GREEN BAY – After 876 yards, it came down to just one more.
“Pretty nuts,” Green Bay Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk said, shaking his head. “I’m sure the networks aren’t too upset that it came down to that.”
From the Kid Rock-Maroon 5-Lady Antebellum pregame musical tripleheader to dueling NBC and NFL Network on-site shows to the nifty in-stadium designs created by fans holding up their assigned color placards, Thursday night’s 2011 NFL Kickoff matchup between the Packers and New Orleans Saints at Lambeau Field was all about the show.
And that was before the football portion of the made-for-TV program began. Once it did, what a show the teams delivered.
“That’s what the people paid for – a show,” Packers cornerback Jarrett Bush said. “I’m glad we were able to put it on for them.”
The Packers’ 42-34 victory over the Saints in a battle of the league’s two most recent Super Bowl winners surely did boffo ratings for NBC. It also signaled that, after an often ugly stalemate between owners and players during the offseason lockout, football was most assuredly back.
While the teams put on a dazzling array of scoring for most of the game – from Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ three magnificently orchestrated touchdown drives, to Saints game-changer Darren Sproles’ 72-yard punt return for a touchdown, to Packers rookie kickoff returner Randall Cobb’s NFL record-tying 108-yard touchdown return – one of the much-maligned defenses wound up deciding it.
So even though the Packers put up the second-most points in a season opener in franchise history – second only to a 53-0 victory over the Menominee North End Athletic Club in 1919, in its first game as a franchise – this one came down to linebacker Clay Matthews and the defense stopping Mark Ingram cold on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line after time had expired.
“It went all of the way down to the wire, last play,” said Packers veteran cornerback Charles Woodson, who was nearly ejected for throwing a punch earlier in the game. “For the fans, great game, great start to the season. But we look at it for defensively as a game that we just can’t have if we want to do the things we want to do again this year. A good win, I’m happy to win, but way too many points.”
What mattered was that the defense, which let quarterback Drew Brees hit on 32 of 49 passes for 419 yards and three touchdowns (112.5 passer rating), prevented the game-tying points to be scored as it clung to an eight-point lead with 1 minute 8 seconds to play.
After the Saints scored on Brees’ 5-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jimmy Graham, the Packers recovered the onside kick but couldn’t salt away the victory and had to punt, giving the Saints the ball back at their own 20-yard line with 1:08 to go.
Even without any timeouts, Brees coolly led the Saints right down the field and to a third-and-1 from the Packers’ 9-yard line with 3 seconds to play. When Sproles flashed open, Brees went to him, only to watch Hawk leap over Sproles and knock the ball away, seemingly ending the game as the clock struck 0:00.
The officials saw pass interference on Hawk – “I’m going to try not to get fined here.” Hawk said when asked about the play – giving the Saints one last chance from the Packers’ 1 with no time on the clock.
Saints coach Sean Payton sent out his short-yardage package, and the Packers countered with their “Hippo” package of four defensive linemen (B.J. Raji, Howard Green, Ryan Pickett and Jarius Wynn) and four linebackers.
While the linemen (primarily Pickett) created the push up front, Matthews and safety Morgan Burnett made the initial contact with Ingram before the cavalry arrived with Hawk and fellow inside linebacker Desmond Bishop.
“I knew we were there because of me, so I wanted to stop him more than anybody,” Hawk said. “Me and ‘Bish’ went over the top and the D-line did an excellent job of getting a ton of push at the line of scrimmage. The whole team was in on that.”
Added Matthews: “We just made one more play to get off the field, and fortunately our big guys got some penetration up the middle, we were able to rattle ‘em a little bit and preserve a victory.
“I got a piece of him, I’m sure there were some other people in there. But overall it was 11 people who contributed to that last play. We made the plays when we needed to and got a victory.”
The other of those defensive plays was a momentum-turning fourth-and-inches stop late in the third quarter with the Packers holding a 35-27 lead and the Saints in position to tie the game at the Green Bay 7-yard line.
Eschewing a 25-yard field-goal attempt, Saints coach Sean Payton took his chances with a play-action pass, but Matthews and defensive end Jarius Wynn were all over Brees in a jiffy, forcing him to scramble before throwing incomplete.
“Fourth and 1, we go get it, we go score then all we have to do is kick a chip-shot field goal there at the end. So, you can second-guess yourself all you want,” Brees said. “We should have been able to get a first down. We’re a good enough offense that we should convert those.”
The Green Bay offense then marched 93 yards the other direction in 14 plays en route to John Kuhn’s 1-yard touchdown plunge and a 42-27 lead.
“It comes down to the defense coming through. We’ve got time to worry about our defensive stats later on,” Pickett said. “We made plays when we had to. That’s been the story of our defense the last few years. When it comes down to the wire and we have to make a play, we make it. Yeah, they threw the ball down the field and got a lot of yards and put up some points. But in the end we were strong.”
Until then, both offenses had lived up to their much-hyped advance billing, with Rodgers (27 for 35, 312 yards, three touchdowns, 132.1 rating) directing touchdown drives on the team’s first three possessions.
Rodgers also seemed to keep his many weapons happy, feeding the ball to Greg Jennings (seven catches, 89 yards, one TD), Nelson (six catches, 77 yards, one TD) and veteran Donald Driver (four catches, 41 yards) while also keeping tight end Jermichael Finley (three catches, 53 yards) and Cobb (two catches, 35 yards, one TD) in the mix.
In the end, though, the defense delivered.
“The game started the way we like it to start. You’d like to say it’s the way we planned it,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “We had some problems defensively, but that’s a very good offense and he’s a great quarterback (and) Sean does a great job on offense.
“It sure was a great game to watch. TV’s happy, our fans are happy.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.