“Win and you’re in.”
Sounds so simple, right? Win one game and keep going. It’s how the NFL playoffs work, but there are times when even the regular season has one of these games in store on the final week of the season. Now, we won’t know if the Packers will necessarily be in a “win-and-in” spot until the New York Giants-Washington game, but given that the Giants have nothing to play for, it’s a decent bet that Sunday night’s Green Bay Packers-Detroit Lions matchup will be a virtual playoff game.
Let’s take a look back at some games in which the Packers were in similar positions (and a couple times that they weren’t exactly, but a lot was on the line regardless), and how they handled the pressure.
1939: 8-2 Green Bay Packers at 6-4 Detroit Lions
Green Bay had clinched at least a share of the Western Division title with a win the previous week, but with the 8-3 Bears idle in the final week, the Packers had a chance to win the division outright. And they did, winning their fourth in a row to cap a five-game road swing to close the 1939 season, 12-7 over Detroit. A Clarke Hinkle touchdown plunge in the 4th provided the winning margin, as the Packers dominated the second half after falling behind 7-3 at halftime. The victory set up a rematch of the 1938 title loss against the New York Giants, with the ‘39 title game going to Green Bay 27-0 at State Fair Park in Milwaukee. The winning Packers took home just over $700 each for their victory.
1960: 7-4 Green Bay Packers at 4-6-1 Los Angeles Rams
The Packers avoided a three-way tie at 7-5 with Detroit and San Francisco by winning 35-21 on the road in L.A. A 13-0 win in San Francisco the week before had put the Packers in the driver’s seat, and they’d run out to a 28-7 halftime lead before 14 Rams points in the fourth quarter made the score a bit closer on paper. The win on Saturday that week made Detroit and San Francisco victories the next day irrelevant and set up an NFL title match in Philadelphia against the 10-2 Eagles, a game the Packers lost 17-13 as they ran out of time trying to put up the winning points on their final drive. Vince Lombardi swore to his players that they would never lose another title game as long as he was there – and he was true to his word.
1965: 10-3 Green Bay Packers at 7-6-1 San Francisco 49ers
Green Bay had just laid a 42-27 beating on the Baltimore Colts to grab a ½-game lead on the Colts with one game to go, so all the Packers had to do was beat San Francisco to get back to the NFL Championship game after a two-year absence. However, the 49ers had other plans, and a John Brodie touchdown pass, his third of the day, with just over a minute left morphed what was looking like a Packers victory into a 24-24 tie. With no overtime in the regular season in those days, the game ended that way; since Baltimore had won in Los Angeles the day previous, the tie set up a conference playoff game, only the second in Packers history.
In that famous matchup, Baltimore turned to halfback Tom Matte as a fill-in at quarterback with both Johnny Unitas and Gary Cuozzo injured, and that nearly did the job – but a late (and controversial) field goal by Don Chandler pulled the Packers into a tie at the end of regulation, sending the extra playoff game into extra time. Finally, a less controversial field goal by Chandler made the Packers a 13-10 winner and sent Green Bay to the championship game against Cleveland, which the Packers won 23-12 in Jim Brown’s final game.
1978: 8-6-1 Green Bay Packers at 11-4 Los Angeles Rams
The 1978 Packers were a young team, having had to rebuild from a difficult stretch since their last playoff appearance in 1972. Some desperate moves had been made to try to rush the process and save jobs, but it led to an ugly stretch of seasons when nothing seemed to go Green Bay’s way.
David Whitehurst, who started every game at quarterback that season due to an ugly leg injury to Lynn Dickey late the previous season, helped get the resurgent Packers to a 6-1 record almost halfway through the season, and a win in this game would put the Packers in the playoffs even with their second half slump. Instead, the Rams helped themselves to the #1 seed in the NFC by eliminating the Packers from playoff contention with a 31-14 win. The loss sealed the Packers’ fate in the Central division, having lost the tiebreaker to Minnesota, and a Philadelphia win over the New York Giants finished off the Packers’ hopes of earning the sole wild card spot.
1981: 8-7 Green Bay Packers at 9-5-1 New York Jets
After a 2-6 start, and after the two previous seasons had ended with five wins apiece, even Packers legend Bart Starr was on the hot seat, but a subsequent 6-1 run put the Packers in the position to earn a playoff spot on the final day if they could pull off a victory over the New York Jets. Instead, the New York Sack Exchange lived up to their name, making Lynn Dickey’s life miserable throughout a 28-3 rout, sending the Jets to the playoffs and sending the Packers home.
1983: 8-7 Green Bay Packers at 7-8 Chicago Bears
Heartache came again just two years later, as the Packers defense let the offense down one last time, giving up a late drive that resulted in a game winning field goal in a 23-21 loss that not only cost the Packers a playoff trip, but ended Bart Starr’s head coaching tenure with the team. The offense put up 429 points, the NFL’s fifth-best, but the defense gave up 439, third-worst. It led to a strange season that had the Packers dueling to the gun with the defending Super Bowl champions on Monday Night Football, and in the same season losing seven games to teams with losing records coming into the game.
1992: 9-6 Green Bay Packers at 10-5 Minnesota Vikings
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A 6-loss Packers team (in this specific case, with a 3-6 record) gets on a roll, rips off a big winning streak, and faces a divisional opponent in the final week with their playoff destiny in their own hands.
Unfortunately for the Packers faithful, their magic was already spent this time around, and Minnesota dominated a 27-7 game in which a young Brett Favre threw three interceptions in a big game. The playoffs were once again just out of the Packers’ reach, and aside from a berth in the strange 1982 “playoff tournament” after a long player strike, the Packers continued to search for their first playoff berth since 1972.
1993: 9-6 Green Bay Packers at 9-6 Detroit Lions
Okay, so I’m cheating with this one, as the Packers had clinched that elusive playoff berth the week previous in the game when LeRoy Butler made the Lambeau Leap a thing that exists. This game was for the division, though, with the winner earning the #3 seed, and the loser placed as the #6 seed. The winner of this game, under the format in 1993, would win the Central division and host the loser, who would be the final wild card entry in the playoffs. The only question up for grabs in this game was who would host the playoff rematch.
The answer would be Detroit, with a 30-20 victory in a game – without all-time great Barry Sanders. Sanders would come back the next week, but the result would be different, with the Packers pulling out a last minute 28-24 win on a pass that only a guy like Brett Favre could make (or even dare to attempt):
The Packers would exit the playoffs the next week in a divisional round loss to Dallas, which would be something of a theme over the next few seasons…
1994: 8-7 Green Bay Packers at 6-9 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Another late season rally had the Packers controlling their own destiny again but with no room for error: A loss would send them home.
Tampa Bay was also red hot; though far too late for this game’s result to matter, the Buccaneers were playing to avoid a 10-loss season for the first time since 1982. They’d have to wait one more year for that streak to end, however, as the Packers won 34-19. The Packers then became interested spectators in the Minnesota-San Francisco Monday Night tilt, but the 49ers benched their starters, having already clinched the #1 seed, and Minnesota would win 21-14 to win the division. The Packers would repeat their playoff results from 1993, except they’d play host to and beat Detroit before falling to Dallas again.
2003: 9-6 Green Bay Packers vs. 10-5 Denver Broncos
Another cheat here, because the Packers didn’t have their destiny fully in their hands (although a loss would have ended their hopes), but this story is too good to leave out of an article like this.
The wild card slots had been spoken for, and the Vikings, also at 9-6, held the tiebreaker and were travelling to Arizona, so not only did the Packers have to beat Denver, who had clinched a playoff spot the previous week, but hope against hope that the 3-12 Arizona Cardinals could pull off the upset. The Packers did their part, and were putting the final touches on a 31-3 win over the Broncos’ backups when a roar came from the crowd because this had happened:
The Packers would then take the ball from the Seattle Seahawks and Matt Hasselbeck, who wanted to score, in the wild card playoffs before falling to the Eagles in the “4th and 26 Game”.
2010: 9-6 Green Bay Packers vs. 11-4 Chicago Bears
The division was spoken for, but the Bears weren’t about to let the Packers just waltz into the playoffs. In a season full of close losses (all six Ls were by 4 points or less), the Packers were still regarded as dangerous, and the Bears would have loved to knock out their eternal rivals. Instead, a 10-3 victory secured Green Bay a ticket to the playoffs. Three games later, they would beat the Bears again in the NFC Championship game, and four games later, the Packers would be champions.
2013: 7-7-1 Green Bay Packers at 8-7 Chicago Bears
It had been a hard season, made harder by the loss of Aaron Rodgers for weeks due to a collarbone injury suffered in the first Chicago matchup that season, but with the Lions fading from the scene after slaughtering the Packers on Thanksgiving, the stage was set for a winner-take-all game in Chicago. And with just 38 seconds left, the Packers struck the final blow.
The Packers would lose the next week to San Francisco, but even making the playoffs was a positive after such a struggle of a season.
2016: 9-6 Green Bay Packers at 9-6 Detroit Lions
So the stage is set. Will the Packers pull it off, or will it be a long winter in Wisconsin? I don’t know, but it won’t be the first time and it won’t be the last time this happens!