Saints 44, Packers 23: Left limping

Saints 44, Packers 23: Left limping

Afterward, Aaron Rodgers walked the length of Mercedes-Benz Superdome, to the Green Bay Packers’ team bus at the opposite end of the building.

The 120-yard hike was long enough that Clay Matthews, upon learning of it, joked in a bit of post-defeat gallows humor, “Isn’t there a shuttle or something?” There was not.

And so Rodgers, the last player to leave the locker room following the Packers’ 44-23 loss to the New Orleans Saints  made his way across the FieldTurf, clad in a gray suit and navy blue tie, pulling his rollerboard behind him, alongside one of the off-duty Green Bay Police officers who work on the Packers security detail on the road. Rodgers’ gait was steady, deliberate. His limp was slight, but perceptible. He walked like someone who was stubbornly trying to prove to any observers in the nearly-empty stadium that he was fine, even if he wasn’t.

At least the guy is consistent. After all, during the game, he’d suffered some sort of hamstring injury – he wouldn’t call it a pull, and barely fessed up to it bothering him – on a scramble not far from what would have been a go-ahead touchdown. Instead, he threw a deflected interception three plays after the injury, and he was never the same after that.

Nevertheless, just as he made the trek after the game, Rodgers steadfastly refused to come out during it – until even he had to acknowledge that there would be no fourth-quarter comeback from a 21-point deficit.

“I’m not going to miss any time,” said Rodgers, who suffered a torn hamstring in practice during the 2007 season, a week after his confidence-engendering relief performance at Dallas that year. “If I felt it, then I had to back off a little bit. We had to do a little more in the shotgun but it wasn’t a big deal, ultimately.”

The numbers suggested otherwise. Before the injury, he had completed 14 of 19 passes for 298 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions for a passer rating of 133.1. After the injury, he was 14 for 20 for 120 yards with no TDs, two INTs and a rating of 45.8.

“I think it was obvious just the way we played from that point on. We kept him in the ‘gun, and really our whole play-action and QB-movement package was gone,” said coach Mike McCarthy, whose Packers (5-3) saw their four-game winning streak end as they head into a midseason bye week. “I thought he played smart and didn’t really open it up to put himself in jeopardy for future injury, further injury.”

And while Rodgers was able to take advantage of a wide open middle of the field on a 14-yard touchdown run that pulled the Packers to within 37-24 with 5 minutes 7 seconds to play, it was obvious he wasn’t able to play the way he normally would. He didn’t extend plays with his legs like he often does, and he immediately after the injury he was getting the ball out of his hand quickly to his first or second reads instead of looking for bigger plays down the field.

Asked if he considered coming out of the game, Rodgers said there were “not really any options. It was, ‘Continue playing.’ As long as I could hold up, I felt like I could and was able to run one in there somehow. If it would’ve been real detrimental to my health for the season, I probably would have told Coach to take me out. But I felt like I could still go.”

While some of Rodgers’ teammates, like wide receiver Jordy Nelson and backup quarterback Matt Flynn, were aware of Rodgers’ injury, others, like running back Eddie Lacy and right tackle Bryan Bulaga, had no idea.

“It’s all about your will to play and going out there for your team,” said Lacy, who last year played on a bad ankle for most of the second half of the season. “If you can do it, then do it. I’m pretty sure A-Rodg is tough enough and he is going to give it everything he has.”

He did, but it wasn’t enough. And it wasn’t just that Rodgers didn’t do enough.

The resurgent defense, which had played well against some lesser competition in recent weeks – gave up 495 yards, including running back Mark Ingram’s career-high 172 rushing yards. By the end of the night, the Packers’ run defense was back at the bottom of the 32-team league, giving up an average of 153.5 yards per game. With Rodgers hobbled, the Packers needed the defense to rise to the occasion, and it did not.

“We just didn’t play fundamental defense after that. They were just gashing us,” safety Micah Hyde said. “We got out of our run fits, and when we were in our run fits we missed tackles. It’s tough. You can’t go against a good offense like that and miss tackles and not be fundamentally sound.

“As a defense, you want to go out and stop the run, make them pass so you know it’s coming. But we didn’t do either tonight, so we were on our heels. They could run the ball or pass the ball on us and we just couldn’t stop it.”

The run game set up quarterback Drew Brees for yet another big night against the Packers defense. Brees finished 27 of 32 for 311 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions for a passer rating of 138.4. Even though he came in having thrown seven interceptions in the first six games – and the Packers came in tied for the league lead in turnover differential (plus-10) – Green Bay had its first game of the season where it failed to generate at least one turnover. Brees, meanwhile, had touchdown passes of 4 and 50 yards to Brandin Cooks and a 22-yarder to Jimmy Graham.

“He was outstanding tonight,” said coach Sean Payton, whose Saints (3-4) bounced back from a crushing last-minute loss to Detroit last week and have now won all three of their home games and are very much in the race in the mediocre NFC South. “It’s tough when you come off a loss like that and you start looking at everything. He was magnificent. He was spot-on.”

Asked if the defense, which played without starting cornerback Sam Shields (knee) and starting safety Morgan Burnett (calf) had taken a step back, outside linebacker Julius Peppers insisted it had not.

“We didn’t take a step back. These games are circumstantial,” said Peppers, who had his team-leading fourth sack of the season. “Things happen that set the tone for the game and things get out of hand at certain times. But I don’t think we took a step back as a defense. We just didn’t play well tonight.”

And when the defense couldn’t save the day, the offense – with Rodgers playing at less than full strength – couldn’t do its part, either. Rodgers’ first interception, off tight end Andrew Quarless’ hands, led to the Saints’ go-ahead touchdown and a 23-16 lead. On the next drive, when Payton’s challenge of what was initially ruled a first down on a catch by Davante Adams led to a reversal, McCarthy decided to go for it on fourth down from his own 40-yard line. When Lacy was stuffed behind fill-in right guard Lane Taylor, the Saints took the ball and scored again.

And when Rodgers’ second interception in the span of 11 passes – after he’d gone 212 straight throws without an INT – glanced off Adams’ outstretched hand and led to New Orleans’ third straight TD, that was it. While Rodgers stayed in the game until backup Matt Flynn took over with 3:16 to play, the only real intrigue was whether the teams would finish the game without a punt – which they did. It marked the third time in NFL regular-season history – and the second time involving the Packers this year – that neither team punted in a game. The Packers and Chicago Bears didn’t punt on Sept. 28, either.

“I don’t think they slowed us down at all defensively. We dropped the ball that was an interception, we had a route that stopped that turned into [another] interception,” McCarthy said. “I don’t think there was a whole lot of defense that was played here tonight – clearly by not our team. They got the turnovers. When you win the turnover ratio, you have a good chance of winning games. We need to be better than that.

“That’s what we talked about as a team. We need to be a football team that does more than has to rely on winning the turnover ratio to win. We had opportunities to pick it up for one another, from each phase to the next, and we didn’t get that done tonight.”

Nevertheless, the Packers didn’t leave the Big Easy sounding crestfallen by their performance or their lot in the NFC. Although they fell a game behind NFC North leader Detroit (6-2), McCarty was relatively upbeat and Rodgers was, too.

“We would have to score 45 to win tonight, and we could’ve if we had done a better job taking care of the football and scoring in the red zone — touchdowns — we would’ve had the opportunity,” Rodgers said. “We’ll regroup now and take a week off. We’ve got five of eight down the stretch at home. We expect to win those games every time we go at home. We’ve got three road games, a couple of them will be cold-weather, so there’s the potential of seven of eight cold-weather games, and that’s when we seem to play our best.”

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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