Even with Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers having a solid starting debut and the defense doing yeoman's work against big-play-waiting-to-happen running back Adrian Peterson, the outcome of Monday night's season opener against the hated Vikings was very much in doubt midway through the third quarter. That's when Will Blackmon returned a punt 76 electric yards for a touchdown to help Green Bay beat Minnesota 24-19.
It was a critical win for Green Bay, against a trash-talking opponent who many expected to knock the Packers off of their NFC North Division pedestal. While it was only the first game of a 16-game season, Green Bay couldn't afford to drop a home division game, especially with a legion of doubters ready to pounce should Rodgers and the Packers stub their toes.
"We talked about it during the week inside our own locker room that we would talk with our pads and our play. And we did tonight," defensive end Aaron Kampman said.
With safety Atari Bigby's interception thwarting a last-gasp drive by the Vikings, the Packers were victorious in Rodgers' first official start as Brett Favre's replacement. Facing a top-notch defense that had its sights set not only on stopping him but putting a hurt on him, Rodgers was a stellar 18-for-22 passing for 178 yards, with one touchdown, no interceptions and a passer rating of 115.5. The Vikings had to have known the Packers would feature Rodgers' athleticism, but they were defenseless against a barrage of rollouts that put pressure on the Vikings' secondary while keeping him out of harm's way.
With the eyes of the nation watching the ESPN-televised showdown – especially after Favre's winning debut on Sunday – the pressure was cranked up a couple more notches on Rodgers. He passed the test in a big way.
"It feels great," said Rodgers, who punctuated his 1-yard touchdown sneak with a Lambeau Leap. "You've got to remind yourself it's just one win, but it was a big one. I think that the talk this week was a lot about the Vikings, and I don't think enough about the kind of team that we had, so we definitely wanted to play well tonight, and I think we did."
On the game-turning Blackmon return, Chris Kluwe's punt had big play written all over it. It was low and short, and Blackmon caught the ball on the run. He slipped one tackle and left a couple Vikings flailing at air along the left sideline. Blackmon cut back to the middle of the field, sending another Viking tumbling to the turf. Jason Hunter put the exclamation mark on the play by obliterating unsuspecting David Herron. It was a casual run the remaining 30 or so yards for Blackmon, making it 17-6 with 6 minutes, 35 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
"Pretty much, it was simple," Blackmon said. "The 10 guys up front did their job, and they let me run free. It wasn't really any rocket science."
In a battle pitting the two heavyweights of the NFC North Division, it was fitting that the Vikings survived that haymaker, and both teams traded punches the rest of the way. Trailing 24-19, Minnesota got the ball at its 32-yard line and 1:51 remaining on the clock to drive to a statement-making victory.
Bigby, however, sewed up the critical Week 1 victory with an interception with a minute left.
"I knew somebody was going to get (a big play)," Bigby said. "I had a feeling I was going to get it, and I pulled it off."
Bigby's interception provided a dramatic ending to a pulsating final 21 minutes in which the Vikings had an answer to every big play by the Packers, only for the Packers to answer in kind.
The Vikings responded to Blackmon's touchdown with a gutty drive. They converted three consecutive third downs, including a pair of third-and-6s. When they failed to pick up third-and-1, coach Brad Childress went for it on fourth down. All 71,004 in attendance had to know Peterson would get the ball. So, scattershot quarterback Tarvaris Jackson dropped back in the pocket, looked right, then saw Sidney Rice running open on a crossing route to the left. It was an easy pitch and catch, with the touchdown making it 17-12. Jackson missed an open Rice on the two-point play.
The Packers put the pressure on their defense by getting just one first down and punting. The defense, however, stood tall this time. On third-and-1, Childress again put the ball in Jackson's hands, but this time he misfired to Rice, forcing a punt.
Green Bay's offensive line, overmatched for most of the night against the Vikings' formidable front seven, gashed the defense at the most critical occasion. On first-and-10, tight end Tory Humphrey motioned to the left, but it was a misdirection run to the right. Tony Moll, whose ineligible-man-downfield penalty wiped out a 68-yard touchdown pass to Donald Driver in the third quarter, delivered a key block as Ryan Grant rumbled down the right sideline for 57 yards to the 2. A couple of plays later, Rodgers snuck into the end zone behind left guard Daryn Colledge for the decisive touchdown with 6:03 remaining.
Still, the Vikings weren't finished. An 11-play, 80-yard touchdown drive, capped by a 3-yard run by Peterson, made it 24-19 with 2:39 left.
The Packers needed a first down to effectively end the game, but they failed miserably. Not only did a holding penalty on Mark Tauscher make getting a first down improbable, it stopped the clock – a huge favor for a Vikings team with no timeouts remaining.
But Bigby's interception clinched the victory, and the Packers head to Detroit on a winning note.
"It was a tough loss," Childress said. "It is all about developing consistency. We really lost this thing as a team – offense, defense and special teams. Hats off to Green Bay. They did enough to be able to win."