The Green Bay Packers were ready to return to glory as the prepared for the 1965 NFL Championship Game against the Cleveland Browns.
Vince Lombardi’s Packers won NFL titles in 1961 and 1962 but had spent the following two seasons in second place which meant they did not play in the NFL Championship Game. Obviously, this was not acceptable to Lombardi who emphasized the importance of striving for excellence.
In 1965, the Packers tied the Baltimore Colts for the West Division title and Packers beat Don Shula’s team 13-10 in a controversial overtime game. As a result, they would meet the defending NFL champion Cleveland Browns in the 1965 NFL Championship Game.
The Browns featured the great Jim Brown, arguably the greatest running back in NFL history. Brown again led the NFL in rushing yards in 1965, gaining 1,544 yards in 14 games and scoring 17 rushing touchdowns. The Packers defense faced a tough challenge trying to slow down Brown.
The morning of the game, Green Bay was hit by a mix of snow and rain and the field became a quagmire of mud. The bad weather continued even after the field was cleaned and prepared for the game.
The Packers weren’t about to let the opportunity to win a third championship for Lombardi slip away. With the weather conditions being the way they were, the Packers decided to emphasize the running game and gave the Browns a steady dose of Hall of Famers Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor.
Both runners were effective as Hornung gained 105 yards on 18 carries and scored a touchdown. Taylor pounded the ball 27 times and gained 96 yards and was named the game’s MVP.
Meanwhile, the Packers strong defense and the muddy field slowed down Brown in what turned out to be the final game of his NFL career. Brown gained only 50 yards on 12 carries.
Brown refused to use the weather as an excuse and praised the Packers defense which limited Cleveland to just eight first downs and 161 total yards in the game. “It was just Green Bay’s defense,” Brown told the New York Times after the game. “Willie Davis at end is their leader. They have a fine interior line and two of the best defensive backs in the business in Herb Adderley and Willie Wood. Then, there’s always Ray Nitschke at middle linebacker. He seems to know where I’m going before I do.”
The Green Bay offense got off to a quick start. After softening up the Browns defense with a mix of runs and short passes, Bart Starr found Carroll Dale deep for a 47-yard touchdown pass. Starr, who was nursing injured ribs, underthrew the speedy Dale but the receiver came back for the ball and beat Browns DB Walter Beech to the ball after Beech slipped in the mud. The Packers led 7-0.
Browns quarterback Frank Ryan answered on the next drive and got Cleveland on the board on a 17-yard touchdown pass to Gary Collins. But holder Bobby Franklin bobbled the extra point try and Lou Groza’s kick was no good. The Packers still led 7-6.
“They surprised us with that,” Willie Davis said when asked about Cleveland’s decision to pass early. “We were set to stop Brown. We thought they would try to establish their running game first and then pass. So, we didn’t have the big pass rush right at the start. Our LBs weren’t firing through because on those sweeps they’ll try to string it out and give the pursuit a chance to come up. We weren’t looking for passes that early. It was a fine play selection by Ryan.”
Cleveland pulled ahead late in the first quarter on a 24-yard field goal by Groza. It was set up by a pass from Ryan to Paul Warfield that got the Browns deep into Packer territory. The Packers defense stiffened and stopped the drive once the Browns got into the red zone.
The Packers answered late in the second quarter after Willie Wood intercepted Ryan deep in Cleveland territory. The Packers had to settle for a 15-yard field goal by Chandler. That gave the Packers a 13-9 lead but the Browns answered with a field goal of their own just before the half so the Packers were clinging to a 13-12 lead at the break.
In the second half, the rain stopped but the field got even muddier and sloppier but the Packers offensive line took control of the line of scrimmage. The Packers drove 90 yards in 11 plays with nine of those being runs. Hornung and Taylor kept pounding the ball behind Bob Skoronski, Fuzzy Thurston, Ken Bowman, Jerry Kramer and Forrest Gregg and the Cleveland defense had no answers.
Hornung closed out the drive with a 13-yard run around the left end following Kramer’s block. It was a textbook Green Bay sweep that gave the Packers a 20-12 lead.
The Browns tried to answer and set up for another Groza field goal late in the third quarter that would have made it a one-possession game again (there was no two-point conversion in the NFL in 1965). But Henry Jordan reached up and blocked the kick to preserve the eight-point Packers lead. “My hand almost went with it,” Jordan admitted. “That’s how hard he boots the thing.”
In the fourth quarter, the Packers added another field goal by Chandler, this one from 29 yards out to make the final margin of victory 23-12. It was Chandler’s third field goal of the day. “I had to shorten my steps up to keep my footing, but it wasn’t too bad,” the kicker said after the game.
The Packers ran the ball consistently. In fact, this was the last game that both Hornung and Taylor were at full strength in a Packers uniform as Hornung was limited to just 76 carries all season in 1966 due to nagging injuries.
Lombardi was proud of his team. “This team has more character than any other team I’ve had,” he told reporters after the game. “And I think it’s a great compliment to them. A lot of teams would have folded but we stayed right in there.”
This was the first step in the Packers record-setting three straight championships. It was also the last time the NFL title would be decided without the Super Bowl. And it remains the Packers greatest win ever over the Cleveland Browns.
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