There comes a moment in the course of nearly every professional football season when one team rises unmistakably above all the rest. An aura of destiny surrounds the club, as if its success were preordained. In four of the last six years the Green Bay Packers were such a team, and the revelation that they were the chosen ones came, as often as not, in Baltimore.
Thus it was that the Packers went to Baltimore last Sunday, seeking—after an indifferent first half of the season—that sure sign that this again would be their year. For most of a wintry afternoon it seemed that the Packer quest would be a success. Although the Baltimore pass rush harassed him continuously, Bart Starr ran his Green Bay offensive machine like the competent engineer that he is, and when—with 12 minutes left in the game—he took advantage of a Colt rookie defensive halfback to throw a 31-yard scoring pass to Donny Anderson and give Green Bay a 10-0 lead, the Packers appeared sure winners.
They seemed even surer after the next set of downs. As Johnny Unitas strove manfully to untrack his team's attack, Willie Davis, throughout the afternoon a virtuoso performer at defensive end, and Ray Nitschke and the other redoubtable Packer linebackers continued to stop Baltimore cold. Davis eluded a tentative block by Sam Ball, a young tackle who went to graduate school on this Sunday, and smashed Unitas from behind, causing the Colt quarterback to fumble for a nine-yard loss. Unitas passed to Tom Matte for a scant yard, then was hurried into a long, incomplete pass, and Baltimore had to give the ball back.
Then it began to happen. A series of penalties thwarted a Green Bay drive. When Johnny Unitas got his hands on the ball again with six minutes and 22 seconds showing on the clock, the complexion of the game was suddenly changed. Unitas passed to Willie Richardson for a first down, passed to Alex Hawkins for another, was hit throwing his next pass but still got the ball into wobbling flight and into the hands of Richardson. This was good for 15 yards and another first down. With the Packer defense dropping back to guard against the long pass, Unitas hit Running Back Tony Lorick in close for 10 more yards. First down No. 4. A moment later Unitas threaded the ball through a narrow crack between a Green Bay linebacker and a Green Bay back into the hands of Hawkins, deep in the corner of the end zone. Touchdown. Score: 10-6. Time to go: 2:19.
Now the extra point and a field goal would tie the game. But the Colts missed the extra point. Defensive Back Bobby Boyd, who usually holds the ball for Lou Michaels' kicks, had gone out of the game earlier with a shoulder injury. Although Coach Don Shula had Rick Volk, a rookie safetyman, warming up as a holder on the sideline, the jiffy course was too hurried. Taking a good snap from center, Volk tried to race the ball into position while spinning the lace to the front. He wound up with the top point of the ball cupped in his palm instead of suspended by a fingertip. Even worse, it was tilted to the side like the Tower of Pisa. Faced with so strange a target, Michaels booted the ball wide. The missed extra point forced Baltimore to play for a touchdown instead of a field goal.
Michaels and Volk redeemed themselves immediately. As Michaels' onside kickoff skittered through the front line of Green Bay receivers, Volk pounced on the ball. It was first down for the Colts on the Green Bay 34, with a minute and 56 seconds left. Lorick ran for four yards, but matters took a desperate turn when Unitas tried twice for John Mackey, the big tight end, and missed.
So it was fourth and six. As Unitas faded back for what could have been his last pass in a lost cause, the Green Bay defense dropped off and covered his receivers perfectly. Willie Davis, barreling in from Unitas' right, forced him out of the pocket, and Unitas began to run with his long, cranelike strides. Against the Packers a year ago, in an almost identical situation, a Unitas run had ended in disaster when Davis smashed into him, making him fumble into the hands of Dave Robinson, the Green Bay linebacker. This time Unitas ran for seven yards and remained attached to the ball despite a thunderous tackle. The Colts had their first down on the Packer 23.
Unitas climbed dazedly to his feet, and on the next play the gods smiled sweetly at last on Baltimore. Johnny U. threw a pass to Willie Richardson, who has been playing—and playing well—primarily because Jimmy Orr has been injured. Richardson beat one of the best defensive halfbacks in pro football—Herb Adderley—to catch the game-winning touchdown.
"We noticed in movies that Herb has a tendency to take a stance looking in," Richardson explained after the game in the exuberant Colt dressing room. "I'd fake out and get around him and cut back in when his back was toward me. Raymond Berry spent the whole fourth quarter studying his moves, and we discussed them. When I went back into the huddle after Johnny ran for the first down, I told him I could beat Herb to the inside. Johnny was pretty shook up from the tackle, but he threw a perfect pass. Herb was playing me real tight. Six inches farther, I couldn't have caught it; six inches back, he intercepts."
Adderley actually had a hand on the ball. "Just as I reached for it, Richardson hit me with his shoulder and bumped me off the ball," he said. "I thought for a split second I might get it."
For the last three years the winner of this game has gone on to take the Western Conference championship, and in 1965 and 1966 Green Bay won the NFL championship as well. Last year the Packers also won the Super Bowl. For both teams, then, the game has come to be the most significant of the season. Oddly enough, because of a Monday night TV commitment, the Packers arrived in Baltimore with the handicap of one less day than usual in which to prepare. They had defeated St. Louis 31-23 on Monday night and did not get back into Green Bay until 2 a.m. Tuesday.
"We had to compress our preparation," Vince Lombardi said last Saturday night. "We put in the offense and defense as we usually do, but in a normal week we use Friday for refining and polishing. This week we didn't have time to tune the machine. We're ready, but we may be less precise than I would like us to be."
Much of the pregame conjecture concerned the physical condition of the two quarterbacks. In previous years Unitas had often had to play despite being hurt, but now Unitas was healthy. Starr, in turn, had been forced to miss all or part of three of the last five games between the two teams, and last week was just getting back into top shape from injuries suffered first during the exhibition season. Zeke Bratkowski had come in for Starr in the three games and in each case proved at least as damaging to the Colts as Starr himself. But last Saturday morning Bratkowski pulled a muscle in his back working out on the frosty field in Green Bay. "I had to help him out of bed this morning," said Max McGee on Sunday. "Color Zeke gone. There's no way he'll be able to play today. It's a good thing Bart is ready."
Green Bay's touchy predicament at quarterback was complicated early by its loss of both first-string running backs. Jim Grabowski went to the sideline with an injured knee in the first quarter, to be followed moments later by Elijah Pitts, who tore an Achilles tendon. Without them, the Packers' running game lacked some of its sparkle, although Ben Wilson and Donny Anderson performed adequately. By half time the game had lapsed into a stern defensive battle, relieved only by Don Chandler's 49-yard field goal.
It was not until Boyd was injured early in the fourth period that Green Bay got its lone touchdown. One of the leaders of the Colt secondary, Boyd was replaced by Charlie Stukes, a good rookie, but a rookie.
"On the touchdown to Anderson," Shula said later, "they sent the spread end to the inside, taking Stukes with him and isolating Anderson on the linebacker. Boyd, with his experience, would not have gone so far inside with the end. He would have rolled back out to help on Anderson and I think he might have made the play."
Hawkins, who caught the first Baltimore touchdown pass, faked in, then broke to the outside to take Unitas' perfect throw just in the corner of the end zone. Hawkins was smiling later in the dressing room. He had not been put in the game until the fourth period, and after last Wednesday morning's poker-playing escapade, when he and eight friends were arrested at 4:45 a.m. in the back room of a suburban barbershop, he was not sure that he would get in at all. Hawkins used to be called Captain Who? when he was the leader of the Baltimore special teams. "They changed my name to Captain Midnight," he said in the dressing room Sunday evening. "I guess I got a three-quarters suspension. I'm glad they lifted it in time for me to get in."
Whatever penalty Shula has in store for Hawkins may be reduced a bit by the coach's euphoria over victory. "This year we're getting the breaks," he said happily. "When you're rolling, that's what happens. Maybe this is going to be our year."
Twice during the second half the Colts took what seemed to be extraordinary gambles for a team that was trailing but still had a good deal of time left to play. Once, with fourth and one at the Green Bay 44 midway in the third quarter, Shula elected to try for the first down. Nitschke and Willie Wood met Lenny Moore behind the line of scrimmage to give the Packers possession of the ball. The Colt defense salvaged that lost gamble by forcing a Green Bay punt.
As the fourth period began, the Colts had the ball on the Green Bay 43, again fourth and one, and Shula gambled once more. And again Nitschke met Moore behind the line of scrimmage and the ball went over to Green Bay. This time the lost gamble cost the touchdown that put the Packers ahead 10-0.
"Nitschke made great plays on both tries," Shula said. "Once the fullback almost had him down and he reached over him to get Moore. They pinched the middle and Nitschke just slid outside to get Lenny again. Sure, they were gambles. But we're a gambling team. You have to have confidence in yourself."
Dan Sullivan, the Colt guard who blocked well all afternoon, was slumped in exhaustion before his locker, still stunned by the sudden turn that had brought the Colts victory. "I guess I wasn't really worried during those last three minutes or so," he said. "We have so much confidence in Johnny U. and I got a feeling this is gonna be our year."
It may well be. Certainly it took a team blessed by fortune to pull this game out. Should Baltimore and Green Bay win in their divisions, they will meet again in a divisional playoff December 23 in Green Bay. Destiny will be put to a hard test.