Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers can only watch as the Cincinnati Bengals celebrate after recovering a fumble for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter during Sunday's game at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio. Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette Media
No matter what conventional or crazy way they get there, plenty of NFL games come down to a final possession in the last few minutes of the fourth quarter.
And so it was Sunday in a wild game between the Green Bay Packers and Cincinnati Bengals. The twists and turns were difficult to keep up with, and both teams had plenty of missed chances to lament, but in the end it came down to the Packers taking over the ball at their 20-yard line with 3 minutes, 47 seconds to play and trailing by four.
This is crunch time, when NFL quarterbacks make reputations and good teams win more than they lose. And though Aaron Rodgers was able to move the Packers into scoring position, he had his final two passes batted down at the line, which turned the ball over on downs and preserved the Bengals' 34-30 win at Paul Brown Stadium.
"It's only Week 3," Rodgers said after the game. "But you have to win these types of games when you are coming down the stretch and trying to make it into the playoffs."
The Packers left not only a defeated team, but also a beaten up one. The loss dropped them to 1-2, the same record they had after three games last season, when they finished 11-5 and lost in the divisional round of the playoffs.
They also sustained three injuries of note in a sometimes chippy game against the tough and physical Bengals: tight end Jermichael Finley's concussion, which sidelined him for the day on the first offensive series; running back James Starks' knee injury, which knocked him out of the game at the end of the first half; and outside linebacker Clay Matthews' hamstring, which sidelined him the second half.
The Packers have their bye this week, which is uncommonly early. They're not happy that the rest isn't coming closer to the halfway point of the season, but this might be enough time for all three of those players to get healthy for their next game, Oct. 6 against Detroit.
Two other key players might be back after the bye as well: safety Morgan Burnett and cornerback Casey Hayward, both of whom missed the first three games because of hamstring injuries. Same for halfback Eddie Lacy, who didn't play Sunday because of a concussion.
"I've seen this team do it year in and year out," cornerback Tramon Williams said. "I'm not really worried about (the loss) part of it. We're definitely going to get some guys back and we're definitely going to be better."
The Packers will lament this loss to the 2-1 Bengals for all the chances they blew, but any errors in the first 56 minutes would have been forgiven if they had come through with the game on the line. For the record, the four-point defeat drops Rodgers' record to 5-16 in games he's finished that have been decided by four points or less. And while nine of those losses (and none of the wins) came in his first two years as a starter, this was as good a setup as an accomplished nine-year pro could want for a game-winning drive.
Facing a Bengals defense that has one of the best 4-3 defensive lines in the league, Rodgers moved the ball from the Packers' 20 to Cincinnati's in just more than 2 minutes. On third-and-5 with 1:29 to play, the Bengals rushed six players, and Rodgers tried a quick throw that 6-foot-6 left end Carlos Dunlap knocked down for an incompletion. On fourth down, Rodgers tried to hit receiver James Jones with a quick throw to the other side, but left tackle David Bakhtiari missed his cut block on 6-7 right end Michael Johnson, who knocked down that throw to set off the Bengals' celebration.
It was the third pass the Bengals batted down at the line on the drive.
"I think they were looking to bat it down a little more, knowing we were going to be looking for some quick passes," Rodgers said. "They're smart defensive ends, they've played some years in this league. They are both 6-6-plus. We tried some different things, cutting them, split the line at times. But they're good players."
Said Bakhtiari: "I cut him down really well when we started calling it, and they started kind of reading it. And then the last play, I wasn't able to get his hands down."
That ended a wild game that had several major swings. The Packers were down 14-0 before even getting the ball on offense after kick returner Jeremy Ross fumbled the catch of a short kickoff.
But then the Packers ran off 30 straight points, and it could have been more. In the first half, they forced four turnovers, all inside the Bengals' 40, but scored only 13 points, and the lone touchdown came when safety M.D. Jennings returned BenJarvus Ellis-Green's fumble 24 yards for the score.
But the Packers' final four possessions were disastrous: two interceptions, a catastrophic fourth-and-1 fumble by rookie halfback Johnathan Franklin that cornerback Terence Newman returned 58 yards for a touchdown; and the final drive, which ended on downs.
Rodgers finished with a 64.5 passer rating, which was the seventh-worst of his career as a starter and worst since the 55.4 he put up before getting knocked out of the game with a concussion at Detroit in December 2010.
Jones took responsibility for the first interception and said he made a misread and cut off his route, which allowed Newman to jump the route.
"Just heat of the moment you make mistakes sometimes, and that was one of my mistakes in the game," Jones said. "I didn't cross the DB's face. A-Rod was looking for me and threw it. The defender cut me off and intercepted the ball. That's completely on my shoulders, that had nothing to do with the quarterback."
On the second interception, Rodgers just underthrew tightly covered receiver Randall Cobb, and cornerback Leon Hall made the interception at the 5.
"I felt we had a great opportunity to make a statement today," Williams said. "Thought we were in a perfect position, guys were playing well. We just gave it up. You play this game long enough and you see things like that happen, like at the end the fumble and the guy takes it back for a touchdown. Crazy, but it happens.
"It was pretty bizarre. You could see guys on the sideline looking like, did that just happen? It did. But we still felt we had enough time to get the score. They made a couple plays when they needed to."