GREEN BAY, Wis. – The ball flashed free and plummeted to the perfectly groomed grass below, disappearing under a pile of lunging green jerseys – a game-turning turnover to the naked eye and a godsend for the Green Bay Packers.
And then, in an almost inconceivable sequel to the "Fail Mary" in Seattle last Monday that cost the Packers a game and spurred the end of the NFL's officiating lockout, that sickening, sinking feeling returned to Titletown: The officials – not the replacements, but the real ones who'd been welcomed onto Lambeau Field Sunday afternoon with a rousing ovation – ruled that New Orleans Saints kick returner Darren Sproles had been down by contact before coughing up the ball at his own 31-yard line with the Pack up by a point and just under seven minutes remaining.
For the second time in six days, the Packers felt they had gotten the shaft in a crucial situation, something the replay shown on the Lambeau scoreboard seemed to confirm. As 70,571 fans howled their disapproval, Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy stood there helplessly, having already used up his challenges. Many of his players shook their heads in appalled amazement, convinced that fate had once again conspired against them in a sadistically unjust manner.
"I couldn't believe it," Packers wideout Randall Cobb said. "I felt like it was happening to us all over again. Fortunately, we were able to overcome."
Said Green Bay nose tackle B.J. Raji: "Man, I was in disbelief. For the call to be what it was is pretty crazy. But we're a very resilient team. I think karma was on our side [Sunday night]."
Thanks possibly to karma – and, most definitely, to the brilliance of Aaron Rodgers – the Packers (2-2) staved off a potentially brutal blow to their title hopes while the Saints (0-4) continued a shocking freefall that began with the offseason bounty scandal that included a yearlong suspension of New Orleans coach Sean Payton.
Call it what you want, but four minutes after Sproles' non-fumble, Green Bay benefited from a not typically flagged holding penalty that wiped out the Saints' go-ahead field goal and had makeup call written all over it. When Garrett Hartley missed his subsequent attempt, New Orleans was the NFL's undisputed woe is us capital once more.
Indeed, for those inclined to ascribe the outcome of sporting events to unseen forces, Green Bay's 28-27 victory in the Martyr Bowl showed that the football gods have more enmity for the Saints than for the Packers.
A less mystical interpretation would be that somebody had to lose this brilliant duel between Rodgers and Drew Brees and that the visitors, who fought back from a 21-7 deficit and played their best game of the 2012 season, have ample cause to keep hope alive.
"Oh, yeah, you can take a lot of good from this," said Brees, the last man out of the visitors' locker room following his 35-for-54, 446-yard, three-touchdown, no-interception gem. "It was a winning effort. Unfortunately, we didn't come out ahead on the scoreboard, but this was something we can build on. We just need to keep getting better and eventually this will turn around."
While the Super Bowl XLIV champions share the NFL's worst record with the Cleveland Browns and trail the Atlanta Falcons by four games in the NFC South, the Super Bowl XLV victors are in the thick of the NFC North race, though they're staring up at the Minnesota Vikings (3-1) and, at least for another night, the Chicago Bears (2-1).
Seldom, if ever, has a 2-2 team coming off a 15-1 regular season felt so collectively redeemed. Though a defeat to the Saints wouldn't have been insurmountable, the psychic damage could have carried over into October and beyond, given the gut punch of a defeat the Packers suffered to the Seahawks. When Russell Wilson's last-play, 24-yard pass that seemed to be intercepted by safety M.D. Jennings was instead ruled by the replacement officials to have been a simultaneous catch by Seattle wideout Golden Tate and subsequent touchdown, the vanquished Pack could have had its sense of stability seized away as well.
In his postgame news conference, Rodgers, who matched Brees' excellence by completing 31 of 41 passes for 319 yards and four touchdowns, said the victory over the Saints "gives us some confidence. I think 1-3 would have been difficult. When you start having consecutive losses you can't help but have that feeling of 'here we go again' at times, and unfortunately there was a little bit of that [Sunday night] with some of the calls."
To the Packers' credit, they didn't succumb to the temptation to remain in victim mode, shaking off the debacle in Seattle and steeling themselves for a desperate team's best shot at Lambeau.
"I learned a lot about our team throughout this week," said veteran center Jeff Saturday, who signed with the Packers this March after 13 seasons (and five Pro Bowls) with the Indianapolis Colts. "Watching the way guys responded, watching them work throughout the week – there weren't any pity parties. We were in a dogfight [Sunday], and we fought to the end."
When the lead dogs have as much bite as Rodgers and Brees, the battle tends to be highly entertaining. In addition to tying Johnny Unitas' 52-year-old record by throwing a touchdown in his 47th consecutive game, Brees matched Peyton Manning for second place on the all-time list with his eighth career 400-yard game, trailing only Dan Marino (13) in that category.
"It was two [future] Hall of Fame quarterbacks, doing their thing," veteran Packers receiver Donald Driver said. "It's perfect."
Well, unless you're trying to defend either of the preternaturally accurate passers, in which case it's perfectly maddening.
Rodgers flexed his reigning-MVP arm from the start, evading prone Saints defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley in the pocket and rolling left to fire a 12-yard scoring strike to James Jones for a 7-0 lead six minutes into the game – the first points Green Bay has scored in the first quarter this season.
The Saints tied it on the ensuing drive when Brees fired a 20-yard touchdown pass to wideout Marques Colston, who – doing his best imitation of the Seahawks' Tate – pushed off on Green Bay safety Morgan Burnett, made the catch and got away with it. Rodgers countered with scoring throws to Greg Jennings (nine yards) and Jones (14 yards), the latter facilitated by McCarthy's gutsy fake punt from his own 17, before Brees cut the deficit to 21-14 on a six-yard swing pass to Sproles 27 seconds before halftime.
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New Orleans seized control in the third quarter thanks to a pair of Green Bay turnovers. After Rodgers was poked in the eye while absorbing a facemask penalty from blitzing Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins, backup Graham Harrell entered the game and, on first-and-goal from the 2, tripped over right guard Josh Sitton's leg and fumbled a flailing handoff to Cedric Benson, with Jenkins recovering at the 8.
Four plays later Brees found wideout Joseph Morgan (who?) alone behind the Green Bay defense for what ended up as a 80-yard touchdown pass, and when Rodgers threw an interception on the Pack's next drive, there were tremors of fear throughout Titletown.
Collectively, the Packers fought through it. The defense stiffened, allowing nothing more than Hartley's 27-yard field goal that made it 27-21 Saints with 13:04 remaining. Rodgers led a seven-play, 57-yard, go-ahead drive, finishing it off with a crisp, 11-yard scoring pass to Nelson, who bulled through two Saints defenders (Patrick Robinson and Corey White) to reach the end zone.
After losing out on the apparent Sproles fumble recovery, the Packers' fortunes turned when Hartley's 43-yard, go-ahead field goal with 2:58 remaining was nullified by a holding penalty on David Thomas. A subsequent encroachment penalty (the makeup call for the makeup call?) put Hartley's next attempt at 48 yards, and he pulled it left, sending the Lambeau fans into hysterics.
Technically, it wasn't over, but Rodgers had no intention of letting Brees touch the ball again. So, after a pair of runs by Benson (18 carries, 84 yards) set up a third-and-3 at the Green Bay 45, Rodgers dropped back and killed the suspense.
He'd planned to give Jones a quick glance on the right before coming back across the middle to tight end Jermichael Finley, but the receiver's quick release caused the quarterback to reconsider. Though Jones was blanketed by cornerback Jabari Greer, Rodgers zipped an 8-yard pass to him anyway – and Jones caught it anyway, one-handed and just under Greer's elbow, all while drawing a pass-interference penalty.
Rodgers may not be thrilled with this comparison, but it was the kind of recklessly audacious and awesome pass another star quarterback in a Packers uniform might have thrown – a fellow by the name of Brett Favre.
Like his future Hall of Fame predecessor, Rodgers is learning that there are times when a quarterback's chutzpah is a team's conduit to calm, when his golden arm can make slow starts, dubious officiating decisions and stressful six-day stretches fade to black.
As Packers linebacker Clay Matthews philosophized upon emerging from his postgame shower, "One of these days, we'll get some calls. But in the meantime, we'll try to grind it out."
It remains to be seen whether the Pack is back, but Green Bay's starring role in the great officiating nightmare of 2012 appears to be over. Sunday was a beautiful day in Mr. Rodgers' neighborhood, and there would seem to be plenty more of those on the horizon.
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