Pete, Wes and Ryan discuss the Packers' 27-20 victory over the Chargers and where the team stands through six weeks. (Oct. 18, 2015) Weston Hodkiewicz, Pete Dougherty and Ryan Wood | Press-Gazette Media
Aaron Rodgers studied the play from his sideline, wondering what Philip Rivers might do.
With 20 seconds remaining and trailing by a touchdown, the San Diego Chargers and their veteran quarterback faced fourth-and-goal at the Green Bay Packers' 3-yard line. Rivers, coming out of a timeout, went back to a play they'd run on second down designed to target tight end Antonio Gates.
Packers linebacker Clay Matthews threw it off in jamming Gates at the line of scrimmage, forcing Rivers to go to his second read: Danny Woodhead in the flat. But before Rivers' 65th and final pass could reach his running back, rookie cornerback Damarious Randall batted the ball harmlessly to the ground.
It preserved a nail-biting 27-20 victory for the Packers in front of 78,434 at Lambeau Field on Sunday evening, sending Green Bay into the bye week with a 6-0 start despite its defense conceding 548 total yards to the Chargers.
"I was happy that we stopped them," Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "The second-down play Rivers threw it to the corner and had he no-looked to the flat he kind of got Damarious, I was thinking to myself, I wonder if they'll come back to that play, and sure enough they did. And he made a great play on the ball and knocked it away."
As has been the case, Rodgers and the offense did just enough to keep the Packers ahead. His effectiveness (107.7 passer rating), a big performance from reserve running back James Starks (10 carries for 112 yards and a touchdown) and stout red-zone defense kept the Packers ahead throughout.
They gave up a lot of yards along the way, though. Green Bay's fourth-ranked passing defense was no match for Rivers with the NFL's leading passer completing 43 passes for 503 yards. He had time to throw with the Packers' second-ranked pass rush failing to capitalize on the Chargers' depleted offensive line.
Packers players talk about the defense's goal line stand in the final minute to preserve their victory over the Chargers and reach 6-0. (Oct. 18, 2015) Kyle Bursaw | Press-Gazette Media
San Diego's game plan was obvious — push the offensive tempo with Rivers and keep Rodgers off the field as much as possible. It led to a substantial differential in time of possession (San Diego 38 minutes, Green Bay 22). The Chargers ran an incredible 89 plays to Green Bay's 49.
Their only problem was they played from behind the entire game.
The Packers scored on their opening possession for the third consecutive week with a cerebral eight-play, 87-yard drive that ended with Starks' 5-yard touchdown run. Packers coach Mike McCarthy chose to feature the veteran over Eddie Lacy, who had only four carries for three yards.
Starks fashioned a new career-long rush on a 65-yard touchdown with 1:51 left in the first quarter, giving the Packers a 14-3 lead. Green Bay's offense, which lost Ty Montgomery to an ankle injury on the next series, sputtered the rest of the game.
The Chargers started to get things going in the second quarter after a Melvin Gordon fumble and getting held on fourth down at Green Bay's 12. Rivers' main target was receiver Keenan Allen, who caught 11 passes for 128 yards in the first half alone at the expense of cornerback Sam Shields. The Packers were bailed out when Allen left in the third quarter with a hip injury and didn't return.
With the defensive front struggling to put pressure on Rivers, Rivers pulled the Chargers within three points at halftime after a 1-yard touchdown pass to receiver Dontrelle Inman on fourth-and-goal to cap a 12-play, 88-play series. It was one of six series where the Chargers executed at least 10 plays, succeeding on nine third-down attempts.
So why was it so difficult to get a handle on the Chargers' offense?
"Nobody has got a handle of it all season," said cornerback Casey Hayward of the Chargers, who now lead the NFL in offense with 433.0 yards per game. "I think nobody has held them under 300 yards passing and … they've gone against some good defenses. We knew they were going to get some yards. Our ultimate goal is when they get down there to hold them to three points. That's what we did."
Red-zone defense was the Packers' redemption. The defense was lights out inside its own 20 other than Rivers' 19-yard touchdown to Ladarius Green on their first drive of the second half. It preserved a 24-20 lead with 11 minutes left in the fourth quarter after forcing a 32-yard field goal from Josh Lambo.
Then, the defense came through on the Chargers' final possession with Randall's batted pass, holding San Diego at bay four times from inside its own 3-yard line. Randall's play made the 77 yards it allowed on the series a bit more palatable.
San Diego had been aggressive the entire game, including going for it on fourth-and-goal at the start of the second quarter. Who knows what the Chargers might have done if they score on that particular play? Fortunately for the Packers, it didn't matter.
"Obviously, that's the way you want to finish a game," right guard T.J. Lang said. "You get them down there at the 2-yard line and they've got a chance to score — in my mind, I feel like they probably would have gone for two at that point. Just a huge stop by our defense. Four downs from inside the 5-yard line and hold them strong."
The victory came at a cost. San Diego racked up 488 passing yards, more than twice the 186 yards the Packers averaged in their first five games. Allen caught 14 of his 15 targets for 157 yards before leaving with the hip injury. Gates and veteran Michael Floyd each finished with 95 yards apiece.
Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers tried to adjust coming out of halftime, alternating between man and zone coverage, moving Clay Matthews back to outside linebacker and even using a package with seven defensive backs to neutralize Woodhead. The danger was in how quickly Rivers could identify the personnel and adjust.
When the dust settled, Rivers and Rodgers combined for 65 completions, 94 pass attempts, 758 yards, four touchdowns and yet no turnovers. However, the one area where Rodgers beat Rivers is what Capers believes is the most important - passer rating (107.7-99.7).
Afterward, Hayward cringed slightly when told of the 503 yards the defense allowed to Rivers before pointing to the positives — the Chargers managed only 20 points and scored on only two of their six red-zone appearances.
In the end, it was enough for the banged-up Packers to remain undefeated going into the bye.
"I felt like they were moving the ball pretty well on us," defensive back Micah Hyde said. "At some point in the game, we just couldn't get off the field. They were converting on third down. We knew they had weapons there. We just couldn't win the one-on-one matchups today. It's as simple as that. Thank God for our red-zone defense."