“Monday Night Football” was a cultural institution back in the 1970s and 80s. For the first time, people looked forward to Monday nights as an extension of their football weekends. Plus, viewers who were only casual football fans would tune in to see what Howard Cosell, Don Meredith and Frank Gifford would say on the air.
While MNF debuted in 1970 and the Packers appeared on the NFL’s prime time showcase 10 times before 1979, all of them had been road contests or games played in Milwaukee. So, the Packers meeting with the New England Patriots on October 1, 1979, was the first time “Humble Howard,” “Faultless Frank” and “Dandy Don” came to Lambeau Field.
The Patriots were perennial playoff contenders in 1979, led by quarterback Steve Grogan, tight end Russ Francis, a strong running game and an aggressive defense. They entered the Week 5 contest with a 3-1 record in the thick of the fight in the AFC East.
The Packers were off to a disappointing 1-3 start and had just lost a heartbreaking 27-21 game in overtime to the Vikings in Minnesota the previous week. After a surprising 8-7-1 season the in 1978, the Pack had high hopes for 1979. But first-round pick Eddie Lee Ivery was lost for the season in Week 1 against the Bears and injuries and inconsistency prevented the team from recapturing the magic they had the previous season.
The Packers were nine-point underdogs at home. The fans and media were losing patience with the team. The players realized they needed a victory if they had any chance of turning their season around.
“We were fired up,” safety Johnny Gray told The New York Times after the game. “Part of it was the Monday Night thing—the national TV exposure. But there was a lot of personal pride at stake because of all that had been written and said.”
Although the Packers were fired up, the Patriots got on the board first. Grogan found Francis on a 27-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter and New England took an early 7-0 lead.
Packers head coach Bart Starr pulled out all the stops on defense to put pressure the mobile Grogan. The pass rush harassed the New England quarterback throughout the game, sacking him five times led by defensive end Robert Barber who caught Grogan twice. The Pack also forced six turnovers on the night.
After the game, Grogan told Newsday (October 2, 1979), “We didn’t expect to see the type of football team we saw. It was one of the most physical games I’ve ever been in.”
An interception by Gray set up a one-yard touchdown run by fullback Barty Smith that tied the game at 7-7 later in the opening quarter. Then, starting quarterback David Whitehurst found wideout Aundra Thompson for a 15-yard score with 9:03 left in the half to put the Packers ahead for good. Two plays later, safety Steve Luke picked off a pass and returned the ball to the New England 10. That set up a one-yard touchdown run by running back Terdell Middleton to put the Pack ahead by two scores. But kicker Chester Marcol missed the extra point, so the lead was just 20-7.
The missed PAT gave the Patriots some hope. Grogan responded with a dominant 83-yard drive that culminated with another touchdown toss to Francis with one-minute left in the half. The Packers went into the locker room with a 20-14 lead, but the Patriots had some momentum.
Another turnover early in the second half turned the tide back in the Packers favor. Cornerback Mike McCoy intercepted Grogan and returned the ball to the Pats 38-yard line. Whitehurst found James Lofton for 21 yards to set up his own four-yard touchdown run on a roll out that extended the Green Bay lead to 27-14 in the third quarter.
Then the defense took over. They shut down Grogan and knocked him out of the game. Backup Tom Owen came on and threw only four passes, but the Pack intercepted two of them to wrap up the stunning upset win.
The Packers felt like they had answered their critics. “We had been reading a lot of really bad things and it’s just human nature to get upset,” Whitehurst said (Newsday, October 2, 1979). “I guess we proved something to a lot of people but if you prove it to yourself, that’s all that counts.”
After the game, Starr called this “as inspirational and emotional a victory as I’ve ever been a part of.” Unfortunately, the inspiration didn’t last. The Packers came out flat the following week in Atlanta and lost four of their next five games. An injury bug overwhelmed the Packers in 1979 and they stumbled to a disappointing 5-11 finish.
In this game, the Packers reignited the magic they share with the city of Green Bay and the sport of football before a national television audience. For one night at least, the Pack was back.