GREEN BAY, Wis. -- When Micah Hyde broke free, cutting across the soggy, snowy grain, it appeared the Green Bay Packers might get the final word.
He knew players had an angle on him. But he saw daylight.
"I would have liked to burst it into another speed," the cornerback Hyde said, "but I didn't have another gear."
Hyde settled for a 70-yard kick return and the Packers' rally was suffocated at the Pittsburgh Steelers' 1-yard line.
The field was slick. The flurries were steady. One team was desperate and one team had absolutely nothing to lose. It all meant that the special teams were very, very special Sunday at Lambeau Field. Through the wild highs and lows, Pittsburgh made more plays and earned the 38-31 win.
We can talk quarterbacks. We can talk defense. But the Packers' playoff fate may be decided in the third phase.
"It's just as important as offense and defense," inside linebacker Jamari Lattimore said. "It can change a game. You can cause turnovers. You can score touchdowns. It's just as big as offense and defense. You can change a game, however."
Players knew the slippery terrain would favor returners. The returner knows his next move, knows one juke is all it takes. So the Packers had their three longest kick returns of the season in one game -- bursts by Hyde of 33, 39 and 70 yards. For Pittsburgh, Antonio Brown had a 41-yard punt return and Emmanuel Sanders returned one kick 46 yards.
Hyde's final return gave Green Bay a chance. Through an entire season of getting virtually nothing out of their kick returns -- ranking dead last in the NFL -- the rookie teed up a golden opportunity for the Packers to force overtime.
"Micah did a really good job. I'm proud of Micah," tight end Ryan Taylor said. "I'm proud of our guys for getting in there. We knew that we could be a difference-maker in the game. Unfortunately, the ending wasn't how we wanted it. But that last kick return really set us up for what we were trying to do."
And before that climactic return, this game was scattered with the absurd.
In the third quarter, Pittsburgh caught the Packers snoozing with a fake punt. On film, Green Bay didn't see the Steelers use fakes hardly at all. Yet facing a fourth and 2 -- the Steelers surely embracing their role as spoiler -- punter Mat McBriar hit tight end David Paulson deep on a flood design right.
John Kuhn reacted quickly for the Packers, taking away one option underneath. But McBriar, who had attempted one pass his previous nine NFL seasons, went through his progression like a true quarterback.
"They weren't a big fake team," Taylor said. "Obviously it's something we're always ready for and always prepared for but we weren't on high alert for it. I'll say that. But you have to always be ready. It's the National Football League. Guys are really good athletes out there."
The zaniness would swing Green Bay's way.
After punter Tim Masthay pinned the Steelers deep and the Packers forced a fumble, Mason Crosby lined up for a 23-yard field-goal attempt. The kick was blocked by Steve McLendon, but Ziggy Hood was flagged for "illegal batting," which was an automatic Packers first down.
The next play, Eddie Lacy scored from 2 yards to give the Packers a 21-17 lead.
On the sideline, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was incensed. He hurled his red flag even though the play was not reviewable.
"Batting is an intentional act," referee Carl Cheffers said afterward. "It's when you strike the ball, and you cannot do that in the direction of your own goal line. So if you bat the ball forward, it is an illegal act."
Said Lattimore, "I've seen it on TV before. But other than that, I wasn't expecting it."
But, oh, this special teams adventure would take another twist.
With 1 minute 35 seconds left in the game, outside linebacker Nick Perry was flagged for encroachment on a Steelers' field-goal attempt. The drive stayed alive, Le'Veon Bell scored and Hyde's kick return capped a wild Sunday.
Inside the Packers locker room, the night was still young. The Philadelphia Eagles hadn't whacked the Chicago Bears yet.
Naturally, players -- including these special teams players -- weren't a happy bunch. But Taylor did provide some perspective. He said the team would need to "take a step back." Let the emotions drain.
He proved prophetic.
At Soldier Field next weekend, special teams could decide a division title. Sure enough, Green Bay lived to see another day.
"It was a pretty emotional game, up and down," Taylor said. "Right now, there's nothing we can do but get ready for next week's game. We know we have Chicago next week no matter what happens.
"Either way, we're going to go out there and try to win that game."
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