Flashback: Packers once held Barry Sanders to negative yardage in playoff showdown

1994 Playoffs

The rivalry between the Green Bay Packers and the Detroit Lions dates back to 1930. The two teams have also met twice in the postseason including a memorable 1994 contest at Lambeau Field that saw the Packers defeat the Lions 16-12 on December 31st. More remarkably, the Packers held future Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders to minus-one yards rushing on 13 carries in the game.

Sanders was an unstoppable force for Detroit in the 1990s. He finished the season with 1,883 yards rushing, tops in the league and averaged 5.7-yards per rush. Just a month earlier, Sanders slashed through the Packers line for 188 yards to lead Detroit to a 34-31 win over the Pack at the Pontiac Silverdome.

Green Bay knew they had to stop Sanders if they had a chance of winning the game. In a surprise move, defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur moved future Hall of Fame defensive end Reggie White inside to nose tackle so the Lions couldn’t run the ball away from “The Minister of Defense.”

It worked like a charm. Sanders lost yardage on six of his 13 attempts and his longest run of the game was just seven yards.

“He does things that no other back does,” White said after the game. “Nothing to take away from Emmitt [Smith] or anybody else. I’ve seen [Sanders] do things I’ve never seen anybody do in my life.”

“I thought we had really good pursuit,” Shurmur explained. “They were convinced if they came off the football and controlled the line of scrimmage, it was going to do two things: reduce the cutback lanes that Barry has and help the pass rush. Both of those things happened for us. I think another huge factor was the one-on-one tackling of our linebackers. They had Barry a lot of times one-on-one in the flat with the ball, and George Koonce and Wayne Simmons and Bryce Paup did an excellent job of making those tackles.”

The Packers, who were playing without all-pro receiver Sterling Sharpe, who had just been diagnosed with what would be a career-ending neck injury, jumped out to a quick 7-0 lead when quarterback Brett Favre led the team downfield on the team’s first drive. The Pack moved the ball 76 yards on 14 plays culminated by running back Dorsey Levens’ three-yard touchdown run on a 4th-and-inches play to put Green Bay ahead. They never lost the lead.

For the game, Favre was 22-of-38 for 262 yards. He didn’t throw a touchdown or an interception in this contest. Robert Brooks filled in for Sharpe and led the Packers with seven catches for 88 yards.

The Packers offense struggled for most of the game, but managed three Chris Jacke field goals, one in the second quarter that put them ahead 10-0, one in the third quarter that gave Green Bay a 13-3 advantage and one in the final stanza that made it 16-10 Packers.

The Lions only touchdown came early in the fourth quarter when veteran quarterback Dave Kreig connected with Brett Perriman on a three-yard score to pull the Lions to within 13-10.

Detroit had a chance to take the lead late in the game. Trailing 16-10, they moved the ball to the Packers 17 as time ticked off the clock. On fourth down, Kreig attempted a desperation pass to wide receiver Herman Moore who caught the ball but was out of the back of the end zone. The Packers took over on downs.

Green Bay punter Craig Hentrich took an intentional safety on the game’s final play to make the final score 16-12.

“I don’t know if you can play Barry Sanders any better than our defense did today,” Packers head coach Mike Holmgren said.

“To hold Barry Sanders, in my opinion the greatest running back ever to play, to hold him for negative yards, I shouldn’t even have to say anything. That was remarkable,” Favre said. “It was really awesome.”

The Packers defense set a new NFL playoff record in the game by holding Detroit to minus-four yards rushing as a team for the game. The previous record was seven yards when the Bears stopped the Patriots in Super Bowl XX.

With the win, the Packers advanced to the NFC Divisional Playoffs for the second straight year and for the second straight year, they lost to the Cowboys in Dallas, this time 35-9.

Favre and the Packers were still learning how to win. It would take another two years before this team won a Super Bowl and once again made Green Bay Titletown, USA. But on this day, the Green Bay defense came up big and won a game by holding an all-time great running back to the least productive day of his illustrious career.

Follow Gil Martin on Twitter @GilPackers

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