Thursday night gave us NFL fans what we desperately needed, a fresh dose of brilliant competition and athleticism between two of the best teams in the NFL. For a time in the first quarter it seemed that the Packers were ready to run the Saints off the field, especially with Aaron Rodgers throwing three touchdown passes in the first quarter alone. However, football is a 60 minute game, with momentum almost certain to switch sides at any given moment. Which is what we saw as the game was coming to it’s final act. With just over five minutes left in the fourth quarter, former Super Bowl MVP Drew Brees and head coach Sean Payton turned in a perfect two minute drill that would see the Saints score before the two minute warning, securing the crucial extra timeout of the two minute warning.
The finish to the game was beyond what any of us expected, but it was disappointingly characteristic of the Packers defense. They folded in the second half, and it all showed in the final drive of the game. Following a pass interference call on A.J. Hawk with no time remaining in the game, inside the end zone no less, the Saints and Packers lined up at the one yard line for a goal line push that would either see the Saints continue their miraculous fourth quarter comeback, or the Packers stave off the former Super Bowl Champions. The ball was given to Mark Ingram and he dove into the gut of the Green Bay defense. The best quote I heard to sum up the final play is: “Mark Ingram, this is not the SEC.”
It was a bitter end to a tumultuous game for both the Saints and the Packers. Both teams had moments where their offense was in great form and couldn’t be stopped by defenses that seemed to fold at the wrong time. Drew Brees threw for 419 passing yards along with three touchdowns. It was a typical day for one of the top three quarterbacks in the league, I would also like to note how agile Drew Brees was when it came to avoiding pressure throughout the night. Brees’ quarterback counterpart had an equally electrifying night. Aaron Rodgers posted an efficient 27/35 night wth 312 passing yards and three touchdowns. It could be seen as a somewhat disappointing second half from Rodgers, seeing as how he did not throw a touchdown pass after the first quarter. Something that probably led to the Saints being allowed to come back from their halftime deficit.
As expected, there was not one running back on either team who significantly impacted the game. The Packers leading rusher was James Starks who took 12 carries for a tough 57 yards. Ryan Grant only had 9 carries and 40 yards. Starks did tally up a touchdown, but after this game it is safe to say that the two running backs are locked in a position battle that may not be determined for several games. The Saints have a better running back situation. Darren Sproles showed the athleticism and game changing ability the Saints were betting on when they parted ways with play maker Reggie Bush. Sproles scored an incredible 72 yard punt return which saw him make one cut up the middle of the field. It was a terrific display of vision, patience, and speed. Three things that can make a man like Darren Sproles increasingly dangerous for defenses. Especially when backs like Pierre Thomas (5 carries, 31 yards) and Mark Ingram (13 carries, 40 yards) are looking to make impacts with the short running game.
Many of you probably noticed as I did that the Saints and Packers were amazing at distributing the football. There were no one man shows throughout the game, unless you consider the outstanding individual plays that seemed to materialize whenever they were needed most.
One such example of outstanding individual performance came from the rookie stand out from Kentucky, Randall Cobb. His first professional catch was converted into a touchdown when he faked cutting right and broke left towards the left side of the end zone. After the quick move, Cobb finished off the beaten corner back, Malcolm Jenkins, by shoving him to the ground seconds before leaping ball first into the end zone. It was an electrifying play that should have been the icing on the cake for the rookie. Cobb was not done terrorizing the Saints with his rather clever choice of running maneuvers. The most memorable play of the game would have to be Cobb’s 108 yard kick off return in which by the way ties the NFL record. During his return Cobb was hit so that his body was parallel to the ground. Cobb then did a ‘barrel roll’ to re-balance himself without touching the ground. After regaining his feet, he took off in seconds and there was no Saints player who even had a prayer of getting to the rookie play maker.
The Packers should be very proud of this victory, but it is clear that there is lots of work to be done before this team can consider themselves the best team in the NFL. The running backs must offer more help to balance out the offense. Aaron Rodgers didn’t make any real mistakes throughout the game, but for a quarterback who has MVP aspirations, to see him disappear in the second half must be unsettling for the veteran. The wide receivers played exceptional tonight and I am inclined to say they were the biggest difference makers in last night’s game. Greg Jennings (7 catches, 89 yards, 1 TD) has emerged as one of the top five receivers in the league, and Donald Driver (4 catches, 41 yards), Jordy Nelson (6 catches, 77 yards, 1 TD), and Jermichael Finley (3 catches, 53 yards) put in their part for the victory.
Let us all now enjoy the long week before the Packers get back to work. Congratulations to Mike McCarthy on a hard earned win, and I hope to see many more just like them throughout the season.