December 26, 2009
The two best teams in the NFL’s Western Conference, the Green Bay Packers and Baltimore Colts, met in a tie-breaking playoff at Green Bay’s Lambeau Field on December 26, 1965. The Colts, under third year Head Coach Don Shula, had gotten off to a 9-1-1 start before disaster struck in the 12th week against the Bears as star QB Johnny Unitas fractured his knee and was lost for the rest of the season. Backup Gary Cuozzo stepped in, but was also lost for the remainder of the year in the following game against the Packers with a separated shoulder.
Shula was down to his emergency quarterback, Tom Matte (pictured above). Matte had been a college quarterback at Ohio State under legendary Head Coach Woody Hayes, but that consisted of running the ball and passing only out of necessity. Matte had been converted into a halfback by the Colts, and was a good one, but had thrown only option passes in his four NFL seasons and was certainly underprepared – and lacked the arm strength – to put in significant action at quarterback. Baltimore made a desperation trade for 37-year-old veteran Ed Brown from the Steelers, who came in on obvious passing situations in the season finale; the Colts managed to defeat the Rams while throwing just seven passes (and completing three, all by Brown, including a TD) and end the regular season at 10-3-1.
Green Bay, under Head Coach Vince Lombardi, had won the first six games, lost three of the next five, and then won two (including the game against the Colts in which Cuozzo was injured). Going into the last game of the season, a win would give them the conference title, while a loss and a Colts win would put Baltimore over the top. Instead, they tied the 49ers at San Francisco, and with the Colts winning, found themselves even, also at 10-3-1.
Ed Brown would not be available for the playoff game, so it was all up to Matte, using a wristband that contained the plays that Shula listed for his use in a simplified offense (Matte’s backup was CB Bob Boyd, another non-passing college QB at Oklahoma). Lombardi was determined to keep Matte boxed in by his defensive ends, and had the defensive backs play shallow since long passes were out of the question.
However, it was the Colts getting a huge break on the very first play from scrimmage. Green Bay QB Bart Starr passed ten yards to TE Bill Anderson, who was hit hard by Baltimore CB Lenny Lyles and fumbled. Colts LB Don Shinnick picked up the loose ball and ran 25 yards for a touchdown. Along the way, Starr attempted to tackle Shinnick but was hit by Colts safety Jim Welch and suffered bruised ribs. He would not return to the game.
Zeke Bratkowski (pictured at right) replaced Starr at quarterback, and while he was an accomplished backup, the Colts largely stifled the Green Bay offense during the first half. Their 5-1 defense proved highly effective against the tough Packer running game. The closest they came to scoring prior to their last possession of the half was a missed field goal attempt from 47 yards out by Don Chandler.
Meanwhile, the Colts scored again in the last three minutes of the second quarter on a drive that started on their own 25 yard line. Matte completed a crucial screen pass to HB Lenny Moore on third and eight for a first down at the Green Bay 39 and made it to the eight yard line before the Packers held fast. Lou Michaels kicked a 15-yard field goal. While Green Bay managed to get inside the Baltimore one yard line on their ensuing possession, the Colts stopped them short, with FB Jim Taylor fumbling on fourth down. Baltimore went in at halftime with a 10-0 lead.
The Colts, who had played conservatively out of necessity in the first half and had also avoided mistakes, made a big one in the third quarter. Punter Tom Gilburg bobbled a high snap and attempted to run; he was quickly brought down for a loss at the Colts 35 yard line. The Packers took full advantage as Bratkowski threw 33 yards to flanker Carroll Dale, and shortly thereafter HB Paul Hornung burst over on a one-yard touchdown run.
The Colts clung to their 10-7 lead, stopping two Green Bay drives with interceptions by Boyd and strong safety Jerry Logan. Finally, with time running down in the fourth quarter, Green Bay moved the ball downfield and set up for a 22-yard field goal attempt. The angle was not a favorable one, and after the kick sailed high above the left upright, Chandler shook his head in disgust. But the officials signaled that the field goal was good, and the game was tied with 1:58 remaining.
The contest proceeded to “sudden death” overtime. On their second possession, the Colts got the first scoring opportunity, but due to a bad snap the 47-yard field goal attempt by Michaels missed. Bratkowski then drove the Packers downfield, throwing back-to-back 18-yard passes to Anderson and Dale. At 13:39 into overtime, Chandler booted the game-winning 25-yard kick (no controversy this time), and Green Bay won the hard-fought contest, 13-10.
Tom Matte drew plaudits for accomplishing the most that could be expected in his play as the emergency quarterback – he completed 5 of 12 passes for 40 yards, and while he didn’t throw any scoring passes, he also didn’t give up any interceptions. The Colts ran the ball 47 times for 143 yards, with Matte leading the way with 17 carries for 57 yards; FB Jerry Hill also accumulated 57 yards on one less attempt. The five pass completions were made by two players: TE John Mackey, with three receptions for 25 yards, and Lenny Moore with two catches out of the backfield for 15 yards.
Playing in place of the injured Bart Starr, Zeke Bratkowski completed 22 of 39 passes for 248 yards with two picked off. TE Anderson led the receivers with 8 receptions for 78 yards. The Colts held the Packers to 112 yards on 39 carries, a 2.9-yard average for a team that had a 3.4 average during the regular season. Jim Taylor led the club with 60 yards on 23 carries.
The Packers defeated the defending champion Cleveland Browns the next week to win the NFL Championship. The Colts came up empty in the postseason for the second consecutive season, but considering the situation at quarterback, they could hardly be faulted for getting as far as they did. Their consolation was to beat up on Dallas in the Playoff Bowl, 35-3, with Matte tossing two touchdown passes to complete his stint as a quarterback (he played seven more seasons as a halfback).