Sun, 16 Aug 2020

So much was at stake in what turned into a surreal day at Lambeau Field

In this new series, packers.com takes a look back at one of the team's single-game records and how the individual set the mark. The series continues with Ahman Green's 218 rushing yards vs. Denver on Dec. 28, 2003.

GREEN BAY - As the 2003 regular-season finale approached, no one was thinking about a record.

Three days after Christmas, all the focus was on how the Packers could get into the playoffs, and they had only one possible path.

At 9-6, Green Bay was tied with Minnesota for first place in the NFC North. If both teams won and finished 10-6, the Vikings would be division champs due to a better record in conference games (8-4 vs. 7-5). The Packers' conference mark also wouldn't have been good enough in a three-way tiebreaker with the 10-6 Cowboys and Seahawks for two wild-card spots.

So the scenario was clear - the Packers had to beat the Broncos at home, and the Vikings had to lose to the Cardinals on the road, for Green Bay to get a postseason berth for a third straight year under Head Coach Mike Sherman.

What ultimately unfolded was one of the most surreal scenes in the storied history of Lambeau Field, whose major renovation had just been completed at the start of the season.

Slotted for a late-afternoon kickoff to coincide with Minnesota's game out in Arizona, the Packers-Broncos contest started inauspiciously enough, as Green Bay jumped out to a 7-0 lead on the opening drive. Running back Ahman Green contributed a modest 17 yards on five carries.

Quarterbacks Brett Favre and Jarious Jackson traded interceptions on successive plays early in the second quarter before the Packers extended their lead with a field goal.

Green added four carries for 19 yards on the scoring drive, and while a two-minute drill ended in a missed field goal, the Packers entered the break up 10-0, and Green had 52 yards on 14 attempts.

The second half is when things got a little nuts.

Green gained 19 yards on his first three runs in the third quarter. Then after the Broncos cut the deficit to 10-3, Green ripped off a 47-yard run and finished that drive with a 2-yard TD plunge. The Packers were up 17-3 heading into the fourth, and Green was at 120 yards.

The Packers' star tailback had just set the franchise's single-game rushing record seven weeks earlier, when he piled up 192 yards on 29 carries in a 17-14 loss at Philadelphia on Nov. 10. That topped Dorsey Levens' 190-yard game against Dallas in 1997.

Earlier in December, Green also already had broken Jim Taylor's 41-year-old team record for rushing yards in a season (1,474).

But little did anyone know what his next carry would bring.

The Broncos blew their chance to get back into the game, with the Packers putting together an impressive goal-line stand. Denver had three straight snaps from just outside the 1-yard line, and QB Danny Kanell (who had taken over for Jackson late in the second quarter) threw incomplete on third and fourth downs.

The change of possession put the ball officially on the Green Bay 2-yard line, and on the very first snap, Green burst through a hole on the right side and was off to the races.

He went 98 yards for the score, the longest run in franchise history, one yard longer than Andy Uram's 97-yard TD run vs. the Chicago Cardinals way back in 1939.

It gave him 218 yards for the game on just 20 carries, topping his own single-game mark, and 1,883 for the season, more than 400 beyond Taylor's single-season record that had stood for so long.

When the Broncos fumbled the ensuing kickoff at the goal line and Marcus Wilkins recovered for a touchdown to put the Packers up 31-3 with 13:10 left, Lambeau was in a tizzy. The game was decided, and Green's record-setting day was done. The 98-yard scamper was the last time he needed to touch the ball.

But how was the Vikings' game going? Not well, from the Packers' perspective.

Minnesota kicked a field goal with 6:48 left to push its lead over Arizona to 17-6. Green Bay's postseason hopes were fading away.

But the Cardinals, just 3-12 entering the day, didn't quit. Arizona QB Josh McCown was sacked three times in a span of four plays, but one of them was wiped out by a defensive penalty. On third-and-long in a harbinger of what was to come, McCown hit receiver Nathan Poole for 37 yards to get into the red zone.

Four plays later, on fourth down from the 2, just after the two-minute warning, McCown threw a TD pass that was upheld on review. The two-point try was no good, so at 17-12 with 1:54 left and the Cardinals down to one timeout, the game hinged on an onside kick.

By this point, almost no fans in the Lambeau seating bowl were watching the Packers and Broncos. Their backs were turned to the field, as everyone was glancing behind them into the suite windows to get a look at the live TV feed from Arizona.

Vikings fullback Jim Kleinsasser muffed the onside recovery, and the Cardinals got the ball, as a hopeful cheer made its way around Lambeau. McCown got Arizona inside the Minnesota 10-yard line, but was sacked, and the Cardinals called their last timeout with 31 seconds left.

Then he was sacked again and fumbled the ball. Rookie left tackle Reggie Wells, making his first career start that day (incidentally, Wells would spend a brief offseason stint in Green Bay in 2012, his last year in the NFL) recovered to keep the Cardinals, and the Packers, alive.

With the clock ticking away, the game came down to fourth-and-25 from the 28-yard line. As McCown got the snap off with 4 seconds left and scrambled to his right, FOX announcer Chris Myers exclaimed, "They're watching in Green Bay."

McCown somehow found Poole in the right back corner of the end zone, and the catch was ruled a touchdown due to two Vikings defenders shoving Poole out of bounds in midair (the force-out rule has since been changed).

Lambeau Field erupted, and as the news made its way to the sideline, cluing in the Packers as to what had happened, a most unexpected celebration began. Miraculously, the Packers were in the playoffs.

And oh yeah, Green had broken his own franchise single-game rushing record, and no one has come within 40 yards of it since.

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