CLEVELAND – The football hung in the air for an eternity. At least, that’s how it felt as Josh Jones watched his shot at the first NFL interception of his young career flutter in the lights of FirstEnergy Stadium.
With Packers and Browns players converging into one school-yard heap to catch it around midfield, only one thought crossed the mind of the Packers’ rookie safety as the ball started to dive into his general vicinity.
Don’t drop it.
“When the ball was in the air, I'm like, 'First career pick. If I catch it, I'll seal the game. We'll get the ball. We're going to score and win the game,’” Jones said.
And that’s exactly how it played out.
A play that began with Clay Matthews hitting the throwing arm of Browns quarterback DeShone Kizer upon release ended with Jones’ first NFL pick, giving the ball back to Green Bay’s offense at the Cleveland 42-yard line with 8 minutes, 28 seconds left in overtime.
Minutes later, Packers quarterback Brett Hundley connected with receiver Davante Adams on a 25-yard touchdown to seal the 27-21 overtime win. It was one of several big plays the defense made in the second half to help Green Bay rebound from a 14-point deficit late in the third quarter.
While the Packers’ offense scored on three of its last four possessions, the defense stopped Cleveland on back-to-back drives in the fourth quarter with Isaiah Crowell falling shy of the first down on third-and-2 and then a pass to rookie tight end David Njoku being overturned upon review on third-and-4.
The defense also showed some much-needed resiliency when safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix picked off Kizer to halt a potential scoring drive near the end of the first half. The play helped minimize the damage after Cleveland out-produced Green Bay 202-93 in total yards to take a 14-7 lead at halftime.
Kizer, operating with recently reinstated receiver Josh Gordon, orchestrated one more scoring drive in the third quarter to put the Browns in the driver’s seat until Green Bay’s defense rallied in the fourth quarter.
“They got off to a hot start and I think the second half we really calmed down, and everybody just started doing their job more,” defensive tackle Kenny Clark said. “Especially that fourth quarter, we needed some important stops to win the game. I think we stepped up and we did our job that fourth quarter and got some good stops.”
Coming off a three-sack game against Tampa Bay, Matthews sacked Kizer on the same second-quarter series Clinton-Dix notched his third interception of the season, but his biggest play undoubtedly came in overtime when he hit Kizer on the third-and-2 to force the interception.
Jones has had a few chances at notching his first pick in recent weeks, only to fall inches away from making the play. With the season on the brink, the rookie second-round pick came through for a defense that refuses to quit.
“Down 14 points in the fourth quarter, I think ‘D’ (Damarious Randall) said it best, that don't even happen on Madden a lot of times to come back like that,” said Jones, who finished with a team-high three passes defensed. “So big shout-out to the whole team. We just kept fighting. We didn't give up. We made the plays when it counted.”
Return on investment: Special-teams coordinator Ron Zook said for weeks how he believed Trevor Davis was getting closer and closer to busting a big return.
The second-year receiver proved his coach’s intuition right at the most critical point of the Packers’ season.
Trailing by a touchdown with 2:37 left in regulation, Davis broke a career-long 65-yard punt return to set the table for Davante Adams’ 1-yard touchdown catch with 17 seconds left, which sent the game into overtime.
“It was big for us,” said receiver Jordy Nelson of Davis, who now ranks fifth in the NFL in punt returns (11.7 avg.). “He stayed alive. He looked like he was done three or four different times and he was staying aggressive. I think he’s done a great job in the return game not only the last couple weeks, but all year.”
It wasn’t the only big play Zook’s special teams provided. Defensive back Jermaine Whitehead also ran for seven yards on a direct snap off a fake punt on the opening series of the game for the Packers.
A former high-school running back, Whitehead stiffed one Browns defender to get up the sideline to convert on fourth-and-2.
“One man to beat, make a play,” Whitehead said. “One-on-one, I win. That’s my motto.”
Father’s day: Sunday’s trip back to Cleveland was meaningful for Matthews, whose father played the first 16 of his 19 NFL seasons with the Browns from 1978-93.
Paying homage to his dad, Matthews was wearing his dad’s No. 57 Browns jersey during the postgame locker room inside FirstEnergy Stadium. Matthews’ second-quarter sack of Kizer was his first against his father’s former team, giving him now at least one sack against 23 NFL teams.
“I got a special place in my heart for Cleveland, no doubt about it, especially with what my father was able to do here for 16 years,” said Matthews, who leads the Packers with 7½ sacks this season. “I brought the jersey, representing pops. He’s here today so I’m going to go holler at him after I’m done (talking to the media).
“It’s really cool and really special. I’m sure he’ll give me a hard time and make fun of me when I see him out there.”
Toughing it out: Despite being listed as doubtful, Davon House was back at his starting cornerback spot when the Packers took the field Sunday against the Browns.
House didn’t practice on either Wednesday or Thursday after injuring his shoulder in last Sunday’s 26-20 overtime win over Tampa Bay, but he took an all-hands-on-deck mentality after rookie cornerback Kevin King was placed on season-ending injured reserve due to upcoming shoulder surgery.
“That’s just a credit to the person Davon is,” safety Morgan Burnett said. “It’s playoff mode for us, but I don’t believe anyone thought he was going to play. To see him dress up, that just shows the toughness. House, we all respect him from Day 1, but you just gain even more respect for a person like that. When you see someone fighting and go through pain, it makes you want to pick your game up and fight even harder for them.”
House had two tackles before exiting early in the fourth quarter with a back injury following a downfield collision with Gordon. Josh Hawkins replaced him.
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