NEW ORLEANS — What started as a shootout Sunday night ended in yet another Superdome nightmare for Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers.
The Packers matched the New Orleans Saints point for point on their home turf through the first half, but Rodgers' strained hamstring at the start of the third quarter was a precursor to a pair of rare interceptions in a 44-23 loss.
Although defensive players hoped it wouldn't be another shootout, the units of the Packers' Dom Capers and Saints' Rob Ryan gave up nearly 1,000 total yards. The offenses also came within an eyelash of surpassing the 70.3 combined points the teams' previously averaged in three meetings since 2008.
Drew Brees rarely flinched on the opposing sideline, engineering the Saints' offense to a 495-yard performance at the expense of a Packers defense that felt it had turned a corner. Neither team punted, only the third time in NFL history that's happened.
The turning point came when Rodgers pulled up lame following a 7-yard scramble with 9 minutes, 12 seconds left in the third quarter and the score tied at 16. Three players later, his lengthy streak without an interception ended when David Hawthrone picked off a dropped pass by Andrew Quarless.
With the Packers struggling against the deep ball all night, Brees hit rookie Brandin Cooks on a deep post for 50 yards to give the Saints their first lead, and the game quickly got away from Green Bay.
"It's a big swing," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "That's a 14-point swing. If he catches the ball, we score seven, and they obviously converted that turnover into a touchdown. So, obviously, it was a big play."
The Packers were stopped on the next possession on fourth-and-1 from their 40, which again resulted in a Saints touchdown. With the play-call sheet compromised by Rodgers' hamstring, any hopes of a comeback ended when rookie Davante Adams pulled up short on a pass intercepted by Corey White.
Where the Packers were unable to maintain their rhythm with Rodgers restricted to the pocket, the Saints produced yardage at will. It wasn't just Brees, either. Running back Mark Ingram rushed for 172 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries, the biggest output by a Saints' running back in a single game since Deuce McAllister rushed for 184 in 2003.
Rodgers said afterward he doesn't believe the hamstring injury will force him out of any games, but he eventually took a seat when the game was out of reach late.
"He's definitely affected," said McCarthy of Rodgers, who still finished with 418 passing yards. "We kept him in the gun. Obviously we didn't get into the play-action game and scratched off all the quarterback movements. He was limited just to play from the pocket and hand the ball off."
Ryan didn't try to pressure Rodgers through a chorus of blitz packages like he and his brother, Rex, have unsuccessfully done in the past. Instead, he seemed content in sending four-man rushes and letting his defenders match up.
It didn't seem to work early. The Packers' offense produced 204 yards in the first quarter with Rodgers completing 7-of-9 passes for 203 yards and a touchdown.
Even when Rodgers was at his best, the Packers struggled to punch the ball in the end zone from inside the Saints' 20. Their lone score besides a late Rodgers' scramble was the quarterback hitting Randall Cobb on a 70-yard touchdown on their first offensive possession, the third consecutive game they've scored on the opening drive.
Not to be outdone, Brees quickly drove the Saints down the field on their first possession with a 45-yard pass over Davon House's coverage to Kenny Stills, which set up a Cooks 4-yard touchdown off a jet sweep one play later.
With Morgan Burnett (calf) and Sam Shields (knee) out with injury, New Orleans assaulted the Packers' secondary. Stills' reception was one of several home-run passes off deep posts that allowed the Saints to beat a depleted Packers' secondary.
McCarthy dug up plenty of new looks for the Saints. They successfully ran two screen passes to Eddie Lacy in the first half in his homecoming to Louisiana with the first going for 67 yards behind the blocking of guards Josh Sitton and Lane Taylor, who replaced an injured T.J. Lang (ankle) after the first series.
The drive stalled shortly thereafter with outside linebacker Julius Peppers dropping a goal-line slant. The Packers settled for a 31-yard Mason Crosby field goal.
McCarthy rolled the dice on the ensuing kickoff, unsuccessfully attempting a surprise onside kick. It gave the Saints prime field position, but their drive stalled when Peppers redeemed himself with a third-down sack. Shayne Graham's field goal from 31 yards tied the game at 10.
Crosby and Graham traded field goals on the teams' last three possessions of the half with Graham's 37-yarder tying the game at 16 as time expired.
The Packers might have had a chance at touchdowns had it not been for penalties. Adams picked up an offensive pass interference call on catch that would have put the ball at the Saints' 2-yard line.
Instead, it backed Green Bay up to the 23 and then followed with a delay of game penalty. It led to Crosby's third field goal of the first half.
"We had three field goals and a turnover in the red zone, a turnover on their side of the field — uncharacteristic of our team and myself," Rodgers said. "Taking points off the board is tough. We had some chances there during the three field goal drives to actually get more points. Had a chance with Pep for a touchdown. Davante had a catch inside the 5 but got called for a penalty. Penalties and turnovers hurt us tonight and kicking field goals."
Cornerback Tramon Williams hoped the defense's luck was going to change at the start of the second half. After Letroy Guion and Mike Pennel penetrated to halt fullback Austin Johnson on third-and-1 from the Packers' 42, the Packers' front stopped Mark Ingram on fourth-and-2 to get the ball back to the offense.
The Saints pulled out some stops of their own. First, they responded by picking off the pass intended for Quarless, who believed Saints cornerback Corey White got his hand in to tip the ball up the Hawthorne.
Then, Rodgers hit Adams on a 7-yard out route on the next possession, which was called a first down, but then moved back a half-yard after a Saints review.
The Packers went for it on fourth-and-1, but Lacy was stopped in the backfield for the change of possession when Tyrunn Walker blew past the backup Taylor for the 1-yard loss.
The Saints took over from Green Bay's 40 after Lacy's stop and needed only four plays to extend their lead when Brees hit Jimmy Graham for a 22-yard touchdown over Williams, who wanted a flag for offensive pass interference.
He didn't get it. Rodgers also said afterward he felt there should have been a defensive pass interference penalty committed against Jordy Nelson on a free play during the team's third possession.
"Oh my god, let's not even talk about that," Williams said afterward. "It's ridiculous. It's crazy."
The Packers nearly matched the Saints in total yards (495-491) and time of possession (31:39-28:21), but the defense had no answers for Brees, whose 138.4 quarterback rating off 27-of-32 passing for 311 yards and three touchdowns make his previous career mark of 110.0 against Green Bay look minuscule.
After Ingram rushed in from 21 yards with 3:24 remaining, McCarthy pulled Rodgers in favor of backup Matt Flynn, who actually fumbled on the second snap of the drive to put the final turnover tally at three.
Green Bay still felt like it had opportunities. Rodgers felt the pass to Peppers was a bit too hard. There were also too many penalties like David Bakhtiari's holding call on the team's third defensive series, which ultimately required Crosby to hit a 49-yard field goal.
Receiver Jordy Nelson, who had his quietest game of the season (three catches for 25 yards), wouldn't put the blame on the defense despite the fact it allowed scores on eight of its 10 stances.
"Our defensive did a good job of keeping us in the game, keeping it even, but we knew eventually wouldn't continue to kick field goals," Nelson said. "The turnover was big, and then obviously kicking too many field goals."
Sunday was proof again of how tough it is to beat the Saints at home, as Rodgers found out in 2008 when New Orleans rolled in a 51-29 victory, his only previous start at the Superdome. They're also now 20-0 at home since the end of the 2010 season (including playoffs) under Sean Payton.
One area the Packers figured to have an advantage was turnovers. The Packers entered Sunday with the league's best turnover margin (plus-10). It looked promising when you consider the Saints were among the worst (minus-8), but Brees protected the ball well.
In the end, a compromised Rodgers and leaky defense was enough to push the Packers to 5-3 entering the bye week. They fell again behind Detroit, which improved to 6-2 after a comeback 22-21 win over Atlanta on Sunday in London.
When asked if the hamstring injury would cause him to stay in Green Bay for treatment during the bye week, Rodgers laughed in his reply of "We'll see," but he made it abundantly clear he plans to play when the team returns.
He and McCarthy expect the entire team to do the same.
"I don't think they slowed us down at all defensively," McCarthy said. "We dropped the ball that was an interception, we had a route that stopped that turned into an interception. I don't think there was a whole lot of defense that was played here tonight clearly by not our team.
"We talked about it as a team. We need to be a team that does more than has to rely on winning the turnover ratio to win. We had opportunities to pick it up for one another from each phase to the next and we didn't get that done tonight."
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