays; on pass blocking, where the guard has a chicken fight with the tackle, Thurston did not make out so well.
"They overwhelmed us," Lombardi said after the game. "They just overpowered us."
Early in the game Starr called what is known in pro football as a "play number pass." This is a pass which develops from lineblocking designed to create the illusion that the play will be a run. The offensive line blocks aggressively, instead of hitting and dropping back to form the cup from which all pro passers throw. In this case, the Packer offensive line fired out for its aggressive blocking, and both sides of the Lion defensive line stunted: that is to say, the ends circled to the inside and the tackles to the outside. Normally an offensive line as battle-wise as Green Bay's would have picked up the stunts and blocked the defensive players effectively as they came in. But so quick was the movement of the Lion operatives, the Packer blockers missed most of their blocks and the Lion line, en masse, descended upon the hapless Starr.
In the second half, the Packers regrouped well enough to pick up the stunts. Too, the Lions, with a 26-0 lead, gave up a good deal of the stunting, gambling defense in favor of protecting that almost insurmountable lead. This was not on the advice of their coach, George Wilson, who, under his calm exterior, is an inveterate gambler. He wanted his team to continue to play with the reckless abandon which had been so successful in the first half.
"We are growing too cautious on offense," Lombardi had said some three weeks before the Lion game. "The offensive players are beginning to stop and think before they execute a play. You haven't time to stop. You have to execute with a modicum of abandon. The pressure is getting to be too much on us because of the winning streak." Certainly, the offense could not afford that moment's hesitation against this keyed-up Detroit defense. By the time they had thought, the Detroit line was on Starr's neck.
The Packer defense acquitted itself a bit better than the offense. The loss of two corner linebackers—first-string Dan Currie and replacement Nelson Toburen—was a major blow. Ken Iman, who has been an offensive guard and center all year, was pressed into duty as a corner linebacker and did as well as could be expected, which was not, understandably, well enough.
Willie Davis, the end on the left side of the Packer defensive line, is a gambler whose wild bets have always been backed up by the icy conservatism of Currie. The same gambles, with the uncertain Iman backing him, failed. When the Lions needed four or five yards for a first down on third down, as often as not they sent Ken Webb or Tom Watkins outside the vulnerable flank of the Green Bay defense. Webb, the fullback replacing injured Nick Pietrosante, would take the hard-rushing Davis in; the two Lion guards, leading the play, took care of Iman and the ballcarrier had a free route.
Two of the Lion touchdowns came on passes to Gail Cogdill, a very good end. Once Cogdill, spread to the left and covered by Jesse Whittenton, broke free by a very lack of duplicity. Whittenton, in this Packer defense, covers Cogdill to the outside; the safety, Willie Wood, takes him to the inside. Cogdill ran a fly pattern—straight ahead as fast as he could go. Whittenton waited for him to break to the sideline, and Wood waited for him to break to the inside. He never broke at all. By the time the defenders had recovered, he was alone. The pass was accurate and he scored.
Cogdill was spread the other way on his second touchdown. This meant he would be taken man-on-man by Herb Adderley, the very quick Packer corner back on that side. Adderley took him well enough, but the pass was so cleanly and well thrown by Milt Plum that Cogdill, with a very slight margin on Adderley, still took the ball on his fingertips in the end zone for the touchdown (left). It was a play against which there is no adequate answer, the kind of play this tough Detroit team made all afternoon, on offense and defense.
"We were due to lose one," said Ray Nitschke, the middle linebacker for the Packers, after the game. "But one is all we'll lose."
One is all the Packers can lose, if they are to hold off the late-season drive of the Lions. Detroit has won both second-place playoffs since this game was begun in Miami two years ago; the team seems capable of winning the title if the Packers should stumble in their last three games.
If the Packers do trip, it will be entirely their own fault. They have by far the easier schedule. Twice in the closing three weeks Green Bay will face the footless Rams, a club that has managed to win only one game all season long. Their other game is against the San Francisco 49ers, who have won five games while losing six.
The Lions, on the other hand, face the Baltimore Colts (5-6), the Minnesota Vikings (2-8-1) and the revivified Chicago Bears (7-4). In other words, playing teams that have faced almost precisely the same competition, the Packers must win three games against two adversaries who have won a total of only six games so far. Even if the Lions do as well by winning their last three games against clubs that have accounted for 14 victories, they'll still finish a game behind Green Bay.
There is, of course, the intriguing prospect of a tie, should Green Bay lose one game and the Lions go clean. On the basis of Thursday's performance you might guess that the Lions would win the playoff game. The assumption is reasonable, although the Green Bay team probably will have—healthy and useful—both Paul Hornung and Currie, the two cripples who were conspicuously missing from Thursday's game.
The Giants brushed aside the Washington Redskins very easily in Washington. In the two man-to-man duels that, as much as any one thing, decided this game the Giants enjoyed a clear superiority. Claude Crabb, a rookie defensive back for the Redskins, was given the unenviable task of trying to cover the Giants' Del Shofner, man to man. As might be expected, he did not fare well. Early in the game, Shofner ran short patterns until Crabb became overly conscious of the short pass. When the opportunity seemed ripe, Shofner ran a short pattern, hesitated, then went deep, and Y. A. Tittle's pass found him alone in the end zone (below).
On the other hand Erich Barnes, the marvelously quick and agile defensive back for the Giants, teamed with Alan Webb to cover Bobby Mitchell, the water-bug-quick flanker back for the Redskins. It was appropriate that Barnes, in the closing seconds of the game, should pick off a long pass from the arm of chunky Galen Hall and, tortuously, run it back almost the full length of the field, moving—you felt—with one eye on the sweeping second hand of the field clock. By the time Barnes was tackled, far down near the Washington goal line, the game was over. It was a typical Giant maneuver, imbued with the knowledge and foresight that comes from years in pro football. The Redskins, as they demonstrated clearly in this game, have the enthusiasm and the size and the speed to become a truly superior football team. All they lack—and it was a notable lack last Sunday—is the Giant experience.
Now the Giants need win only one of their last three games to insure themselves of the title in the East and the opportunity to meet either Green Bay or Detroit in the championship game in New York on December 30. They play the Bears in Chicago and Cleveland and the Dallas Cowboys in New York.
Chicago is the only one of the three teams that seems likely to give the Giants any trouble at all. Well at long last and apparently with their defenses repaired, the Bears demolished the Baltimore Colts last Sunday, 57-0. If the Giants, coming off a long series of tough games, let down a little, they could lose at Wrigley Field. It is highly improbable that they can lose either game in New York after that and incredible that they should lose both.
How would the Giants do against Green Bay or Detroit? Earlier this year the Lions finished a hard afternoon in Yankee Stadium on the short end of a 17-14 score. This may be misleading, since there was some luck involved in the Giant victory. New York and Green Bay haven't played each other this year. The last time they met, of course, was in Green Bay last year for the championship. The Giants lost that game, 37-0. But this is a different Giant team now. For one thing, the offense is imaginative and quick; the defense is still solid. It would be foolhardy to predict that the Giants will beat Green Bay should the two teams meet again for the title; it would be foolhardy, too, to predict that they will beat the Detroit Lions under the same circumstances.
But they very well could. They are, this year, a team that has, Sunday after Sunday, done what was necessary. They may be able to perform all the needed functions on the most important Sunday.