We should know better after last year's preseason not to get a sugar high after an August cakewalk. Especially since last September, when Aaron Rodgers was getting battered around like the defense thought candy would spill out of him.
But after watching Rodgers look nearly flawless again this August, it was hard not to think this team's biggest concern would be burning out lights on the scoreboard. Sure, there were some issues in the secondary, but the Packers would be scoring 45 points a game, so no worries.
Then the regular season started. In Philly. A place Green Bay hadn't won in 48 years. A place where fourth-and- 26 still turned the stomach of players and fans like a week-old cheese steak. Still, there was no reason to think the fireworks of August wouldn't be going off in September. The fuse, however, was slow to light. And it had more to do with the opponent than the rain.
If Packers fans were shocked to see Rodgers — a quarterback capable of the kind of smooth perfection normally reserved for guys like Peyton Manning — struggle, he wasn't happy about it, either. Rodgers was pressured, sacked and seemed out of sorts for much of the game.
"I played terrible," Rodgers said. "Probably about as bad as I can play, so that's a good thing (that we won). I gotta get better. I missed a lot of throws ... I can make in my sleep, so I'm disappointed about that."
Rodgers had two touchdown passes to go with two picks on 18-of-31 passing for 188 yards. His quarterback rating of 73.1 was the second-lowest in his last 21 starts.
But at least he finished.
The same couldn't be said for the Eagles' Kevin Kolb, who was handpicked to replace Donovan McNabb and looking for the same kind of success that Rodgers had in replacing an icon two seasons ago. That said, it's hard to imagine Kolb's first start going worse. Packers linebacker Clay Matthews had a lot to do with that.
Defensive players are called "beasts" or "animals" to the point of cliché, but few chase down the quarterback with the kind of ferocity that Matthews demonstrated on Sunday. His attacks on Kolb would have played well on the Discovery Channel. Maybe lions should be shown his highlights before they're released into the wild, since Matthews' moves would be equally effective on gazelles and wildebeests. When Matthews ran down Kolb from behind, pulled his arms back in fumble-causing fashion and planted Kolb facemask-first into the sod — landing on top of him — it ended the quarterback's dismal day.
But knocking the opposing quarterback out of the game took a serious hit in effectiveness when backup Michael Vick came into the huddle and started looking like he was a 2001 playoff vintage of himself. By the time he was done, Vick had thrown for 175 yards, rushed for 103 yards and nearly brought Philly back from a 17-point deficit. Fortunately for Green Bay, Vick needed 104 rushing yards for any hope of pulling this one out. On a decisive fourth-and-1 play in the final 2 minutes, Matthews stuffed him in the hole on a shotgun draw to preserve the 27-20 win.
"I was definitely tired out there, but I know what I'm doing," said Matthews, who practiced just four times heading into the opener after injuring his hamstring in the Family Night scrimmage on Aug. 7. "I know what I'm doing in the framework of the defense and I know what they expect of me and want they want me to do. It's to create pressure, make tackles and just be a wrecking force on the front line."
An understatement if there ever was one, Matthews' play also proved contagious. Green Bay got inspired play from nose tackle B.J. Raji, who was pushing the pile the way he did at Boston College. Defensive end Cullen Jenkins broke his hand but came back with a club cast and continued to bring the heat. Rookie free agent Frank Zombo came blasting in off the edge for his first NFL sack. And a defense starting two rookies — safety Morgan Burnett and cornerback Sam Shields — escaped with barely a scorch mark on them.
It was the kind of performance this unit will need to replicate as they wait for Al Harris to return from the physically unable to perform list in five more weeks and resume his spot in the defensive backfield.
Offensively, Green Bay overcame not only a rough outing by Rodgers, but the loss of starting running back Ryan Grant to an ankle injury. Credit backup Brandon Jackson, who had 63 yards on 18 carries, and John Kuhn, who had a 3-yard touchdown, for picking up the slack and giving the Packers a much-needed ground game. Jackson will need to do that and more as he starts on Sunday against Buffalo and possibly beyond.
The special teams did its share, as well. Mason Crosby hit a franchise-record 56-yarder to end the first half, after getting three points with a 49-yarder that went halfway up the uprights earlier in the game. Punter Tim Masthay averaged 41.5 yards on four punts, showing that at least for one week he's the right man for the job, and Jordy Nelson had returns of 51 and 40 yards. Better still, Green Bay's coverage teams — a definite sore spot a year ago — held Philly's DeSean Jackson and Ellis Hobbs in check.
Not always pretty. But pretty effective. This win will do more for Green Bay by far than a blowout would have. On the road, with their quarterback at less than his best, their defense less than full strength, injuries taking out or limiting key players and facing a quarterback with more to prove than anyone on that field, the Packers came out on top. It definitely wasn't easy, but they're better for it having gone through the fight.
We know this team will score points. Now we know what else they can do.
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W. Keith Roerdink has covered the Packers since 1992. E-mail him at email@example.com.