PHILADELPHIA – The drive that saved the Green Bay Packers season, at least for now, was a perfect embodiment of their 2016. It was flawed. Unnerving. Ugly. For every big play, there were just as many mistakes.
The drive didn’t even finish in the end zone.
But this was the “most gratifying” drive of an ungratifying fall. The steeliest drive of their season. The most memorable, perhaps, even if conversations inside the huddle were forgotten by the time players entered Lincoln Financial Field’s visiting locker room.
The Packers took possession in the fourth quarter at their own 8-yard line. There were 10 minutes, 18 seconds left. They were nursing a two-possession lead against the Philadelphia Eagles.
It was academic. For every first down, the Packers could run two minutes off the clock. Get enough first downs, the Eagles would eventually be forced to call timeouts.
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So long as the Packers kept possession, the Eagles couldn’t score. Couldn’t cut the deficit. Couldn’t win.
“Just keep getting first downs,” right tackle Bryan Bulaga said. “Always when we’re backed up like that, our goal is to get a first down and try and get out of our own shadow there. That’s the first challenge.
“It was a drive that we needed. Kind of the way the game was. We needed that game. That was a drive that we needed.”
The Packers knew what their 27-13 win meant Monday night. They are not out of the woods, not at 5-6. There’s still an uphill climb to the playoffs, and they’ll probably need some help to get there.
But they left Philadelphia with a morsel of belief, replacing the doubt quarterback Aaron Rodgers admitted seeped in after their first four-game losing streak in eight years. Yes, their road ahead is rocky.
So was their path from the 8-yard line.
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Their first play was a penalty. Left guard Lane Taylor, so solid for much of this season, was called for holding as fullback Aaron Ripkowski stumbled forward 3 yards. Half the distance to their goal line, the Packers were backed up to their own 4.
“We were all talking,” receiver Jordy Nelson said. “Just communicating on what the situation is, what we need to do. There’s not a rah-rah speech. It’s the fourth quarter of a big-time game on Monday night. You don’t need a rah-rah speech.”
James Starks was stuffed on the next play. No gain. On second down, Rodgers found Monday night’s breakout star, at least for Packers fans still getting past the departure of folk hero John Kuhn.
Aaron Ripkowski, the second-year fullback, had his first career touchdown earlier. With the Packers facing second-and-14 and 9:10 on the clock, Ripkowski got open in the flat and turned a short Rodgers pass into 9 yards.
It got the Packers close enough to pick up their initial first down on Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham’s neutral-zone infraction.
“When you can get something kind of cheap like that,” center Corey Linsley said, “it helps out a drive a lot. You don’t have to work for it. It just happens.”
They hadn’t put the Eagles away yet. At their own 18-yard line, the Packers strung plays together.
Starks for 6 yards.
Rodgers to Nelson for 6 more.
It was a night the Packers finally ditched their run game. They called 24 passes and just eight run plays in the first half, a 75-25 percentage split that is far from ideal, but necessary. Now, trying to drain the Eagles’ timeouts with the clock under 7 minutes, the Packers had to run. The Eagles knew it.
From the 30, Starks was stuffed for a 2-yard loss. Then Rodgers threw incomplete to Nelson. It set up what Rodgers would later call the defining play of their game-sealing drive, a third-and-12 with 5:45 left and the game still in doubt.
“We had a good call,” Rodgers said. “They were playing coverage. I had kind of a slicing rush, kind of across my face to start it, and then move and extend it to keep the pocket alive for probably close to four seconds. It allowed me to move, and then to find Jordy was a big play for us.”
The Eagles secondary couldn’t cover long enough. Eventually, Nelson got loose. His 22-yard catch pushed the Packers to midfield as the clock ticked under 5 minutes to play.
They weren’t done.
Two minutes later, the Packers faced fourth-and-10 from the Eagles’ 40. They trotted their punt team onto the field, content to concede. The Eagles trotted their punt team onto the field, too, plus one.
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Their 5-yard penalty for 12 men on the field presented Mike McCarthy one of the more difficult game-management decisions. The Packers could punt from their own 35-yard line. They could kick a 52-yard field goal, risking a miss that would gift the Eagles good field possession.
McCarthy decided to go for it.
Rodgers once again found Nelson. The Packers top receiver had eight catches for 91 yards against the Eagles. Three catches for 49 yards came on the final drive.
His final catch was for 21 yards down the right sideline, aided with a push off Eagles cornerback Jalen Mills that wasn’t called.
“I had to do what I had to do to get open,” Nelson said, flashing a sheepish smile at his locker. “It’s a battle every time. I probably pushed off quite a bit, to be honest with you. They were asking for (a penalty), and I’m glad they didn’t call it.”
Nelson’s grab – and the no-call – allowed the Packers to drain the clock all the way to the 2-minute warning. From more than 10 minutes left, to two.
By the time the Eagles got possession, kicker Mason Crosby connected on a 32-yard field goal for a two-touchdown lead.
The Packers final, full drive took 17 plays. It traveled 78 yards. They faced first-and-14 from their 4. Third-and-12 from their 28. Second-and-20 from the Eagles’ 48. Fourth-and-10 from the Eagles’ 40.
No, it wasn’t pretty. There were two penalties. A pair of runs lost 2 yards apiece. Another was stuffed for no gain.
At the end, the Packers sealed a game that might have saved their season.
“That’s got to be one of the most gratifying drives we’ve had here in a long time,” Rodgers said. “It wasn’t easy. We converted on third down, converted on fourth down. It was very fun to see those guys’ confidence grow. We talked in the huddle every first down could take two minutes off the clock. Didn’t expect to take that much time off the clock.
“It was one of those special drives where we just found a way several times.”