Packers shake early stumbles to rally past Jets
The Green Bay Packers' 4-3 defense was unraveling, the no-huddle offense couldn't buy a touchdown and the 78,041 fans inside Lambeau Field had grown restless.
A week after a letdown in Seattle, the Packers were in danger of a being run out of Sunday's home opener against the New York Jets.
Until it all changed.
The defense stopped bleeding, Aaron Rodgers and the offense regrouped, and the Packers pulled off one of the team's greatest comebacks of the past 20 years in a 31-24 victory that started a simple interception from wily veteran Tramon Williams.
Trailing by as many as 18 points with 10 minutes, 38 seconds left in the first half, Williams still felt a sense of calm. With the Jets driving, Williams turned the table with an interception off quarterback Geno Smith with an assist to a quarterback hit from defensive lineman Mike Daniels.
The Packers responded with a 22-3 run after that.
"You know what, you have a feeling during the game that we can get started at any time," Williams said. "We didn't know when that time was going to be. Things weren't going right, but we still had the hope and belief that OK, we're going to win this game. That's what keeps you together.
"When you're down 21-(3), it's kind of hard, but those guys ain't going nowhere. They're going to be there and try to put more points up on you, so we have to get things together and that's what we did."
The game couldn't have started worse for the Packers, who turned the ball over on the first play from scrimmage on a bobbled exchange between Rodgers and rookie center Corey Linsley.
Behind Smith, the Jets scored touchdowns on each of their first three possessions. After Smith cashed in on the Packers' turnover with a 1-yard touchdown run, New York drove the ball with ease on their next two possessions against a Packers' 4-3 defense that looked unsure of itself.
A 39-yard run by receiver Jeremy Kerley off a read-option brought back bad memories of last week's 36-16 loss to Seattle and set up Eric Decker's 29-yard touchdown over the coverage of Sam Shields.
The Jets followed it with a 17-play, 80-yard drive that ate up 8 minutes, 28 seconds to push their lead to 21-3 a little more than 20 minutes into regulation.
The Packers' offense had few answers. On the series in which they managed to move the ball, all of them ended in Mason Crosby field goals, including a Lambeau Field-record 55-yarder with 3:12 left in the half.
During the stretch, Packers coach Mike McCarthy ran running back Eddie Lacy off a draw on a third-and-goal play from the New York 5 and was stopped 2 yards shy of the end zone. When Crosby was deployed for a 20-yard field goal, the crowd loudly voiced their displeasure.
"It was frustrating," right guard T.J. Lang said. "That's definitely not the way you want to start the game. The frustrating part on offense beside the turnover was we had a couple drives where we had the chance to score a touchdown and we had to settle for three field goals. … After we got down, we knew we had to make some big plays to get back in the game."
Down 21-9, the defense forced a quick three-and-out to calm itself. The Packers unsuccessfully tried for an onside kick after Crosby's 55-yarder, giving New York prime real estate for another score before halftime.
Only Williams beat tight end Zach Sudfeld to a Smith floater forced by Daniels, who had five tackles (two for a loss), two quarterback hits and a sack in the comeback. Williams' interception gave the Packers the ball at their own 3, enabling Rodgers and the offense to drive 97 yards on 10 plays.
They scored with 8 seconds left in the half off a Rodgers' 6-yard pass to Randall Cobb.
"He just stayed the course. That's how these games go," McCarthy said of Rodgers. "You play a tough defense, especially as talented as they are up front, they challenge you and come up and take something away from you. It's tough sledding. I thought Aaron did a great job staying the course.
After the three quick scores, the Packers stuck with their new 4-3 defense and it responded by allowing only a 100 yards in the second half and a field goal on the Jets' last nine possessions.
The Packers again had some issues substituting out of their new personnel grouping, but toned down some of the scheme and increased the pressure on Smith, who completed only 6-of-18 passes for 70 yards in the second half.
Pedestrian in the first half, Rodgers completed 9-of-12 passes for 163 yards and two touchdowns in the second half. His 1-yard pass to Cobb with 5:45 left in the third quarter gave the Packers a 24-21 lead following a successful two-point conversion.
After the Jets answered with a Nick Folk 52-yard field, Rodgers needed one throw — an 80-yard touchdown to Jordy Nelson off an out and up — to break New York's hopes on Green Bay's next possession.
The Jets teased a comeback in their final drive off what would have been a 36-yard touchdown to Kerley over Williams, but offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg called New York's final timeout milliseconds before the snap.
The Packers' defense got the stop, and according to Football Outsiders, pulled off a comeback from more than 15 points for only the second time in 47 games dating to the 1995 season.
"I think in this situation we showed a lot of character by the way that we responded," Rodgers said. "In years past, we have needed a big play to get us going at times, and at times it had to be an offensive big play, but today it was an interception by Tramon that gave us some hope and then we put together a good drive to pull within 5 there at halftime."
The Packers' defense didn't know why the Jets moved away from the read-option looks they had success with earlier in the game. They also made a few other questionable decisions, including Michael Vick's one-snap appearance that ended in a Clay Matthews sack.
A week after conceding 207 rushing yards to Seattle, the Packers allowed only 107 yards on 36 carries (minus Kerley's option) to a Jets' rushing offense that gashed Oakland for 212 yards in Week 1.
The Packers' offense still hasn't rediscovered its own run game. Lacy had 13 carries for 43 yards, but the passing offense was more diverse with nine different targets on the receiving end of Rodgers' 25 completions.
The win pulled the Packers into a tie atop the NFC North following forgettable performances from Detroit (24-7 loss to Carolina) and Adrian Peterson-less Minnesota (30-7 loss to New England).
With road dates against Detroit and Chicago looming, the Packers passed a big test in resiliency Sunday. It was only one play, but those polled in the Packers' locker room agreed Williams' much-needed turnover kick-started the rally.
"It gets a little heated sometimes, but you've got to stick together," Williams said. "If you don't stick together, we probably wouldn't have made that comeback. We all stuck together. We all played it out and we got in a rhythm offensively and defensively."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod