The Green Bay Packers, a rather small pro football team with admirable balance and boundless determination, very likely will play the Philadelphia Eagles for the National Football League championship December 26.
Green Bay has only to defeat the Rams in Los Angeles Saturday to assure this. The Rams, an unpredictable and often emotionally unstable football team, on Sunday won an almost unbelievable 10-3 victory over the Baltimore Colts, the tired and jittery defending champions, but suffered grievous injuries which should make them easier game for the Packers.
In San Francisco, the day before, Green Bay waded ankle deep through mud and 49ers to whip the third of the three teams that went into this weekend tied for the Western Conference lead. Now, with only a game to go, the Packers are a game ahead. "We are positive thinkers," says Packer Coach Vince Lombardi. "We can't see defeat ahead."
Nor can anyone else who watched Green Bay plaster San Francisco 13-0. The 49ers, depending for offensive thrust on a wide-spread triple wing designed to take advantage of fast backs, excellent pass catchers and accurate passing, never recovered from the dismay they felt when they came out to test the footing in Kezar Stadium. They found they could barely stand in the goo. But they found later that standing was preferable to being dumped in the mud—as they were, often and violently—by one or another of the Packers.
The 49ers' passing was completely nullified by the weather, and the 49er running backs, who are gifted more with mobility than power, were hobbled. On the other hand, the precise, power-operated Packer offense moved surely, if slowly, when it had to score. Bart Starr, the Green Bay quarterback, eschewed any artfulness in favor of pure, straight-ahead force.
"The field was so sloppy we decided to forget most of our passes and sweeps and trust to draw plays and traps," Lombardi said. "Paul Hornung busted their left side and Jim Taylor their right. We trapped their tackles, Leo Nomellini and Monte Clark. We have a quick line and we moved a little faster on that rainsoaked bog than the 49ers and we got our blocks in quicker than they could react. On Hornung's touchdown run, we cleared out the whole left side of their defense."
Taylor, the stocky, immensely strong Packer fullback, paddled for 161 yards during the afternoon. Paul Hornung, who has already set a league scoring record this season, slithered 28 yards for his touchdown—the only one of the game—and added two field goals. Said he: "That offensive line of ours—what a pleasure to work behind it, even in the mud. Those guys give you a little room."
"They were standing up the defensive line," Taylor said. "In this kind of goo, if you stand 'em up they slip and slide when you're running past 'em."
The Packer defense, which has developed this season into one of the best in the league, so thoroughly plugged the San Francisco shotgun offense that the 49ers crossed midfield only once—and that time to the Packer 49-yard line. Indeed, this Packer team is notable for its almost flawless combination of talents on both offense and defense. The defensive line is quick; the linebackers are among the best in the league, and, with the development of Ray Nitschke, Lombardi now has four of them, which means he can rest one all the time.
The only soft spot discernible recently in the Packer defensive unit is against long passes. The Chicago Bears completed two, but the game was already won by the Packers when the Bears managed this. If this is truly a weakness, it spells trouble for the Packers should they represent the West against the Eagles in the championship game—and against Norman Van Brocklin, the most accurate long passer in football.
But before Green Bay begins devising means for stopping the Eagles, they must face the Rams, and the Rams—on the basis of the resourceful, spirited game they played in beating Baltimore—are not exactly dead yet. Bob Waterfield, the stoical Ram head coach who was quarterback on four Ram championship teams, came up with one big surprise for Baltimore. He put Ollie Matson, his fine fullback, on defense. Matson performed there with verve and enthusiasm, if not with consummate skill.
"The only way to beat the great Colt pass catchers is with speed and defense," Waterfield said. "Matson has the speed."
Matson, tackling with abandon and effect and consistently outrunning the Colt receivers on deep passes, once jarred the ball loose from Lenny Moore with a rousing tackle. When the Colts drove down to the Ram five early in the game, it was Matson who smashed through the Colt line on successive plays to tackle Moore and Fullback Billy Pricer for short losses. A third-down pass fell incomplete in the end zone and the Colts settled for their only score of the game, a field goal, thus ending at 47 the string of games in which John Unitas has thrown touchdown passes.
Waterfield took a calculated risk in designing his defense. He noticed in the pregame warmup that the Colts' league-leading pass catcher, Raymond Berry, was not moving well. He decided to cover Berry with one man while assigning two to the very dangerous Moore. The crippled Berry—he has a pulled hamstring muscle—caught only one pass all day and that for just 11 yards.
The Ram touchdown must be regarded as something of a fluke. Frank Ryan, who has been shouldering most of the Los Angeles quarterback chores, was injured early in the game. He was replaced by Billy Wade, a big, pigeon-toed, rather awkward passer. Wade has been known to trip himself while retreating to pass. For obvious reasons, he almost never runs.
On this day, however, he ran 66 yards to score the touchdown which brought victory. He rolled out to his left on an option play, with Fullback Joe Marconi and End Red Phillips protecting him.
"On that play, if the linebacker drops back, the quarterback runs," Waterfield said. "If he comes up, the quarterback throws. It's not a new play but it sure worked like hell."
The Colt linebacker, well aware that Wade very seldom runs, dropped back. Marconi, leading the way for the Ram quarterback, motioned frantically for Wade to run and the big, gangling passer lumbered downfield. Marconi erased one would-be tackier and Wade galloped down the sideline behind Phillips. As they neared the Colt goal line, Milt Davis came over to make the tackle. Phillips, herding his ungainly charge along with all the protective concern of a sheep dog, managed to stay between Wade and Davis almost to the goal line, when Davis made the tackle—too late.
"The Packers present a little different problem," Waterfield said thoughtfully, after the game. "We got four key players hurt today-Gene Brito, Lou Michaels, Del Shofner and Ryan. And they are a very tough club."
They are indeed. In the Packer dressing room, after their victory over the 49ers, Nitschke, the linebacker, patted Taylor, the fullback, on the shoulder. "You," he said, "are as tough as a rat."
So is he.
MUD-SPATTERED PAUL HORNUNG RESTS ON BENCH AFTER 28-YARD TOUCHDOWN