THE VICTORY was secure, the Packers were moving on, and now Tramon Williams found himself in a generous mood. True, Dez Bryant had "made a good play on that ball, no doubt about it. But," continued the underrated Green Bay cornerback, "the rule is, you've got to control the ball all the way to the ground."
You couldn't blame Williams for savoring this chance to brandish the NFL rule book. In his eight seasons as a pro he's seen numerous rule changes tilting the field in favor of Bryant and his receiving ilk. A few stalls over in the winners' locker room inside Lambeau Field, fellow corner Sam Shields—who positively draped the Cowboys' all-cosmos receiver on that critical play—also gave Bryant his props. Sort of. "He got up and made a good play, [but] then, at the end, he came up bobbling," Shields said.
Their unspoken message: Don't waste your pity on Bryant and his Dallas teammates, whose hopes of advancing to the NFC championship game against the Seahawks were dashed with four minutes remaining in Sunday's divisional playoff when referee Gene Steratore emerged from under the hood to deliver this verdict: After review, it has been determined that the receiver did not maintain possession of the football during the process of the catch. The Lambeau Field crowd went berserk, Green Bay took over on downs, and a superb Cowboys offense, instead of settling in for a first-and-goal at the Packers' one and a golden chance at the go-ahead touchdown, took its leave of the field for the final time this season. Because while they were very good in this game, Aaron Rodgers was transcendent.
Unless you've recently emerged from a coma, you know that the Packers' QB came into the game nursing a left calf that was either strained or slightly torn—it varied from one news outlet to another. For a fortnight beat writers maintained a Rodgers Calf Watch; no press conference given by coach Mike McCarthy could begin without a query concerning the bum wheel. The last calf to receive this much attention: Paul Bunyan's sidekick, Babe the Blue Ox.
Despite many hours of kneading, icing and acupuncture, Rodgers could only gimp a few steps in any direction on Sunday; he couldn't scramble. A Tarkentonian ability to escape trouble and extend plays is among his most valued skills. Now, in Green Bay's most important game of the season, he would be a prisoner of the pocket. It was like asking Arturo Toscanini to conduct a symphony minus the woodwinds.
Rodgers had been gutsy but inconsistent up until the time Dallas extended its lead to 21--13 late in the third quarter. Thereafter, he was gutsy and otherworldly. Dispensing with running backs, lining up in four- and five-receiver sets, frequently going no-huddle, he carved up an increasingly gassed secondary, leading touchdown drives of 90 and 80 yards that would launch a fresh round of Willis Reed comparisons. It's worth noting that after hobbling courageously onto the court at Madison Square Garden for Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals, the Knicks' captain scored all of four points. Rodgers didn't just inspire his teammates. For long stretches he carried them. "If Aaron can fight through pain and injuries and stuff," asked Mike Daniels, the Pack's voluble, excitable defensive tackle, then "why can't I?"
"What more can you say about him?" asked Williams, surrendering to a kind of superlative fatigue that's an occupational hazard of being a teammate of a future Hall of Famer. While there's plenty more to say about him, this seems an opportune moment to direct our gaze to the other side of the ball. Even with Rodgers down to one working leg, Green Bay's offense remains potent. In the club's recent, disappointing playoff history—since winning Super Bowl XLV following the 2010 season, it had lost three of four postseason games—defensive collapses have doomed this team.
And halfway through this season the pattern seemed ready to repeat itself.
CLAY MATTHEWS got the request and cringed. This was Nov. 3, the Monday after Green Bay's bye week. McCarthy wanted to see the outside linebacker in his office, and Matthews had an uneasy feeling. Yes, he's been to four of the last five Pro Bowls. But under the Viking mane and superhero musculature he's the same guy who walked on at USC in 2004. Sure the Packers chose him with the 26th overall pick of the '09 draft, but Matthews hasn't forgotten the days when he had to scratch and claw and plead for playing time—he didn't start regularly for the Trojans until his senior year—and he uses that insecurity as a spur. He didn't know what McCarthy wanted, but he had some ideas. "Eight games into the season, I had 2½ sacks," he says. "I thought, Here comes the talk about how I gotta step up my play."
Instead McCarthy made a fairly radical proposal. He and coordinator Dom Capers wanted Matthews to change positions. The Packers were coming off a 44--23 loss to the Saints in which the defense had given up 193 rushing yards. Through eight weeks Green Bay was a respectable 5--3 but had the NFL's worst run D. The inside linebackers in Capers's 3--4 scheme weren't getting it done. If Matthews moved inside in nickel packages (which the Packers employ on roughly two thirds of their snaps), the 6'3", 255-pound backer could shore up that weakness. At the same time, coaches could put another gifted athlete on the field: Nick Perry, a fellow Trojan, would replace him on the outside.
"My biggest fear," recalls Matthews, "was that it would take me out of my most productive role." The guy's a sackmeister; his gift for getting to the passer has earned him several lucrative endorsements outside the game. And here they were asking him to ... drop into coverage on passing downs? Matthews was reluctant at first. But Capers assured him that wherever he lined up he'd still get opportunities to rush the passer.
Matthews bought in. Still, during the ensuing five-day crash course his head was spinning. He had different keys, different reads. "When I first got back there, I had to get a feel for the linemen in front of me, which way the quarterback is opening, the back taking a counter-step," he says, "there were so many factors to take into account."
In a jaw-dropping display of his elite instincts, closing burst and versatility, Matthews flat-out killed it in his first game inside. Energized by the switch and thrilled, apparently, to be able to make plays on both sides of the field, he racked up 11 tackles—two for loss—and a sack in Green Bay's 55--14 laugher over the reeling Bears, who rushed for just 55 yards.
By the end of the regular season Matthews was averaging 15 to 20 snaps per game inside, and the Packers' run defense had improved dramatically. After ceding an average of 153.5 rushing yards per game over the first half of the season, the Pack limited opponents to 86.4 over the second—fifth-best in the league during that span. Their total yards surrendered dropped from 379.3 (25th) to 313. 5 (seventh). Not coincidentally, Green Bay won seven of its last eight games. Matthews got his opportunities to chase the quarterback and cashed in on many of them, finishing with 11 sacks.
"Clay handled it great," says Capers, who was delighted—and perhaps a little relieved—when Matthews was chosen for his fifth Pro Bowl. "He's very football-smart. His production has been better over the last quarter of this season than any other time during [this year]."
The Packers' defensive turnaround is in large part a testament to the acumen and audacity of Capers, a coaching veteran of 29 NFL seasons. His smiling, perpetually polite demeanor belies the intensity of his focus and work ethic, and his daunting, encyclopedic knowledge of defenses. He's kept a daily journal since 1982 and regularly finds time to hit the weight room, as his formidable physique attests.
"I hope I look that good when I'm 100," wisecracks Daniels of his coordinator, who is actually a youthful 64, despite having twice undertaken the Sisyphean task of serving as the inaugural coach for an expansion team. Capers lasted four years apiece with the Panthers (1995--98) and the Texans (2002--05). This is his sixth season in Green Bay. Some have been tumultuous.
When life gives him lemons, Capers ignores the Fire Dom Capers websites and hashtags that inevitably spring up and finds a solution using the resources at hand. His ironclad discipline, notes Bill Polian, who was Capers's general manager in Carolina, exists alongside a "remarkable creativity" when it comes to making adjustments and moving players around to solve problems. "He and [Bill] Belichick are two of the best I've ever seen at that."
There was more to Green Bay's defensive U-turn, of course, than just Matthews's willingness to toggle between OLB and ILB. Capers has shortened his call sheet slightly, reducing the number of wrinkles and making it easier for younger players to grasp the D and make an impact. This has coincided with the emergence of second-year inside backer Sam Barrington, whose stout play in Green Bay's base package has added considerable starch to the run defense.
Nosetackle Letroy Guion, whom the Packers signed off the street last spring, has been a consistently disruptive force up front, helping the team cope with the loss of B.J. Raji, who tore his right biceps in August and was lost for the season. By filling in, Guion became a member of Green Bay's unofficial corps of "grunts," as designated by Daniels, the self-appointed Grunt in Chief.
"A grunt is a guy who does the dirty work," elaborates Daniels. "He's not gonna hear his name much over the loudspeakers. He does his job consistently well but gets overlooked a little. When his name is called, there's some light clapping, maybe a dull roar."
There was more than a dull roar, of course, when he and Perry—on the field thanks to Matthews's move—split a sack on the first play of the fourth quarter on Sunday. Perry had bagged Cowboys QB Tony Romo on the previous play as well. Those big plays forced a Dallas punt, kneecapping the Cowboys' momentum and swinging the game.
WHILE DANIELS did not mention them by name during last Friday's roll call of grunts, there may not be two more underappreciated players than Shields and Williams, Green Bay's starting corners. That helps explain Williams's fitful sleep on the eve of the Cowboys game.
Williams snapped awake in the small hours of Sunday morning, as he often does during the season. Typically, his mind wanders to the challenge awaiting him, and sleep becomes elusive: "At that point I'll grab my iPad and watch film for about an hour, then I'll go back to sleep."
His restless nights are understandable; he's got more on his mind than your average NFL corner. In order for the Packers to bring a safety down in run support, Capers often demands that his corners line up in single coverage.
Since Green Bay went all-in on stopping the run, Capers has called for an increase in "single-high safety," leaving his corners more exposed and lonely than ever. "They've given Dom the flexibility to call whatever he wants, knowing he doesn't have to protect them," says cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt Jr. before launching into an unsolicited paean to Williams. "If you take his numbers from 2008 to now" and compare them to other cornerbacks', "he's top two in interceptions (27), top five in tackles (436), top 10 in sacks (4½). And nobody talks about him."
That's not entirely accurate: People were certainly talking about him after he was flagged twice for pass interference on Sunday. To Williams (who found both calls "iffy," as he is required to do by the unofficial Cornerbacks' Code of Conduct), an occasional yellow hankie is merely the price of doing business: "It is what it is when you're going up against [Bryant] all game long."
In the end the Cowboys' All-Pro finished with a modest three catches for 38 yards, his most memorable play having been expunged from the box score. Sure, Dallas moved the ball on Green Bay, at times. (DeMarco Murray had 123 yards on 25 carries.) But the knowledge that they'd held one of the NFL's most dangerous offenses to 21 points will be a source of encouragement for the Packers against the Seahawks.
Standing in his stall on Sunday evening, Williams delivered a boiled-down game plan for Seattle: "First thing you need to do is stop the run. Second thing, contain Russell Wilson. He really drives that offense, the way he can extend plays." As he gestured, one could not help noticing a monstrous diamond-encrusted ring on his right hand. Between the team hotel and Lambeau Field that morning he'd stopped by his house to hug his wife, Shantrell, and their two young children. During a quick trip upstairs, for reasons he couldn't precisely articulate, he'd grabbed his Super Bowl XLV ring from a jewelry box. "I haven't taken it out in a long time," he said, "so I thought this might be a good day to wear it."
Would he bring the bling to CLink? "Probably not," said a smiling Williams, who knows that a ring won't be much help against this foe. He is a realist, as any of us would be who'd spent as much time as he has alone, on an island.
"Eight games into the season, I had 2½ sacks," says Matthews of the meeting that reshaped Green Bay's D. "I thought, Here comes the talk about how I gotta step up."
Photograph by Mike McGinnis/Getty Images
RUSH JUDGMENT The Cowboys' Murray got his yards, but Matthews (52) and the rest of the Packers' defense showed that they won't be pushovers against the Seahawks' ground game.
TOM LYNN FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (RODGERS)
PACK FOR SEATTLE With Rodgers pulling a Willis Reed and Julius Peppers (56) adding some pass-rushing spice, Green Bay earned its sixth trip to the NFC title game.
DAVID E. KLUTHO/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (PEPPERS)
[See caption above]