It's a good thing the Green Bay Packers opened their season on a Thursday because they'll need a few days to catch their breath.
After a remarkable first half in which the Packers scored touchdowns on four of their first five possessions, Green Bay held off the New Orleans Saints 42-34 in a battle of the last two Super Bowl champions. The victory was preserved until after the final 60 minutes. With an untimed down after A.J. Hawk was flagged for pass interference in the end zone as time expired, Clay Matthews and Morgan Burnett stuffed Mark Ingram to win the game.
The Packers' lead seemed secure at 42-27 and even at 42-34 after Donald Driver recovered the Saints' onside kick with 2:15 remaining. But the Packers couldn't run out the clock, giving Drew Brees 1:08 to navigate 80 yards in the final 1:08.
He almost did it with five consecutive completions setting up second-and-1 at the 9, with Brees killing the clock with 3 seconds remaining. Brees then scrambled and fired to Darren Sproles in the end zone. Hawk appeared to get the breakup but a flag was thrown, setting up the deciding play.
With Aaron Rodgers as sharp as he was in the Super Bowl seven months earlier, the first half alone threatened the Las Vegas' bookmakers over/under of 50 points, with Green Bay leading 28-17 at halftime.
The Saints cut the margin to 28-20 on a methodical drive to start the second half, with the Packers' defense making a key third-down stop when Clay Matthews thwarted a bootleg and forced Drew Brees back into Erik Walden for the sack. Rookie Randall Cobb returned the ensuing kickoff 108 yards for a touchdown – tying the NFL record and finally scoring the Packers' first touchdown on a kickoff return since Allen Rossum on Nov. 19, 2000, against Indianapolis.
Darren Sproles almost returned the favor, with his 57-yard return setting up Brees' 29-yard touchdown to Devery Henderson on a pump-and-go against Sam Shields that made it 35-27 with 6:54 to go in the third quarter. That made it 62 points in 38 minutes.
With all that offense, the Packers' defense made just enough plays. The Packers went three-and-out after the Henderson touchdown, and a long punt return by Sproles and a personal foul on Charles Woodson put the Saints in position to score. But on third-and-1 from the 7, Jarius Wynn helped stop Mark Ingram at the line of scrimmage, and on fourth down, Matthews and Wynn stormed into the backfield to force Brees into an incompletion.
That was huge because Rodgers moved the Packers for a 93-yard touchdown drive that gave them some breathing room at 42-27 with 11:50 remaining. Rodgers hit Greg Jennings for 22 and 14 yards on consecutive plays and Jordy Nelson for 9 and 17 yards. On first-and-10 from the Saints' 23, Driver made a 9-yard grab that tied James Lofton's franchise record of 9,656 receiving yards. Finally, on third-and-goal from the 1, John Kuhn took an inside handoff and slipped into the end zone untouched.
Jarrett Bush stopped the Saints' next drive with a sack, allowing Green Bay's offense to burn about 5 minutes off the clock on the ensuing possession – though they couldn't put the game away. And the Saints made a game of it with a 76-yard touchdown drive in which Brees converted three third downs – including third-and-goal at the 5 with a touchdown to tight end Jimmy Graham.
That made it 42-34 with 2:15 remaining. With one timeout remaining, the Saints were forced to onside kick, which Driver recovered. The Packers, however, couldn't get the first down they needed to run out the clock, giving the Saints a desperation drive to try to force overtime.
Before the smoke had barely cleared from the fireworks that preceded the Packers unveiling of a giant championship banner, Green Bay had bolted to a 14-0 lead.
Rodgers moved the Packers 76 yards on nine plays to start the game, with a 16-yard completion to Driver on third-and-12 and a 36-yard bomb to Jordy Nelson setting up an unstoppable back-shoulder connection with Greg Jennings for a 7-yard touchdown. On the second play of the Saints' possession, Nick Collins drilled Pro Bowl receiver Marques Colston to force a fumble that was required by Tramon Williams. A 10-yard run by Ryan Grant and a 15-yard completion to Jermichael Finley set up a 3-yard touchdown pass to Nelson, who was wide open even though the Saints had dropped eight into coverage.
The Saints responded in rapid-fire fashion, with Drew Brees taking advantage of the Packers' four-defensive linemen "Hippo" front to hit Robert Meachem for a 31-yard touchdown on third-and-1. Unfazed, Green Bay answered, with rookie Randall Cobb beating safety Roman Harper and cutting past Malcolm Jenkins for a 41-yard touchdown.
With 11 seconds remaining in the first quarter, the Packers led 21-7, with Rodgers having completed 14-of-15 passes for 188 yards and three scores.
The Saints pulled within 21-17 but Green Bay retaliated with a critical 14-play, 80-yard touchdown drive before halftime. Rodgers converted a third-and-7 with a 13-yard completion to Jennings, James Starks gained 5 yards on third-and-2, Rodgers hit Tom Crabtree for 4-yard on third-and-3 before Starks ran over Jenkins and drug Harper the final few yards for a 17-yard touchdown.
-- Commissioner Roger Goodell, who was in town for the game and made an appearance at a local elementary school, met with Packers President Mark Murphy about the $130 million stadium expansion. Goodell was noncommittal on whether the league would sign off on a stock sale to help fund the project but is excited about the details of the additional 6,600 seats.
"I think it's great," Goodell said. "It's responsive to what the fans want, which is more general admission seats. I think the seating is going to be unique and very popular. The way the Packers continue to invest back in not only the stadium but the community and the development that will come out of this, I think it's a great opportunity for the league and the Packers."
-- Asked about Johnny Jolly, Goodell through a spokesman said he remains on indefinite suspension.
-- Inactive for the Packers: CB Davon House, S M.D. Jennings, OLB Frank Zombo, OL Derek Sherrod, TE Ryan Taylor, DE Mike Neal and OLB Frank So'oto. Jarius Wynn started for Neal, who practiced this week after missing time with a knee sprain. For the Saints: K Garrett Hartley, WR Lance Moore, RB Joique Bell, CB Johnny Patrick, C/G Matt Tennant, TE John Gilmore and DT Tom Johnson.
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.