The Green Bay Packers have a bye this week and will not play on Wild Card weekend. But in the team’s history, perhaps their most remarkable accomplishment in a Wild Card game came in the 1994 playoffs when the Packers defense held future Hall of Famer Barry Sanders to minus-one yards rushing in their 16-12 playoff win over the Detroit Lions.
Both teams finished the regular season with 9-7 records and the two division rivals were meeting in the playoffs for the second straight season. The Lions were seeking revenge after the Packers defeated them 28-24 the previous season on a last minute touchdown pass from Brett Favre to Sterling Sharpe. This year, Sharpe was unavailable, felled by a neck injury that would end his career.
Coming into this game, the Packers knew they had to slow down Sanders. In the previous year’s playoff game, Sanders had gained 169 yards rushing on 27 carries. In the last regular-season meeting in 1994, Sanders ran for 188 yards on 20 carries and scored a touchdown as the Lions beat the Packers 34-31. For the 1994 season, Sanders gained 1,883 yards rushing and surpassed the 2,000-yard mark in yards gained from scrimmage.
To try to slow down Sanders, the Packers switched up their strategy and moved future Hall of Famer Reggie White from defensive end to defensive tackle to make it more difficult for Sanders and the Lions to run away from White. The plan worked. Sanders finished the game by gaining minus-one yards on 13 carries. Six of those rushes were for negative yards and his longest run was just seven yards.
Favre summed it up best when he said, “To hold Barry Sanders, in my opinion the greatest running back ever to play, to hold him for negative yards, I shouldn’t even have to say anything. That was remarkable. It was really awesome.”
Favre finished the game 23-of-38 for 262 yards. He did not throw a touchdown pass or an interception. With Sharpe unavailable, Robert Brooks became Favre’s favorite target, catching seven passes for 88 yards.
But the story of the game was the Green Bay defense which held Detroit to minus-four yards rushing, 171 total yards, just nine first downs and registered four sacks including two by Bryce Paup and one each by Sean Jones and White.
The Packers took the opening kickoff and drove down the field on a 14-play, 76-yard drive that ate up nearly half of the first quarter. With Sharpe on the sidelines, Favre hit five different receivers in a drive that mixed short passes and running plays that kept the defense honest. Dorsey Levens capped off the drive when he ran it in from three yards out to give the Packers a 7-0 lead.
In the second quarter, Chris Jacke added a 51-yard field goal to make it 10-0 set up by a 20-yard pass by Favre to tight end Mark Chmura.
The teams traded third quarter field goals with Jason Hanson booting one from 38 yards out to make it 10-3 before Jacke added a 32-yard effort to make it 13-3 after three quarters.
The Lions pulled closer early in the fourth quarter. With the offense stalled because Sanders was shut down, kick returner Mel Gray set up the Lions scoring drive with a 68-yard kick return that set up a 3-yard touchdown pass from Dave Krieg to Brett Perriman that pulled to Detroit to within 13-10.
The Packers got a third field goal from Jacke set up by passes from Favre to Anthony Morgan, Brooks and Chmura.
Detroit mounted a late comeback attempt but it stalled on fourth down and 14 at the Packers 17. Krieg threw for Herman Moore in the end zone. Moore made the catch but landed out of the back of the end zone and the Packers got the ball back with 1:45 left in the game. Safety George Teague pushed Moore and made sure he wouldn’t come down in bounds.
The Packers ran Edgar Bennett three times and forced the Lions to take their last timeout before punter Craig Hentrich took a deliberate safety by running out of the back of the end zone in the closing seconds. The Packers won the game 16-12 to advance to the next round of the playoffs.
Sanders gave the Packers defense credit. “I think they did a good job of pursuing,” Sanders said after the game. “When we tried to get outside, they were always there. They did a good job of fighting off the blockers and closing up all the gaps.”
“It’s hard to use the word stop with that guy and really not smile a little bit,” Packers defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur admitted. “I thought we had really good pursuit…They were convinced if they came off the football and controlled the line of scrimmage, it was going to do two things: reduce the cutback lanes that Barry has and help the pass rush. Both of those things happened for us. I think another huge factor was the one-on-one tackling of our linebackers. They had Barry a lot of times one-on-one in the flat with the ball, and George Koonce and Wayne Simmons and Bryce Paup did an excellent job of making those tackles.”
Paup was amazed at what the defense accomplished. “It’s just amazing because he’s the best back to ever play this game in my opinion,” Paup told the 1995 Packers Yearbook. “I think it’s one of the greatest accomplishments this defense has ever had.”
It was one of the greatest playoff performances by the Packers defense which dominated the Lions and shut down Sanders and 27 years later, it remains one of the greatest moments the Packers had in the Wild Card round of the playoffs.
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