GREEN BAY, Wis. - Apparently, the controversial – they might more succinctly/profanely describe it – ending they'd experienced across the country six days earlier simply wasn't enough. Their coach might despise drama, but it seems – for a week, anyway – the Green Bay Packers couldn't escape it.
"I was thinking, ‘There's no way this is going to happen again,'" right guard Josh Sitton said, summarizing the thoughts of many of his teammates in the wake of Sunday's 28-27 victory over the just-as-desperate New Orleans Saints. "(But) I knew we were due."
Yes, from their gut-wrenching loss to the Seattle Seahawks, to the NFL's "explanation" for the questionable call on the game-winning Hail Mary touchdown, to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's claim that the outcome had nothing to do with the league putting an end to the referee lockout and the employment of replacements, the Packers had certainly endured their share of drama.
So what was a little bit more?
"I guess we're no stranger to adversity," nose tackle B.J. Raji said with a laugh, which was all he could do.
On Sunday at Lambeau Field, the Packers faced, in chronological order:
> Their two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Greg Jennings aggravating a groin injury that could now keep him out for awhile;
> A failed replay challenge of a third-down pass completion that appeared ripe for reversal but wasn't, leaving McCarthy with no challenges when one would've come in handy;
> Their star quarterback and NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers leaving the game getting poked in the eye and his backup, Graham Harrell, promptly tripping, falling and fumbling a handoff on the ensuing play at the New Orleans 2-yard line, eventually leading to the go-ahead touchdown;
> A six-point fourth-quarter deficit for Rodgers, who's been criticized by some for not engineering enough comebacks during his career;
> A likely fourth-quarter interception deep in enemy territory that didn't happen because two of their own players fought over the deflected pass;
> And, in the coup de grâce, a blatant fumble by Darren Sproles on the ensuing kickoff following the Packers' go-ahead touchdown that McCarthy couldn't challenge but replays clearly showed the ball coming out before Sproles hit the turf. That call would allow the Saints to keep possession and drive for Garrett Hartley's possible game-winning field goal – which, in the last bit of drama, was at first successful, then wiped out by a holding penalty and then sailed wide left.
So what did all of it matter in the end? Well, nothing when the scoreboard clock struck 0:00, and the Packers had survived. But it could mean a lot going forward.
"I'm very proud of our football team, especially (after) the week we endured," McCarthy said after his team improved to 2-2 at the quarter pole while the Saints fell to 0-4. "We talked a lot about integrity and character (during the week), and I thought today's game had plenty of those types of situations where it showed up big. There was adversity throughout the football game – which is in every game, I understand that – but I'm very proud of the way our players responded to the challenge today and responded throughout the game."
So rather than finding themselves in an alarming 1-3 hole and coming off back-to-back spirit-breaking losses before embarking on a three-game road trip, the Packers instead have reason for hope in a season that wasn't far from being hopeless.
"I think 1-3 would have been difficult," Rodgers admitted. "When you start having consecutive losses, you can't help but having that thinking of, ‘Here we go again' at times. Unfortunately, there was a little bit of that tonight with some of the calls, but we were able to overcome it. I think it says a lot about the character of this team. This was an important win for us.
"We've probably had to deal with more adversity than most of the teams I've played with, especially early on. We've had some interesting games already. (But) winning games like this says a lot about the kind of men that we have. This is a big win for us. We're 2-2 and (there's) a lot of season left."
There were certainly reasons for the Packers to be encouraged.
On offense, a unit that had managed just four touchdowns in the first three games hung four touchdowns – all on Rodgers passes (two to James Jones, one each to Jordy Nelson and Jennings) – on the NFL's 32nd-ranked defense. Rodgers, whose numbers coming in had been pedestrian for a quarterback and depressing for the MVP, was back to his statistically dominant self (31 for 41, 319 yards, four touchdowns, one interception, 119.9 rating). The no-huddle, which was supposed to be the offensive signature this season, finally got in rhythm. And the offensive line, which allowed Rodgers to be sacked a whopping eight times in the first half against Seattle, pitched a shutout.
"We're going to keep it rolling from here," tight end Jermichael Finley said. "This could be a real good momentum push."
On defense, despite another turnover-less day and Brees' ridiculous numbers (446 yards, three touchdowns, 109.0 rating), the group twice rose to the occasion when it had to: Forcing a three-and-out before the Packers' game-winning touchdown drive midway through the fourth quarter; and stiffening just in time for Hartley's field-goal attempt(s), which still left 2:49 on the clock had Rodgers needed to author another rally.
"It's not like we're going to go in and have a party in the film room. We have a lot to work on and a lot to get better at," Raji said of a defense that gave up 474 yards and allowed the Saints to convert 9 of 17 third-down situations, including 3 of 4 on third-and-7 or longer.
"We have a ton of football left to play, and if we want to get to where we want to get to … I'm a big believer in adversity. You can't let it destroy you, get distraught. You just have to keep fighting."
And that's precisely what the Packers did. The Packers held a 21-17 lead with 5:19 left in the third quarter when New Orleans safety Malcolm Jenkins' facemask penalty resulted in more than just a 15-yard flag. Jenkins caught Rodgers in the right eye, and while Rodgers could have stayed in the game under NFL rules, he had blurry vision and had to come out. In went Harrell for his first regular-season NFL snap, and when he stumbled trying to hand off to Cedric Benson at the 2-yard line.
Harrell's fumble not only cost the Packers a field goal at minimum; four plays later, wide receiver Joseph Morgan got behind Sam Shields for an 80-yard touchdown pass and a 24-21 lead.
Rodgers was intercepted on the ensuing possession, leading to a Hartley field goal to push the Saints' lead to 27-21. Two drives later, Rodgers completed passes of 8, 7, 6, and 17 yards before zipping the go-ahead TD pass to Nelson with 7 minutes to play.
"We were put in a ton of adverse situations. I mean, one after another," Harrell said. "They stole the momentum from us after I fumbled and they scored, and then we come back and throw a pick the next drive. We seemed pretty flat.
"But the team did a great job of answering. Then, when we finally stole some momentum back, we get a fumble and they don't give it to us. Another spot where it's like, ‘Man, we can't catch a break.' But we finally caught a break on that field goal."
Indeed they did. After Sproles' fumble that wasn't – he definitely coughed it up after a hit from Dezman Moses and before hitting the ground – the Saints drove to the Packers' 25-yard line. On fourth-and-4, out trotted Hartley, who promptly nailed a 43-yarder to momentarily give New Orleans a 30-28 lead.
But regular referee Jeff Triplette's crew flagged the Saints for holding – adding to the grassy-knoll conspiracy theorists' case for a make-up call was the fact that Triplette failed to identify the offender, tight end David Thomas – forcing a re-kick. Hartley lined up for a 53-yarder, then a 48-yarder after Packers rookie defensive lineman Mike Daniels jumped offsides. Finally, the kick went off – and sailed wide left, leaving the Packers to run out the clock.
"What we were coming off last week with all the distractions throughout the whole week, all the nonsense we put up with, I thought our team did a really good job of staying focused on the task at hand," veteran center Jeff Saturday said. "I was real proud of the guys for the way they stepped up and played.
"I think it unifies you as a team. I think you see as a team what you can endure. And I think that builds a lot of confidence, it builds a lot of character, it just forges you as a team – that you see, ‘Hey, look man, things can go wrong, and we've still got the type of team that we can win these games.' That's why you stay in the battle, never lose your focus. I was real proud of the effort."