Few people gave the Green Bay Packers much of a chance heading into their Week 5 meeting with the New England Patriots in 1979. The Packers were just 1-3 on the season and struggling to find an identity while the Patriots were 3-1 and considered true Super Bowl contenders.
Bart Starr’s team had its hands full as they prepared to host the first ever Monday Night game at Lambeau Field. Although Monday Night Football started in 1970, all previous Packers appearances had been on the road or in Milwaukee. The Packers installed extra lights at Lambeau for the game to make sure things were bright enough for Howard Cosell, Frank Gifford and “Dandy” Don Meredith and a national TV audience.
The Packers were dealing with a lot of negativity from the fans and the press before the game. But when the game got underway, the Packers played inspired football and upset the Patriots 27-14.
The Packers won the game on the strength of six turnovers, five interceptions and one fumble recovery. They also got relentless pressure on Patriots quarterback Steve Grogan and finished the game with five sacks. Backup defensive end Bob Barber led the way with two sacks.
“We had been reading a lot of really bad things and it’s just human nature to get upset,” Packers quarterback David Whitehurst told the New York Times after the game. “I’m thankful I could go out and play tonight and I think I played pretty well. I guess we proved something to a lot of people but if you prove it to yourself, that’s all that counts.”
New England took an early 7-0 lead on a 27-yard touchdown pass from Grogan to Pro Bowl tight end Russ Francis. The score was set up when a Whitehurst pass bounced off the hands of James Lofton and was picked off by safety Tim Fox deep in Green Bay territory. It looked like the Patriots were going to win easily just as everybody expected.
But the Packers defense played inspired football. An interception by safety Johnnie Gray led to the tying touchdown on a one yard run by fullback Barty Smith.
On the next Packers drive, the team marched 74 yards on nine plays to take the lead on a Whitehurst touchdown pass to Aundra Thompson from 15 yards out.
Steve Luke made the next interception which again gave the Packers a short field. Halfback Terdell Middleton cashed in, scoring on a one-yard touchdown plunge. Chester Marcol’s extra point try was blocked and the Packers led 20-7.
Grogan rallied the Patriots and made it 20-14 before the half on a six-yard scoring pass to Francis. The momentum seemed to be shifting to the Patriots as the teams entered the locker room at halftime.
But in the third quarter, the Packers managed another interception of Grogan. Mike C. McCoy picked off a pass to give the Pack the ball at the Patriots 38. Four plays later, Whitehurst ran around right end to score on a four-yard run and the Packers led 27-14.
The defense clamped down after that, constantly getting pressure on Grogan and eventually knocking him out of the game. He was replaced by Tom Owen who fared no better and was intercepted twice in four throws.
Grogan admitted the Packers defense surprised him with their strong play. “I don’t know if we weren’t prepared but we didn’t expect to see the type of football team we saw. It was one of the most physical games I’ve ever been in.”
Middleton ran for 80 yards and a touchdown and had 126 total yards in the game. Whitehurst completed 17-of-27 passes for 206 yards and a touchdown while running for another score.
But it was the defense that made the difference with Mike Douglas and Estus Hood joining Luke, Gray and McCoy by picking off passes.
Patriots coach Ron Erhardt described the game as “one of those old-fashioned whippings.”
The Packers were emotional and excited for this game and it showed. “Part of it was a Monday Night thing, the national TV exposure,” Gray said after the game. “But there was a lot of personal pride at stake because of all that had been written and said.”
Starr called this “as inspirational a victory as I’ve ever had.” The Packers improved their record to 2-3 on the season.
Unfortunately, they couldn’t sustain the emotion and the level of play they showed in this game. The following week, they were beaten handily by the Atlanta Falcons in Atlanta, 25-7. They finished the season with a 5-11 record after losing seven of their last nine games.
The win over New England was the highlight of the Packers 1979 season and for Packers fans across the nation, it gave them a rare moment of pride in a difficult campaign.
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