Green Bay Packers defensive end Jerel Worthy (99) celebrates after New Orleans Saints kicker Garrett Hartley (5) missed a 48-yard field goal during the fourth quarter of Sunday's game at Lambeau Field. Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette
This time, the Green Bay Packers won a wild and wacky game.
Coming off their bitter Hail Mary loss to the Seattle Seahawks last week, the Packers sidestepped a big early-season hole with a winning fourth-quarter performance against the desperate and offensively explosive New Orleans Saints on Sunday.
In a game that had several big swings in the fourth quarter, the Packers were able to hold off the Saints with three strong defensive stands plus game-winning and then clock-killing drives in the final 10 minutes for a 28-27 win at Lambeau Field.
“We talked a lot about integrity and character,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said, “and I thought today’s game had plenty of those types of situations where it showed up big. There was adversity throughout the football game, which there is in every football game, I understand that. But I’m very proud of the way our players responded to the challenge today.”
The win came against a winless Saints team whose season was on the line, and who now at 0-4 are the longest of shots to get into the playoff race even though they have some of the best offensive talent and one of the top quarterbacks in the game.
The Packers, on the other hand, climbed back to even, 2-2, at the quarter post of the season.
“I think 1-3 would have been difficult,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “We’ve got a tough schedule coming up, we’ve got to play some games on the road. We’ve got to learn to win on the road with this group of guys that we have, 1-3 would have made that very difficult I think. When you start having consecutive losses, you can’t help but have that feeling of, ‘Here we go again’ at times, and unfortunately there was a little bit of that tonight with some calls. But we were able to overcome it. I think it says a lot about the character of this team.”
The Packers felt better not only because of the win, but because for the first time this season they looked like the offense that led the NFL in scoring last year.
They also got a strong fourth-quarter performance from their young defense, which looks much improved from last season even if the numbers Sunday don’t show it. The Saints put up 474 yards in total offense, and quarterback Drew Brees gashed the Packers for 446 yards passing and a 109.0 passer rating.
However, coordinator Dom Capers’ defense made the plays when it counted, in the fourth quarter with the game on the line. On its final three possessions, New Orleans had the chance twice to extend its lead to two scores, and the final time had a chance to win the game. Yet, the Saints came away with only three points total, because the Packers made the critical stops they almost never made last year.
“I know they had a lot of yards and production against us,” McCarthy said, “but I thought (the defense) stepped up in adverse times. We had some plays that didn’t go our way, and we just hung in there and battled.”
It started early in the fourth quarter, when the Saints were looking to build on a 24-21 lead and faced a third-and-4 at the Packers’ 9-yard line. Receiver Devery Henderson ran a slant but dropped a low throw with cornerback Sam Shields closing fast for the hit. Instead of finishing the drive with a touchdown, Saints kicker Garrett Hartley kicked a 27-yard field goal for the six-point lead.
Then after the Packers failed to answer, their defense forced a three-and-out when rookie cornerback Casey Hayward, who played extensively with Capers deploying his dime personnel most of the game, had tight coverage on the Saints’ best receiver, tight end Jimmy Graham, that helped force an off-target throw by Brees.
Even after the Packers went ahead 28-27 on Rodgers’ 11-yard touchdown pass to Jordy Nelson, they still appeared to be in peril with 7 minutes left on the clock for Brees to negotiate close enough for a field goal to go back ahead. Making matters worse, the Packers were livid that the officials didn’t call a fumble on Darren Sproles’ kickoff return after that go-ahead score — several players said Packers linebacker Dezman Moses recovered the ball — and the Packers had to be thinking they were reliving their bitter loss to Seattle last week.
So the game was on the line when the Saints faced a third-and-4 from the Packers’ 25. New Orleans called a pass to its playmaking halfback, Sproles, but rookie safety Jerron McMillian tied up Sproles’ arm just enough to force an incompletion on a short throw. The Saints’ go-ahead field goal was nullified by a holding penalty, and after the Packers gave back five of those yards by being offsides, Hartley barely missed a 48-yarder. The defense had held again.
“It kind of had the feeling that whoever got the ball last was going to have the best shot at winning,” Packers center Jeff Saturday said. “That’s kind of the way those games feel. Our defense comes up with a huge stop, (Hartley) misses the field goal, then you have to get the first down, you don’t want to give their offense the ball back.”
Rodgers sealed the game with a difficult third-down completion to receiver James Jones, who fought off cornerback Jabari Greer for an 8-yard catch that gave the Packers a new set of downs with New Orleans out of timeouts. Greer was called for interference on the play, so either way the game was over.
That finished Rodgers’ best game of the young season. His 119.9 rating topped Brees’ by 10.9 points, and he also wasn’t sacked after taking eight sacks in the first half last week against Seattle. He made more plays sliding in the pocket and scrambling outside it than he probably did in the first three games combined.
If not for backup quarterback Graham Harrell’s fumbled handoff exchange with running back Cedric Benson at New Orleans’ 2-yard line after Rodgers had to leave the game because he’d been poked in an eye, the Packers probably would have scored 35 points and been 5-for-5 on touchdowns in the red zone.
“We’ve probably had to deal with more adversity than most of the teams I’ve played with,” Rodgers said, “especially early on, we’ve had some interesting games already. We’re four games in. So, I think the character of this team is very strong. Winning games like this says a lot about the kind of men that we have that we would (have) a big stand by them, our defense, to hold them to three points there, and for us to be able to respond and get a touchdown there and then, you know, for our defense to not give up there in the fourth quarter was important.
"This is a big win for us. We’re 2-2 and a lot of season left.”