The Green Bay Packers surprised everybody in 1972, improving from 4-8-2 in 1971 to a 10-4 record and an NFC Central Division title the following year. Dan Devine’s team turned things around on the strength of a powerful running game led by John Brockington and MacArthur Lane, a strong defense that shut down opposing passing attacks, and the kicking of rookie Chester Marcol which made the kicking game a weapon instead of a liability. But the division title run would not have been possible without the Packers miracle comeback on Monday Night Football to beat the Lions in Detroit.

Packers Complete Miracle Comeback to Beat Lions: The Leadup to the Game

Both the Packers and the Lions entered this game with identical 3-1 records. The Lions won with a strong running game led by Altie Taylor and Steve Owens and mobile quarterback Greg Landry. Their only loss thus far came against the defending division champion Vikings.

The Packers had already beaten the Browns, the defending Super Bowl Champion Cowboys and the Bears and lost a close, controversial game to the Raiders. Green Bay had a young team that was learning to win with a few teams left from the Lombardi Era dynasty like Dave Robinson, Ray Nitschke, Ken Bowman, and Carroll Dale.

The winner of this game would take control of the division at this early point in the season. A national television audience tuned in to watch Howard Cosell, Frank Gifford and “Dandy” Don Meredith describe the action in this classic “Black and Blue Division” rivalry.

The Lions Take Control Early

The Lions got off to a good start, but the Packers were fortunate when ex-Packers kicker Errol Mann missed a field goal try and the game remained scoreless.

However, on the ensuing drive, Packers quarterback Scott Hunter was intercepted by Lem Barney which gave the Lions a short field. Landry opened the scoring on a two-yard touchdown run and the Lions led 7-0.

Early in the second quarter, Mann extended the Lions lead with a 12-yard field goal to make it a 10-0 deficit for the Pack.

A few minutes later, the usually reliable Lane fumbled, and Lions linebacker Wayne Walker recovered. Detroit took over at the Green Bay 11. Three plays later, Taylor scored from a yard out and the Packers trailed 17-0.

Lane made up for his mistake on the following drive. He caught a screen pass from Hunter and ran for a 41-yard gain. A 10-yard pass to receiver Jon Staggers set up a one-yard touchdown run by Hunter who followed a Malcolm Snider block into the end zone to cut the Detroit lead to 17-7 at the half.

Packers Complete Miracle Comeback to Beat Lions: The Pack Takes the Lead

The teams traded field goals in the third quarter with Mann booting a 45-yarder followed by a kick by Marcol from 34 yards out. That made the score 20-10 Detroit late in the third quarter.

Then came the game’s turning point. The Lions Herman Weaver punted, and Ken Ellis of the Packers fielded the ball at his own 20. Ellis eluded three potential tacklers including Weaver and former Packers tight end John Hilton to complete an 80-yard punt return for a touchdown.

“I saw John Hilton coming at me and I figured if I could get by him, I would go all the way,” Ellis said. “I knew Hilton’s speed and he underestimated mine. Hilton came down and had me hemmed in, but for some reason he went for my inside move. After I started retreating, I saw my men forming a wall. I knew I could go all the way.”

The Lions 17-point lead had been reduced to three and the momentum was squarely on the side of Green Bay.

The Lions increased their lead early in the fourth quarter on a 51-yard field goal by Mann. The Packers got the ball back at their own 17 with 9:35 left in the game. Hunter then led the Packers on a methodical drive that took 7:28 off the clock. Key plays included a 21-yard pass to Dale, an 11-yard toss to Staggers, and some key plays by Brockington and Lane. The drive culminated with a 15-yard touchdown toss to receiver Leland Glass. Marcol’s extra point made the final score 24-23 Packers.

The Packers Hold On

The Lions last chance ended when Clarence Williams sacked Landry on the ensuing drive combined with three incomplete passes. The Packers held on for the one-point win.

“We just kept plugging away until things started to go right,” Devine said as described in Joe Zagorski’s excellent book, “The Year the Packers Came Back.”

Assistant Coach Bart Starr called it “Our biggest win in a long, long time.”

The win certainly gave the Packers confidence. “This is a young team but a great team,” Ellis told reporters after the game. “We can beat anybody.”

The Packers finished the season with a 10-4 record and won their only division title after Vince Lombardi retired and before Brett Favre arrived. It wouldn’t have been possible without the confidence they gained from this emotional comeback over a division rival.



Follow Gil Martin on Twitter @GilPackers

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