In the West the mighty fell. In the East the Giants proved, rather conclusively, that they were the mighty. Ten days ago the Green Bay Packers appeared to be the invincibles of pro football; the New York Giants, believed to be long in the tooth and apt to stumble on the hard home stretch, were considered lucky to be leading. After last week it is the Giants who seem invincible; the Packers, victims of a fearful beating at the hands of the Detroit Lions, seem something less than that. On Thanksgiving Day, the Lions overpowered Green Bay, 26-14; the Giants erased their strongest competitors, the Washington Redskins, with ease and aplomb, 42-24, three days later.
The Giant power has grown, week by week, almost unnoticed. Phil King, the big back from Vanderbilt, at last is playing up to his potential and has become a violent, hard-blocking and hard-running fullback. Bill Winter, the rookie linebacker, fits into the old Giant defense more neatly each week. This is, paradoxically, an old team growing better as the season goes along—and 2� games ahead with only three to play.
Detroit's power had grown from week to week, too, although for some reason its improvement was more widely recognized. Emotionally, the proud Lions had been looking forward to their game with the Packers since the Packers beat them 9-7 in Wisconsin on October 7. Despite their loss, the Lions felt that they were the better team on that day and they were dedicated to proving it before their home following last Thursday.
"They should have given that defensive line a saliva test," one of the Packer assistant coaches said after the game. "They looked like they were on the needle," said Bart Starr, the cool intellectual who runs the Packer offense from quarterback and who spent a great deal of the cold, blustery afternoon in Tiger Stadium staring up at the overcast sky from beneath a half-ton of Detroit defensive linemen.
The Lions were excited. So were their followers. The tension was palpable as the crowd gathered for the game; the bleachers were crowded with people who had been standing in line since 11 o'clock the previous night, waiting to buy the handful of seats left for this game. Once during the night a police squad had been called out to control the exuberant standees in front of the ticket booth.
Now, with the game beginning, the more affluent spectators were just as excited as the bleacherites. They howled steadily through the thin snow which fell and melted and they had more than enough to howl about.
The Detroit defensive line and the Detroit linebackers played with an ascending fury. ("They were by us before we could find them," a bewildered Packer tackle said. "I never saw anyone get off so fast with the snap of the ball.")
They not only moved with rare quickness, they moved on a pattern wholly unexpected by the very good Green Bay offensive line. This may be the best offensive line any pro club has put together in the last 20 years, but it was a confused and uncertain unit in the first half of the game. Like most great defensive teams, the Lions have enormously effective players, and do not need tricks to be good. They and the Colts and Giants of recent years can, man for man, defend their positions with considerable strength in simple alignments with each man handling the man in front of him and handling him well. This had worked for them all season and was their defense in their first game with Green Bay. But suddenly in Detroit they began to look very much like the Chicago Bears, a team which depends almost completely on guile in stopping its adversary.
"They came out stunting," said Tackle Forrest Gregg. "They blitzed almost every play, and we couldn't seem to recover. Most of the time their defensive line comes straight at you. The tackle and end come straight in. You would know where they should be and would be set up to block them. But they traded routes in this game. The tackle circled to the outside, where ordinarily you would expect to find the end. The end came inside, on the tackle's route. We couldn't find them. We weren't ready and it took us a half to pick up the stunts."
Bart Starr, who spent what must have been the longest afternoon of his career at quarterback, is a quiet man who never criticizes his teammates. He did not after the Lions game, although he was the victim of the inadequacy of the Packer offensive line. He was thrown for a miserable 110 yards attempting to pass. Often he had no chance to look for a receiver, let alone release the ball.