ROUGH JOURNEY TO A SHOWDOWN WITH THE PACK
For 10 plays and 80 yards across the mud of Baltimore's Memorial Stadium last Saturday, the Green Bay Packers looked like a million dollars. In fact, the touchdown that put a period to this meticulous composition and beat the Baltimore Colts 14-10 to give the Packers the NFL's Western Division championship may well have been worth that amount to the team.
The Packers will play either Dallas or St. Louis for the league championship, probably the Cowboys. Despite their loss to Washington on Sunday, the Cowboys need only to beat or tie the footless New York Giants this Sunday to win in the East. The Packers should meet Dallas for the NFL championship on January 1 in the Cotton Bowl. Then, in the Los Angeles Coliseum, the Packers will meet the champion of the American Football League in the supergame. The winning team's share of this double bonanza—some $23,000 per player for 42 shares—will fall only a little short of that $1 million figure.
This reasoning, of course, assumes that Green Bay will win the NFL championship, a task likely to be harder than defeating the AFL champion in Los Angeles. Even so, in their victory over the Colts in Baltimore, the Packers demonstrated rather clearly why they must be selected to go all the way.
The Packers are surely the best team in depth in football today. Against an excellent Baltimore team that reached its peak of the year, the Packers won with some of their outstanding players out for all or part of the game.
Bart Starr, their impeccable quarterback, suffered a muscle spasm in his back and spent the second half conferring with the Green Bay scouts in the press box and advising Zeke Bratkowski, his replacement, on the sidelines. Fuzzy Thurston, who teams with Jerry Kramer to give Green Bay the best tandem of guards in the league, was replaced by Gale Gillingham, a rookie. For a considerable part of the game Bob Jeter, a regular corner back, was out of action after a shattering head-on tackle of Tom Matte in the second period, and his place was taken by Doug Hart. And Boyd Dowler, one of the key receivers in the Green Bay short-haul attack, was replaced by veteran Max McGee after he developed a flat wheel in the second quarter.
The loss of a starting quarterback, guard, receiver and corner back in a game as tightly played as this could easily have destroyed a lesser team than Green Bay, but consider what the Packer replacements did:
Hart and Gillingham gave the Packers better-than-adequate performances. The 34-year-old Bratkowski, playing all of the second half, actually did a better job than Starr had done in the first two quarters. Starr, under the savage pressure of a keyed-up Baltimore line and the hard rush of blitzing linebackers, completed seven of 15 passes for 96 yards; in his stint, Bratkowski, in a steady rain and on a field that became a mire during the second half, hit five of eight for 87 yards.
More important, Bratkowski directed the 80-yard touchdown drive in the fourth period that brought Green Bay its victory. The key play in this careful, thoughtful march was a 21-yard pass on third and seven from the Baltimore 25-yard line, and the pass was caught by Dowler's replacement, McGee. The pass epitomized the poise and maturity of the Packer team, which extend beyond the first-line players to their substitutes.
Bratkowski, who spends so much time with Starr that he has come to think like him, called an audible at the line of scrimmage when the Colts made a late change in their defense. On the snap of the ball the Colts changed again and McGee, a veteran of 11 years, broke his normal pattern to avoid the strength of the new defense. He was to have run a square-out to the sideline, designed to gain eight or 10 yards, just enough for the first down.
Instead, exercising an option given all Packer receivers against the fluid defenses they have faced this year, he broke deep over the center. Only an experienced quarterback can react to such a shift in a receiver's pattern; Bratkowski, back-pedaling furiously under the threat of a Baltimore blitz, read McGee's move perfectly and hit him with the smallest of split seconds to spare—McGee was between two fast-closing defenders—on the Baltimore four. Elijah Pitts (who, incidentally, began this season as Paul Hornung's substitute) got the winning touchdown two plays later with a run over right guard.
In an equivalent situation the Dallas Cowboys would have had Craig Morton or Jerry Rhome at quarterback, and the Cardinals would have had the man who replaces Terry Nofsinger, whoever he is. Since Starr rates well above either Nofsinger or Don Meredith as a No. 1 quarterback and Bratkowski above the No. 2s, it is clear that, at the position most important in any game—and crucial in a championship game—the Packers are much better equipped than either of their possible opponents. Even after the Pitts run the Colts might have won, but a gallant drive ended when Johnny Unitas fumbled at the Packer 15. The point is not that Baltimore made a mistake; it is that Green Bay did not.
Elsewhere—aside from the asset of first-quality depth—Green Bay's superiority is not so clear-cut. On defense, there is actually little to choose between the three teams, except that the Cowboys have a soft spot in their secondary. The defenses are completely different, but each, in its way, is superb.
Of course, the key to victory in the championship game lies in the capabilities of the Green Bay offense against either of the two defenses—and what the St. Louis or Dallas offenses can accomplish against the blooded, orthodox Green Bay defense.
If the NFL championship is fought out in the Cotton Bowl, the Packers will be meeting a team that defeated them 21-3, in a preseason game there. With a healthy Meredith, the Cowboys would certainly be a more formidable foe than St. Louis, both because they have a better assortment of weapons on offense than St. Louis and a defense better suited to blunt the Green Bay attack.
Dallas' most frightening single gun is Bob Hayes. If the Packers can prevent him from catching the bomb or contain his speed after short receptions, then they must win. They will very likely do this by using a zone defense, giving Herb Adderley or Bob Jeter deep help covering Hayes. This means that they probably will have to use single coverage on the side of the field where Hayes isn't, but then no team is better than Green Bay in man-to-man pass defense. A plus for the Packers here is that the three big linebackers—Dave Robinson, Lee Roy Caffey and Ray Nitschke—are the best in football in single coverage on a back, and the defensive line, consisting of Lionel Aldridge, Ron Kostelnik, Henry Jordan and Willie Davis, has proved that it can penetrate deeply enough to pressure a passer without the aid of blitzing linebackers.
Do not be fooled by the fact that the Colt offensive line contained them Sunday. No defensive line alone can pressure a quarterback of Unitas' caliber on unsure footing, and the young Dallas blockers should have more trouble than did the veteran Colts with the wily charges of players like Jordan and Davis.
The Cowboys have used their running attack effectively this season, with both Don Perkins and Dan Reeves plowing for useful gains as an adjunct to Meredith's high-scoring passing attack. It is likely that Perkins and Reeves will be effective against the Packers, too, but it is not likely that Dallas can win on the ground. Green Bay has given up only 118 yards rushing per game and the fewest touchdowns rushing of any team—a total of nine. The rushing gains against the Packers are not long ones, because of the speed and tackling ability of the Green Bay secondary, and they are usually measured in inches when the secondary closes up against the linebackers as an opponent penetrates the Packer 20-yard line.
But defense is not a monopoly. The Packers will have no easy path to follow through a Dallas team that has limited them to 16 points in the last two games they have played. Green Bay won a regular-season game last year 13-3 before losing the 21-3 exhibition this year. The Cowboys are better equipped than any other club to negate the brutal Green Bay running attack, because they expose little daylight to run to. Tom Landry's unusual area plan, in which individual players are expected to create walls of defense rather than operate on individual preferences, has limited opponents to fewer than 100 yards per game rushing and will not be easily cracked by Jim Taylor or Pitts.
Green Bay's philosophy of option blocking—blocking an opponent in the direction in which he is moving, then allowing the running back to seek his own hole—is not as effective when the defender is moving to occupy a preset position as it is when he is moving instinctively with the flow of the play. Of course, Green Bay Coach Vince Lombardi recognizes this, as does Landry, so it is probable that there will be subtle changes in the Packer blocking assignments. With the experienced blockers in the Packer line, these changes can be implemented without fear of mental error during a tense game.
The Cowboy defensive line is a grudging one, combining extraordinary mobility in All-Pro Tackle Bob Lilly and rookie End Willie Townes with solid execution from Jim Colvin and George Andrie. But it lacks the experience of the Green Bay offensive line.
The championship game may well boil down to how successfully Bart Starr can discover exploitable seams in the Dallas pass defense. Cornell Green, who has developed from a college basketball player into the best corner back in the Eastern Division, will have to handle Boyd Dowler, Warren Livingston must stop Bob Long or Max McGee, and Mike Gaechter will be giving away a good deal of height and weight to Marv Fleming, the massive Green Bay tight end. In Mel Renfro the Cowboys have a free safety to match Willie Wood.
As Sonny Jurgensen and the Washington Redskins demonstrated so clearly last Sunday, the soft spot in the Dallas defense is Livingston, one of the few players who came into the league with the original Cowboys in 1960. In the Redskins' 34-31 victory over Dallas, Jurgensen threw at Livingston time and again in situations where he needed a first down or a touchdown, and time and again either Bobby Mitchell or Charley Taylor left Livingston hanging helplessly in midair after they had made their fakes.
The Cowboys also underlined the deficiency they must suffer should Meredith be injured. After Don was blitzed hard early in the third quarter, Landry went to Rhome and Morton, shuttling his substitute quarterbacks as he did a few years ago, and they seemed fairly effective. But they did not approach the élan and poise of Bratkowski. With a flawed defense and no effective help behind the injury-susceptible Meredith, the Cowboys have only a slim chance against Green Bay on New Year's Day.
In the most unlikely event that the Cowboys cannot manage a tie or a win against the Giants in Yankee Stadium next Sunday, and then lose a subsequent division playoff to the Cardinals, Green Bay would meet the Cards in St. Louis and would beat them.
The Cards are blessed with a wonderful hell-for-leather blitzing defense that has accounted for most of their success this season. For other teams, the blitz is a surprise thrown into a game to remind the quarterback that he does not have all day to throw the ball. For the Cardinals, it is a way of life.
Under Nofsinger, their offense has been negligible. Most teams are willing to concede an untried quarterback time to pass. They concentrate on stopping the running game. Nofsinger, to his credit, has improved, but for practical purposes his experience extends only over half a season. Starr is just the kind of quarterback who can take advantage of a blitzing team, and the Cardinals would be an easier opponent for Green Bay than the Cowboys. Also, Starr is well equipped to capitalize on a weakness in an opponent's secondary. Over the years, he has done this time and again, and so has Bratkowski.
The Packers will win the championship game on short, sharp passes to the backs and to Dowler, Long, McGee and Fleming. Taylor and Pitts will remind the Cowboys that they cannot let their linebackers stray too far from the line of scrimmage, and, if he chooses, Starr may emulate Jurgensen and loft a long pass or two into the right side of the Cowboy secondary. Short or long, he should be successful. The Packers are old pros. They do not blow a million dollars.
MAN-TO-MAN WARFARE THAT COULD DECIDE THE CHAMPIONSHIP
Dallas gains if Bob Hayes can win hare-hound races with Packer Corner Back Herb Adderley.
Computer-precise Bart Starr leads all passers, rarely errs. Cowboys' Don Meredith likes to rocket bombs but is sometimes burned.
Kangaroo bounds of Corner Back Cornell Green may not be enough to thwart Packers' giraffe-tall end, Boyd Dowler, money man in clutch.
Lionlike Cowboy Tackle Bob Lilly might have trouble with bulldog Guard Fuzzy Thurston.