NFL: Packers 42, Saints 34
Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 8, 2011
By Chris Jenkins
GREEN BAY, Wis. — A Super Bowl hangover and the NFL lockout weren’t about to slow down Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers. The New Orleans Saints just couldn’t keep up.
Rodgers came out on top in a memorable opening-night duel with Drew Brees, and the Packers made a goal-line stand on the final play of the game to beat the Saints 42-34 on Thursday night.
Packers rookie Randall Cobb caught a touchdown from Rodgers and ran a kickoff back 108 yards for a score in the third quarter — tying an NFL record for the longest kickoff return in history.
Rodgers threw for 312 yards and three touchdowns. Brees threw for 419 yards and three touchdowns, including a late touchdown to Jimmy Graham that cut the lead to 8 with 2:15 left.
After a Green Bay punt, Brees marched the Saints to the Packers 9-yard line and spiked the ball with 3 seconds left. Green Bay’s A.J. Hawk was called for pass interference and the ball was placed at the 1.
Led by Clay Matthews and safety Morgan Burnett, the Packers defense swarmed Saints first-round rookie running back Mark Ingram short of the goal line and the game was over.
It was a big night for Donald Driver, who tied James Lofton’s franchise mark for career yards receiving with 9,656.
Cobb’s big return gave the Packers a 35-20 lead, but the game wasn’t over. Darren Sproles answered with a long kickoff return of his own, and Brees drove the Saints for a 29-yard touchdown to Devery Henderson.
The Saints forced a punt and marched to the Packers’ 7-yard line, but failed on a fourth-down conversion attempt and gave the ball back to the Packers.
Green Bay drove again, and Rodgers handed the ball to John Kuhn on third-and-goal for a 1-yard touchdown and a 42-27 lead early in the fourth quarter. The Packers’ defensive struggles made for some nervous late moments, but they came through when they had to.
If Thursday’s game was a referendum on the importance of player-led team workouts during the lockout, the results are in: The workouts Brees organized over the summer weren’t enough to help the Saints take down the champions, and the Packers’ decision not to get together as a team certainly didn’t seem to hurt them.
For the NFL, Thursday’s opener was a chance to stamp out any lingering memories of a tumultuous offseason filled with tense and ugly — but ultimately successful — labor negotiations.
With a massive stage engulfing a portion of the Lambeau Field parking lot for a pregame concert, Thursday night certainly felt like a big game had come to the NFL’s smallest market. Going into the game, Jennings compared it to a “mini Super Bowl.”
But there wasn’t anything small about the Packers’ performance, proving once again that they were ready for the bright lights and a tough opponent.
Rodgers led the Packers to touchdowns on their first three possessions, taking a 21-7 lead in the first quarter. The Saints rallied for a field goal, then cut the lead to 21-17 on Sproles’ 72-yard punt return for a touchdown in the second quarter, but the Packers marched right back down the field for a 17-yard touchdown run by James Starks and went into halftime leading 28-17.
The Saints marched to the Green Bay 7-yard line on the first possession of the second half. But Erik Walden sacked Brees on third-and-2, forcing a 38-yard field goal by John Kasay that cut the Packers’ lead to 28-20.
The ensuing kickoff went to Cobb, who fielded the ball deep in the Packers’ end zone but took it out anyway. Cobb spun off a tackling attempt by the Saints’ Leigh Torrence, put his right hand down to keep his balance, then rambled to the end zone.
Cobb’s 108-yard return tied an NFL record set by New England’s Ellis Hobbs in September 2007. It also was the Packers’ first kickoff return for a touchdown since Allen Rossum in 2000.
The Saints came right back, benefiting from a 15-yard personal foul penalty on Charles Woodson after he struck a Saints player; New Orleans coach Sean Payton lobbied for an ejection from the sidelines, but Woodson stayed in the game.
Facing fourth-and-1 at the Green Bay 6, the Saints went for it — and Matthews flushed Brees out of the pocket, forcing him to throw a bad pass that fell incomplete.
NOTES: Packers S Nick Collins appeared to hurt his left arm but stayed in the game. … Packers CB Tramon Williams went down after taking a hard hit on the right shoulder in the fourth quarter. … DE Mike Neal was inactive for the Packers because of a lingering knee injury. Jarius Wynn started in his place. … Saints WR Lance Moore sat out because of a groin injury.