GREEN BAY, Wis. - A.J. Hawk knows a good story when he sees one. Something of a sports movie buff – remember when he referenced Disney's Miracle, the story of 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team, a few weeks ago? – the Green Bay Packers veteran inside linebacker could see a script in development Sunday afternoon.
So what happened at Lambeau Field – a 26-26 tie with the Minnesota Vikings that didn't exactly deliver an uplifting Remember the Titans-style ending – didn't quite cut it.
"It would have been amazing," Hawk said after watching Matt Flynn come off the bench and rally the team from a 23-7 fourth-quarter deficit. "I felt like the tide was shifting."
Oh, the tide indeed shifted. From the time Flynn entered the game with 8 minutes 22 seconds left in the third quarter to when the Packers faced third-and-goal from the 2-yard line on the opening possession of overtime, it felt as if the game had the makings of a victory that would save the Packers' rapidly spiraling season.
Can a tie do the same? We shall see.
"I mean, it's an empty feeling. You go out there and you didn't lose the game, but you feel like you didn't really accomplish what you set out to do," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said of the first tie in the NFL this year – and the first tie since the rule change that allows both teams to gain possession of the ball, which happened after the Packers settled for a field goal on the opening series of OT.
"The reality is it's tagged on at the end of your record. We're 5-5-1. We're aware of what went on in the division today. We've had opportunities that we've let go in the past, but it's in the past. It's how we apply it to the present."
Before Flynn's entrance, it looked like the Packers might be history. They were playing essentially their fourth game without starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers, trailing by double-digits at home to a team they'd soundly beaten a month earlier and seeming lifeless. It felt as though the Packers' season was disintegrating. With a demoralizing loss to the Vikings and a Thanksgiving Day date with the Detroit Lions four days away, you could have probably written them off, regardless of when Rodgers broken left collarbone heals.
Instead, thanks to the putrid play of their NFC North brethren, the Packers (5-5-1) are still very much in the hunt, following losses by the Lions (6-5) at home to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and by the Chicago Bears (6-5) at St. Louis on Sunday. By comparison, a tie wasn't all that bad.
Whether it's Flynn or Rodgers (or, theoretically, Tolzien) who starts against the Lions at Ford Field on Thursday –McCarthy refused to say after the game – there are at least signs of life. There's plenty of work to do in the final five weeks of the season, but the tie wasn't devastating.
"It's been a rough road. We haven't handled Aaron Rodgers' departure [well]," McCarthy confessed. "I haven't talked about it on purpose; that hasn't worked. We all need to step up as a football and take advantage of these opportunities. We let one – not get away from us, I don't want to discredit Minnesota – (but) we're a peak-and-valley football team right now. but I have great confidence in this group. I get to work with them every day. This is a real bunch of guys, they've got a lot of high character and no one's quite happy about what's gone on in the past. But hey, it's like I told them in the locker room, we need to flip the page. What needed to be said was said, and we're not going to spend a whole lot of time on this game.
"We have to go beat the Lions."
Make no mistake: The feeling in the home locker room was that the franchise's first tie in 26 years – since a 17-17 tie with the Denver Broncos on Sept. 10, 1987 at Milwaukee County Stadium – felt nothing like victory. Not even for Flynn – the same guy who left Green Bay in free agency in March 2012, signed a big-money deal with Seattle only to be beaten out by rookie Russell Wilson, was traded to and then cut by Oakland and had a brief stop in Buffalo – who showed that reports of his demise might have been exaggerated after all.
"I don't think it's a win. I don't think anyone in this locker room would say, ‘Hey, that's a moral victory,' or anything like that," said Flynn, whom the Packers signed Nov. 12. "I don't know how many mixed emotions there really are. I'm frustrated and disappointed. I think we all can agree that we needed that win. But, the season's not over. Everything's out in front of us. We just need to start winning games and start getting on a roll."
Perhaps this will be the catalyst. The Packers actually took a 7-0 lead with Tolzien making his second NFL start, as the ex-University of Wisconsin quarterback directed an 11-play, 87-yard first-quarter drive that included a huge third-and-9 conversion on a completion to John Kuhn (20 yards) and a third-and-4 conversion on Tolzien's 34-yard strike to Jordy Nelson down the right seam. Two plays after running back Eddie Lacy (25 carries, 110 hard-earned yards) stubbornly and violently gained 10 yards down to the Vikings' 6-yard line, Tolzien channeled his inner Lacy and scored on a scramble that included eluding leaping defensive end Brian Robison off the right edge and then putting a spin move on Letroy Guion to get to the end zone.
But with Tolzien under center, that was it. The Packers gained 87 yards on that drive, then managed only 86 on the next five possessions, which ended with four punts and the halftime gun. (And 19 of those 86 yards came on a Tolzien scramble that began with 10 seconds left in the half and used up the remaining ticks of the clock.)
"We talked about starting faster this week because last week we had a slow start. The start's great, but there's a lot more football to be played (and it) kind of went downhill from there when I was in there," said Tolzien, who completed 7 of 17 passes for 98 yards (60.4 rating) before being pulled. "It was the right time (to change quarterbacks). Matt did an awesome job. That's not an easy situation. He came in and the season's really on the line at that point, got in a rhythm, got the offense in a rhythm.
"I just struggled. I probably would have pulled me too, to be honest."
But while Tolzien was struggling and Flynn was watching, the defense was slowly deflating. The Vikings (2-8-1) got Blair Walsh field goals on two of their next three series – the six points were sandwiched around an Adrian Peterson fumble at the Packers' 45-yard line that led to nothing but a three-and-out by the Green Bay offense – before scoring on a 1-yard Peterson run with 50 seconds left until halftime to take a 13-7 lead into the locker room.
Although they got a three-and-out punt on the Vikings' first series of the second half, the Packers offense again went three-and-out. When the defense allowed the Vikings to go 59 yards in six plays – with a third-and-5 Christian Ponder-to-Jerome Simpson 15-yard completion keeping the drive alive – en route to a 12-yard Rhett Ellison touchdown and a 20-7 lead, McCarthy made the quarterback change.
"Nothing was said at halftime. (The) offense was coming off the field and I was just walking back to the (bench) to look at the cards and Aaron came up and said, ‘Get loose, you might be going in,'" Flynn said. "So I just started getting warm and then (offensive coordinator) Tom Clements came up and said, ‘When we get the ball back, it's yours.' That was kind of what it was. There wasn't a whole lot of time to think about it and sit there. You just, that's your job. You go in there and try to execute."
And Flynn did. Although his first series ended in a punt, he made an adjustment at the line of scrimmage on his second snap – resulting in a 34-yard James Starks run – and there was an energy to the Packers that had been missing for most of the afternoon to that point. Which was exactly what McCarthy was looking for.
"We were looking for a spark," McCarthy said of Flynn, the team's No. 2 quarterback from 2008 through 2011 who finished Sunday's game having completed 21 of 36 passes for 218 yards and a touchdown (85.2 rating). "We thought we had some opportunities early. We have a history with Matt. Did I think he was necessarily ready as far as the amount of reps and everything getting ready? That was not available to him since he's been here. But he went out and played football and did a lot of good things today."
It started after the Vikings got another field goal at the end of a drive where the Packers defense appeared overwhelmed, having been gashed for big runs by backup Toby Gerhart of 15, 6, 26 and 11 yards en route to a first-and-10 at the Green Bay 18. But the defense stiffened, getting back-to-back 1-yard stops on Peterson and a third-down stop that left the Vikings with a 29-yard Walsh field goal. With 14:22 to play, Flynn ignited the rally.
Running the no-huddle offense – something the Packers hadn't done with Tolzien, except in 2-minute situations – and with the help of a 35-yard pass interference penalty on Minnesota's Marcus Sherels, the Packers pulled within 23-13 on Lacy's 3-yard touchdown run. While the 2-point conversion attempt failed, the Lambeau Field crowd of 77,871 was no longer comatose.
"We've played with Matt before. We know how he is," guard Josh Sitton said. "He came in there like he never left."
The defense then forced another punt, and Flynn again got the Packers on the move again, with help from Lacy (four carries, 27 yards; three receptions, 18 yards). When Flynn hit Jarrett Boykin for a 6-yard TD with 3:30 left in regulation, the comeback was in overdrive.
"Everyone just kind of rallied around him and we were able to get back in the game," cornerback Tramon Williams said of Flynn. "It was awesome. It gave us life."
The defense forced another three-and-out, and Flynn made his biggest play on fourth-and-6 from the Minnesota 40. Facing a six-man, all-out pass rush, Flynn saw the Vikings' Everson Griffen jump offsides and got his free play off just before getting whacked by blitzing linebacker Audie Cole. The ball was underthrown, but wide receiver James Jones adjusted and caught it at the Minnesota 12. Four plays later, Mason Crosby hit a 27-yard field goal to tie the game with 50 seconds left in regulation, leading to OT.
"Looking at the guys' eyes in the huddle I don't think there was any doubt, especially when we started to make some plays," Flynn said. "I think that hyped up the sideline, hyped up the guys and we just felt like we did some stuff. That's how you've got to go about it. That's the mentality you have to have. I'm proud of the guys for fighting. But we've got to finish."
And that's where Flynn and the Packers failed. They won the toss and took the ball, and with Flynn hitting Nelson (15 yards), Jones (22 yards) and Boykin (34 yards), they moved inside the Minnesota 10-yard line lickety-split. After Lacy got 4 yards on first down, he was stuffed for 1 yard on second down. Facing third-and-goal from the 2, Flynn and Nelson couldn't connect on a route toward the back right pylon, settling for Crosby's 20-yard field goal.
"I wasn't exactly sure what angle Jordy was going to come out and he came out flat. I just haven't gotten enough reps with Jordy," Flynn said. "I was set to throw it a little bit higher than he was. I could've maybe at the last minute tried to stick it in there, but I didn't want to take any chances when we're down there. I knew we'd come away with points, I didn't want to make a throw that I wasn't 100 percent sure about."
With the new rules instituted last year – that if a team scores on a field goal on the first possession of overtime, the other team gets a possession – the field goal wasn't enough. The Green Bay defense couldn't force its third straight three-and-out – on third-and-9 from the Minnesota 21, the Packers let Peterson get loose for a 15-yard gain – and Walsh's 35-yard field goal re-tied the game.
Both teams went three-and-out on their next possessions, and while the Packers had one last chance, three offensive line penalties took care of that, forcing the uncomfortable tie.
"It's kind of a weird feeling when that overtime ends and you're walking off and the fans don't know whether to cheer or boo for you. And you kind of don't come to grips as far as how you should feel – Is it a victory? Is it a loss? – but it is what it is, and we've got to move on to the next game, which is quick turnaround," said outside linebacker Clay Matthews, who had a pair of sacks. "I guess we moved up half a game, so that's a positive. But if you really want to get down to it, we didn't do enough, and that's kind of been a theme these past couple weeks.
"We fought hard at the end. I was real happy with our offense and the defense coming up big at the end. But just not enough. We put ourselves in too big of a hole, and ultimately that didn't allow us to have that final lead.
"We're just keeping our head above water right now. We're treading water and hopefully we'll find that shallow end after Thursday. But we've got to keep fighting and moving forward."
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on "Green & Gold Today" on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.
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