SAN DIEGO – Aaron Rodgers treated the question like a potential interception. Which is to say, the Green Bay Packers quarterback refused to go anywhere near it.
Instead, he took a sip from his grape-flavored Fanta soda following his team’s 45-38 victory over the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium and made sure his mistake-free approach continued even postgame.
Given the way your defense is playing, do you feel like you have to play flawless football every week?
“No, not necessarily,” Rodgers said after completing 21 of 26 passes for 247 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions (145.8 rating) to overcome a defense that surrendered 460 yards and five touchdowns, including four through the air. “But I think I’d like to play flawless football. That’s something we look at each week, ways we can improve.”
And the Packers’ defense, which came into the game ranked 28th overall and 31st against the pass, must improve. Because while Rodgers won’t say it, the cold, hard reality for the undefeated Packers is this: Unless their defense gets its act together, they’d better hope their quarterback can play this flawlessly every game. If not, they won’t be repeating as Super Bowl champions come February.
Don’t take our word for it. Take Charles Woodson’s.
“I think right now we're the liability on this team,” the veteran cornerback said matter-of-factly. “We can't ask our offense to do anything more than what they’ve done. For those guys to just go up and down the field and score points, I mean, we have to understand that it's not going to always be that way. There's going to be some time when we're going to have to come up bigger than the offense. That's just the reality. So we're very fortunate to have the guys we have on the offensive side of the ball. But we have to carry our weight as well.”
And that’s something the defense has yet to do. The Chargers’ 460 yards, including 375 through the air, marked the fifth time in eight games that the Green Bay defense has allowed 400 or more yards. And while in some of those games the high totals could have been described as “empty yardage,” that wasn’t the case Sunday, when the Chargers’ 38 points were the most the Packers have allowed this season.
Although the defense continued its trend of taking the ball away with three interceptions – two of which were returned for first-quarter touchdowns – Woodson shot down the theory that the Packers’ playmaking ability makes up for all of the yardage the defense is hemorrhaging.
“We like to think that we have a lot of playmakers on our defense, especially in the back end. We feel like if the ball is in the air, we'll come up with our fair share, certainly,” Woodson said. “But how many times are you going to have two interceptions for a touchdown? Yeah, today it played out big for us. But we have to be more sound as a defense throughout the whole game.”
Nevertheless, the Packers came off their bye week and made sure they were still the league’s lone unbeaten team, and at the midpoint of the season they hold a one-game lead over San Francisco (7-1) in the NFC and a two-game lead over Detroit (6-2) in the NFC North.
“We're not going to turn a blind eye to the negatives that went on today,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “(But) we're 8-0. That's the facts. We're 5-0 on the road. That's huge. We're excited about that.
“The defense gave up too many big plays. Our offense scored points. … But the things I'm really concerned about are the things that go on inside the team. … We were not as sharp as we need to be as a team, but we won the football game. We're 8-0.”
After the Packers won the toss, McCarthy deferred to the second half and watched as the Philip Rivers-led Chargers (4-4) marched right down the field en route to a 23-yard Rivers-to-Vincent Jackson touchdown and a 7-0 lead.
Rodgers & Co. answered quickly, with Rodgers’ 9-, 11- and 4-yard scrambles and a 21-yard pass interference penalty setting up a 5-yard Jermichael Finley touchdown catch that tied the game at 7-7.
“I felt like we had to answer their touchdown with our first drive,” said Rodgers, who finished with 52 rushing yards, including a critical 25-yard run later in the game. “It was a choppy game. I think we had three possessions in the first half and scored on two of them.”
That’s because Rivers, who was coming off a loss at Kansas City on Monday night in which he threw two interceptions and fumbled a snap at the end of the game that let the Chiefs win in overtime, threw two interceptions that were returned for touchdowns in the span of three passes.
On the first, Rivers was going for tight end Antonio Gates but the ball was deflected by linebacker Desmond Bishop and picked off by safety Charlie Peprah, who weaved his way 40 yards to the end zone. On the second, cornerback Tramon Williams simply jumped an out route and took it back 43 yards for another TD and a 21-7 lead.
“You can’t give them a couple scores,” said Chargers coach Norv Turner, whose team was without its best defensive player (linebacker Shaun Phillips), two of its biggest offensive weapons (running back Ryan Mathews and wide receiver Malcolm Floyd) and one of its best offensive linemen (guard Kris Dielman) because of injury but still had a chance to force overtime at the end of the game. “Our guys did a great job of fighting back, competing and giving us a chance … (but) you spot them like that and you’re playing that good of a team, I think it’s real difficult.
Rivers, who had never thrown three interceptions in a game until Sunday and now leads the NFL with 14 INTs in eight games, reiterated that there’s no mysterious injury that’s causing him to play so poorly.
“I appreciate everybody trying to come up with a theory and a reason, but I’m not hurt,” said Rivers, who finished the game 26 of 46 for 385 yards with four touchdowns and the three INTs for a passer rating of 85.9. “I’ve thrown a handful of picks that I normally don’t throw, and I’ll probably throw some more throughout my career – and there won’t always be a reason why.
“That team’s won 14 in a row. Everybody talks about their pass defense, but that team has won 14 games in a row and they’ve intercepted the ball more than any team in the league (16). So that’s a good pass defense. We know what yards get you, they get you (a) 9-7 (record). We found that out last year.
“We spotted them 14 (points) and we gave ourselves a chance (at the end). When we give that quarterback and that offense 14 points, it’s going to be tough to win, and yet we ended up having a chance.”
That’s in large part because the Packers defense simply couldn’t close the deal. After a Rodgers-to-Jordy Nelson touchdown with 18 seconds left in the half and a 47-yard Mason Crosby field goal to start the third quarter pushed the Packers’ lead to 31-17, Green Bay suddenly lost track of Gates on the ensuing drive. Gates caught four passes for 47 yards (not including an 18-yard catch that was nullified when he was flagged for lining up offsides), including an 11-yard TD that cut the lead to 31-24.
Rodgers and the offense again answered, this time with a terrifically thrown 21-yard touchdown to James Jones, on which Rodgers pump faked while Jones beat cornerback Marcus Gilchrist on a stutter-go. When the Packers’ defense forced its only three-and-out punt of the game on the next drive, the offense pushed the lead to a seemingly insurmountable 45-24 with Rodgers’ fourth TD, a 4-yard laser to Greg Jennings.
And then …
“We need to consistent get on the same page and play better, players and coaches,” Williams said. “I guess you never thought you'd get someone talking like this at 8-0, but that's the good thing about this team. I don't think anyone's complacent. Obviously, we're not playing our best football as a defense. Obviously, our offense has been carrying us throughout the season. But we've been doing enough to win games and, in the end, that's all that counts.”
Barely. After Jennings’ touchdown, Rivers drove the Chargers 80 yards in seven plays, hooking up with little-known wideout Vincent Brown, a rookie third-round pick from San Diego State, for 20- and 31-yard gains before hitting Jackson for his second touchdown, a 5-yarder. When kicker Nick Novak’s onside kick went through rookie tight end Ryan Taylor’s legs and off Nelson’s hands into the arms safety Darren Stuckey, it took Rivers all of three plays to throw his third touchdown to Jackson, this time from 29 yards out. Suddenly, the Chargers were within 45-38 with 6:25 to go.
When Woodson – back on the ensuing kickoff in place of rookie Randall Cobb – was tackled inside the Packers’ 10-yard line and a third-and-7 pass from Rodgers to Jennings was off the mark, punter Tim Masthay was summoned for the first time all game. While Rivers’ costly intentional grounding penalty – forced by the Packers finally putting genuine pressure on him – derailed the Chargers’ next possession, the Packers got the ball back with 2:59 left and a chance to salt away the game.
Instead, James Starks was stopped for no gain on third-and-2 from the Packers’ 25, and while Masthay averted disaster when San Diego’s Richard Goodman came through the line and nearly blocked his next punt, the Chargers still had 65 seconds to go 68 yards and force overtime.
Gates’ 19-yard reception and a 9-yard pass interference penalty on Woodson gave the Chargers first-and-10 at the Green Bay 41 with 38 seconds left, but Rivers missed Brown on first down and then was picked off by Peprah on second down, shooting for Gates. Once again, the defense had come up with the play it needed.
“We’ve been talking as a team, this year’s been a different challenge. Teams know what we’re doing, and they’re gunning for us. They’re going to try to scheme us, they’re going to try to give us everything, and it’s a different challenge than last year,” Peprah said. “Last year, we sent ‘Wood’ a lot (on blitzes) and things like that. This year, people are blocking our stuff up, trying to (create) mismatches and doing stuff we haven’t seen before.
“But our whole thing is, just make the plays to win. Don’t get too caught up in statistics and things like that. Obviously we need to clean some things up. And we can. It’s nothing we can’t do. But just when it comes time to make the plays to win, tighten up, and we’re doing that.
“It’s a team. It’s not just the Green Bay Defense. We’re the Green Bay Packers. And so, it really does help to have Aaron on the other side of the ball. He’s really helping us out, too.”
That he is. But can he keep it up?
“I’d like to think I can keep it up,” said Rodgers, who for the season has completed 192 of 265 passes (an NFL-high 72.5 completion percentage) for 2,619 yards with an NFL-most 24 touchdowns against three interceptions for a league-best 129.1 passer rating. “There’s really no pressure from the outside that can match the pressure I put on myself to play well each week. I’ve got a great quarterback coach who’s going to dissect this game and give me at least three or four ways I can improve and play better for next week, and that’s going to be our focus.”
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.