GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The short-handed Green Bay Packers, playing without five starters, showed their talent runs deep by beating the Cleveland Browns 31-13 on Sunday at Lambeau Field.
Playing without receivers Randall Cobb and James Jones, Aaron Rodgers threw for 260 yards and three touchdowns as Green Bay took over the lead in the NFC North.
"They're all special," Rodgers said. "I think you have to remind yourself after a win like this, where it wasn't the cleanest game for us, it's tough to win in this league. I'm proud of our guys."
Cleveland fell into a 14-0 hole in the first 12 minutes and never posed much of a threat with Brandon Weeden at quarterback. Weeden completed just 17-of-42 passes for 149 yards, with one touchdown and one interception, and the Browns finished with just 216 yards.
Still, the Browns were able to hang around because of their defense, but Green Bay finally seized control midway through the fourth quarter.
A 39-yard catch-and-run by Jarrett Boykin gave the Packers a first-and-goal at the 1, and Rodgers hit Jordy Nelson for the touchdown to make it 24-6 with 8:30 to play.
Travis Benjamin returned the ensuing kickoff 86 yards to the Packers' 20, with the Browns getting a fourth-down touchdown pass of 2 yards to Jordan Cameron with 6:09 remaining. The Browns' Joe Haden recovered the onside kick when Green Bay's Myles White failed to control the bouncing ball, but Eric Martin was flagged for offside.
On the rekick, Haden again recovered but the ball didn't travel the required 10 yards, and the Packers took possession. They put the game away on Rodgers' 20-yard touchdown pass to Boykin. Boykin, a second-year player who entered the game with six career catches, caught eight balls for 103 yards.
"Disappointing loss for us tonight," Browns coach Rod Chudzinski said. "We were not able to get the job done against an outstanding football team. Give Green Bay a lot of credit the way they played. Aaron Rodgers showed the kind of quarterback that he is and they did a heck of a job against us tonight."
Cleveland stayed in the game despite the dismal start, thanks in large part to its seventh-ranked defense. After opening the game with two touchdowns, Green Bay's next five possessions ended in a punt, field goal, missed field goal, punt and punt.
But the Browns couldn't take advantage. Trailing 17-6, they drove to Green Bay's 26-yard line, but Weeden's deep ball intended for tight end MarQueis Gray was overthrown, and a short checkdown was dropped by Willis McGahee.
After an illegal-formation penalty made it third-and-15, Weeden threw incomplete just as he was about to get hit by A.J. Hawk. On fourth down, the Browns bypassed a 49-yard field-goal attempt. Mike Daniels hit Weeden, and his deep throw to Josh Gordon was broken up at the last moment by Davon House.
At that point, the Browns had just 158 yards and were 4-of-13 on third down.
"I say it every week, but I think it's a consensus every week, and that's first and second down," Weeden said. "We aren't really giving ourselves a chance in those third-and-longs, and you get in those third-and-7s, plus playing against a defense like that, they can really give you some different looks and make it tough to convert."
What the Packers said
"I've got to really point to the veterans, and I called on them, too. I called on them at the beginning of the week and I called on them again last night. There were young players that had a role and it was important for them to go out and do their role and just play football and not to do too much. Don't get outside of yourself." -- Coach Mike McCarthy, of entering the game without five starters.
What the Browns said
"You have to think of a team like a machine. We need to come back, refocus and get our attention on Kansas City. We have to watch the film to see what we did wrong and correct our mistakes. Hopefully, we won't make the same mistakes next week. I know that all the players and every teammate that I have gave it 100 percent today, and that is what really counts the most." -- S T.J. Ward.
What we learned about the Packers
1. As long as Aaron Rodgers is at quarterback, the Packers can win, regardless of the situation. In 2010, they won the Super Bowl despite losing their preferred starters for a league-high 91 games. In 2013, they're doing it again. Playing without star receivers Randall Cobb and James Jones, and then losing tight end Jermichael Finley to a neck injury in the fourth quarter, the Packers still scored 31 points against the NFL's seventh-ranked defense. For the first time all season, they topped 50 percent on third down, going 7-of-13. "I think we've got a good recipe with the kind of leadership that we have," Rodgers said. "Our defense is playing really well, and that helps. We're pretty healthy on that side of the ball. Offensively, we'd like to think that if we don't turn the football over and we take care of the situational football -- red zone and third down -- we should be in good position to win the game."
2. Never mind what the league rankings say, the Packers defense is a unit on the rise. No, Cleveland's offense isn't any good and Brandon Weeden wouldn't be playing quarterback if not for Brian Hoyer's season-ending knee injury, but the Packers held the Browns to 216 yards and 7-of-18 on third down. And they did that while using a pair of rookies at outside linebacker -- undrafted Andy Mulumba and sixth-rounder Nate Palmer -- with Clay Matthews (thumb) and Nick Perry (foot) out and Mike Neal playing mostly as a third-down pass rusher due to an injured shoulder that prevented him from practicing all week. Star receiver Josh Gordon caught 2-of-6 passes thrown his way for just 21 yards. "They do a great job of bringing in guys that can play," defensive lineman Ryan Pickett said. "When someone goes down, we expect the same thing. We expect them to step up and contribute. That's what everyone else has been doing."
What we learned about the Browns
1. Brandon Weeden, a first-round pick last year, looks like a bust. It could be argued the Browns had three of the best four receivers on the field, plus a young stud with tight end Jordan Cameron. Weeden, however, was a miserable 17-of-42 passing for 149 yards, with one touchdown and one interception. He was 2-of-11 with the pick in the first quarter, when he airmailed a couple of open receivers on the opening drive. To be sure, his pass catchers did him no favors, but Weeden never gave his team a chance. "We'll have to go back and look at it," Browns coach Rod Chudzinski said. "He missed some throws there, obviously, and some of it had to do with the elements at times. He made a few throws, as well, gave our guys some chances, and we had some drops that hurt us at times."
2. Joe Haden continues to show he's one of the game's underrated cornerbacks. Due to the injuries, Jordy Nelson was the one marquee playmaker at Aaron Rodgers' disposal. Lining up across from Nelson on practically every snap, Haden limited him to five catches for 42 yards, though Nelson did score one touchdown. The Browns had less luck with Jarrett Boykin (eight catches, 103 yards, one touchdown) and Jermichael Finley (five catches, 72 yards, one touchdown). "Joe Haden is one of the top corners in the league, if not the top guy, and he was on Jordy all night. Makes it a tough matchup," Rodgers said. "I wanted to make sure Jarrett got some opportunities when he got going early. And Jermichael, tried to feature those guys a little bit. Then came back to Jordy here and there throughout the game.