It took a little longer than usual, but Green Bay Packers kicker Mason Crosby delivered when it counted again
CINCINNATI - The roar flooded from inside the visitors’ locker room Sunday afternoon, filling the underbelly of Paul Brown Stadium, a mixture of joy and satisfaction but also great relief.
It was the kind of noise reserved for big wins in January, not October. That the Green Bay Packers had enough collective energy to make such ruckus was a mystery. For four quarters and eight more minutes, they carried Sunday’s game at the Cincinnati Bengals about as far as an NFL game can be carried, through a maze of injuries, a web of mistakes. They survived an 85-degree, October afternoon inside a stadium that historically serves as a madhouse whenever these two teams meet, and a stadium determined to add another chapter to the craziness.
The Packers thought the game was won three times before their 25-22 victory was complete. They also thought it was lost twice. Five missed field goals, all within the final two minutes, 12 seconds of regulation, each more shocking than the one before. Finally, Mason Crosby found that space between the uprights from 49 yards with 1:55 left in overtime, sending his team back to a grateful reprieve, finding solace inside that visitors’ locker room.
From there, euphoria took over.
“We expended a lot of energy in there,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said, a wry smile covering his face, “enjoying that win. There’s nothing like winning. I’m proud of the guys. … That was a fun one. You’re hugging guys that you might not even know their first and last names sometimes.
“It’s fun to bring together a group like that.”
Shortly before it ended, the Bengals were shedding euphoria on their home field. With 4:19 left in overtime, kicker Evan McPherson tracked his 49-yarder toward the south end zone, a treacherous direction on this afternoon. McPherson’s kick had plenty of distance, the football arching above the uprights, but it kept tailing to the left as it got closer. In the last few feet, it faded left, missing by inches.
McPherson leaped into holder Kevin Huber’s arms, celebrating what he thought was a game-winning kick that would put an upstart Bengals team on the map. He kept rejoicing with his teammates, even after officials underneath the uprights signaled no good, inducing one of the more surreal scenes you’ll see on an NFL field.
"I saw it going right down the middle," McPherson said. "I guess you could say I know whenever it's going to go in, and that was one of those moments, and so I was kind of celebrating with Kevin when it hit a hard left."
McPherson guessed a gust of wind must have knocked his kick left at the last moment. Matt LaFleur, who looked only at the officials' signal from the sideline, did not see the celebration.
“That’s going to be on a football follies video, huh?” LaFleur said, almost chuckling when informed about the scene afterward.
The Bengals only had their opportunity at a game-winning kick early in overtime because Crosby missed two before that. The first was a 36-yard chip shot with 2:16 left in regulation, Crosby curling the football wide left by a foot. It snapped a streak of 27 consecutive made field goals, the longest in Packers history.
That kick wouldn’t have been decisive. The Bengals responded with a nine-play, 35-yard drive, setting up a 57-yard field goal for McPherson with 26 seconds left. They ran a 3-yard draw on third-and-5 instead of keeping the football in quarterback Joe Burrow’s hands, and as McPherson’s kick approached the crossbar, Cincy coach Zac Taylor’s conservatism appeared to be wise. McPherson had plenty of distance, but his kick doinked the right upright, sending the football bouncing back toward him.
“Off the foot,” McPherson said, “I knew I pushed it a little bit right. Didn’t get all of it that I needed to, so that one was not as much of a surprise, you could say.”
McPherson’s miss left 21 seconds for the Packers to enter field-goal range from their own 47-yard line. Two weeks earlier, they had 37 seconds to piece together a desperation drive in San Francisco. Rodgers had hit Davante Adams twice to beat the 49ers with a Crosby kick. Rodgers dropped back Sunday and hit Adams again over the middle, this time for 20 yards. “I have this weird thing,” Adams said, “where I have déjà vu during a play.” The Packers clocked it at the 33-yard line with four seconds left. Adams thought history was about it repeat itself.
Crosby trotted onto the field for a chance at redemption, a chance to start a new streak, but his 51-yarder as the regulation clock expired pushed wide left.
“I just picked a bad line,” Crosby said. “The wind took it left.”
Before his final kick late in overtime, LaFleur approached Crosby on the sideline. He had what normally would be an easy decision, but on this day was unusually hard. A fourth-and-1 at the Bengals’ 32-yard line set up a potential 49-yard, game-winning field goal. It was well within Crosby’s range, but LaFleur couldn’t escape the ghosts of what he’d just witnessed.
The coach wanted to check his kicker’s pulse after three straight misses. He needed to know Crosby was unshaken.
As Crosby walked away from the field-goal net on the sideline, LaFleur asked his veteran kicker if he wanted to try another game-winning kick. “I could see the look in his eyes,” LaFleur said. “There was zero flinch in him.” The response was swift.
“He’s like, ‘I got this,’” LaFleur said.
Rodgers simultaneously approached special teams coordinator Maurice Drayton, asking the same question.
Was Crosby going to make this one?
“That was a big decision,” Rodgers said. “Do we go for it with Mas’ having missed a few kicks. I said, ‘Mo, is he going to make it?’ And he said, ‘Hell yeah, he’s going to make it.’ I said, ‘Let’s kick it, then.’”
If LaFleur would have sensed any hesitation, he said, the Packers' offense would have stayed on the field for fourth-and-1. Instead, he kept his faith in a kicker who has been through it all in his career, from game losers to game winners.
Even still, it was a moment that makes professional athletes squeeze their superstitions a little tighter. Adams could not watch. Each time Crosby lined up for a kick, he put his head down. “I always end up creeping with one eye open just to see,” Adams said. He didn’t even creep on the final one, too scarred by three straight misses, relying instead on his teammates’ reactions.
“It was, like, a really gradual celebration from the guys around me,” Adams said. “It was almost like they didn’t know. So when they started celebrating, I still didn’t look up. I was like, ‘Nah, I need more from you all.’”
Rodgers watched the first couple from near the middle of the sideline, closer to the action. It only brought him closer to the misses. “Maybe,” he reasoned, “the good juju was on the end.” Rodgers slid further down the sideline, willing to do anything for a different result.
Crosby finally delivered.
“I never think he’s not going to come through and he’s not going to make it,” LaFleur said. “I always believe. So when it doesn’t go in, it’s kind of a shock. It was one of those days, but ultimately when we needed it most, he got it done.”
When it was over, after the noise subsided inside the visitors’ locker room, Crosby ducked into a small room for his postgame press conference. He strode to the podium in flip-flops, the sweat still drying to his body, looking like a man walking away from a roller-coaster ride. What to make of his day? He had just connected on his second game-winning kick in three weeks, any kicker’s dream. He’d also missed three straight field goals, two that would have counted as walk-off winners. Any kicker’s nightmare.
He knows a rough film session awaits Monday afternoon. The Packers’ field-goal unit has been an adventure this season. One week earlier, it almost turned a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, a blocked field goal that resulted in a momentum-shifting touchdown before half called back only because of an erroneous offside. LaFleur had been critical of his field-goal unit after that game, perhaps knowing a breakdown like Sunday’s was on the horizon.
For now, those reflections could wait.
“All I can think about,” Crosby said, “is that last kick right now.”
With that, he turned to reenter the visitors’ locker room underneath Paul Brown Stadium, but he couldn’t. The door was locked. Of course it was.
Crosby instead turned and waded through reporters, through the back of the media room, before he could carry on with his postgame shower. That’s how his day went. Almost nothing went as expected.
Fortunately, all he needed was one thing to go right.