Packers prove they can take a punch and maintain perfect pursuit
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- If perfection comes to pass this season in Green Bay, remember this one. It was as close to defeat as the Packers have come this season, and like an accident narrowly avoided, it sent the adrenaline surging and brought out the best possible reaction from the defending Super Bowl champions.
The situation: A tie game, 35-35, with 58 seconds remaining and Green Bay taking the ball over at its own 20 with one timeout remaining. MetLife Stadium howled with more than 80,000 delirious New York Giants fans, fully aware that their team was playing its most inspired game of the year when needed most, and might for the second time in five years spoil an opponent's perfect season in grand fashion.
And then, Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense went to work. With precision that currently has no equal in the NFL, Green Bay called four pass plays, executed them all (to four receivers), and gained 68 yards in lightning-quick fashion. Packers kicker Mason Crosby trotted on with three seconds remaining and calmly booted home the 31-yard game-winner as the clock wound down to triple zeroes.
And just like that, Green Bay won 38-35 to keep its own zero alive, improving to 12-0 and clinching its third consecutive playoff berth and the fourth in the six-year Mike McCarthy coaching era. The potent and high-scoring Packers haven't been tested a lot this season, but they passed this time, and the feeling of satisfaction was palpable in the Green Bay locker room.
"Those are the fun ones, when you end up like that,'' said Rodgers, the Packers quarterback who surgically sucked the air and the life out of the Giants defense on that final drive, completing passes of 24 yards to tight end Jermichael Finley, 27 to receiver Jordy Nelson, minus-1 to running back Brandon Saine and 18 yards to receiver Greg Jennings.
"We've had a number of games this year where we've won by a couple of scores and been kneeling down on the last possession of the game. But to get the ball on the 20, backed up under a minute, and get down there and get it to chip-shot field goal range is very special.''
The Packers have had to sweat a bit at other times this season, but never like this. Green Bay had won four previous games by margins between six and eight points, but this was a singular challenge in that the Packers were tied in the final minute, with the ball in their hands and the chance to execute their two-minute offense. And they ran it to perfection. (There's that word again).
"Two-minute drive is something we practice every week, and really, it was the drive that we needed,'' McCarthy said. "It's something that I think Aaron Rodgers does an excellent job of. He did a great job running the drill and managing the clock, the receivers made even better route adjustments, good protection, just a classic two-minute drive.''
All in just 58 seconds, as if to say Green Bay only needs about half the time required by a mere mortal football team in that dire situation.
This can't be a good development for the rest of the NFL, seeing the Packers check off the category of pressurized game-winning two-minute drive from its to-do list this season. Green Bay needs more confidence like it needs more snow in January, but the Packers just took a significant step with this victory, and it had everything to do with what for Rodgers was a signature game-ending drive.
"I'm sure that's something [the media] are going to talk about,'' said Rodgers, when asked if the Packers "needed'' the knowledge they could win a game with their two-minute offense. "Again, I don't mind when we're up two scores and we're taking a knee there at the end. But it gives us confidence that if we're in a situation like that again that we can go down and hope we have the same result.''
McCarthy was far more succinct in recognizing the value of Green Bay's victory on this day. It was a far from flawless effort by his Packers, who gave up 447 yards of offense and an average play of 7.3 yards to New York. The Packers dropped five or six passes and saw Giants quarterback Eli Manning carve them up for three touchdown passes and 347 yards.
"That's what you want,'' McCarthy said of the two-minute opportunity. "That's what you train for. That's what you're looking for. You are going to have to complete two-minute drives to win championships. Trust me, I would have taken the win a little easier, but that's a great investment in your football team to get a win like that.''
The first down pass of 24 yards to Finley got the Packers kick-started on their game-winning march. Giants linebacker Jacquian Williams was in coverage of Finley out in the extreme right flat, toward the sideline, but Rodgers put the ball to the outside, where only his big, fast tight end could catch it. Williams either tripped or took a bad angle on the attempted tackle, with Finley scooting up the sideline for a first down at the Packers 44.
"Obviously that first play was the most important play, that kind of determines the drive,'' Rodgers said. "If we had an incomplete pass or maybe a five-yard gain, you probably run the ball and by the time you get another play off you're looking at under 45 seconds [remaining]. It's probably less likely that you're going to get in range. Unless we get some yardage on the first couple of plays, you're probably going to look to overtime.''
But emboldened by Finley's big gain, the Packers got even more daring, taking advantage of the Giants staying in man coverage for a second play on the drive. Rodgers made a route adjustment at the line of scrimmage designed for Nelson, and the quarterback made his best throw of the day, hitting Jordy down the left sideline, over New York defensive back Will Blackmon, despite having a stiff pass rush in his face.
It was a pass that could not be defensed, with Nelson executing a double move that gave him just enough room to haul it in near the sideline and put Green Bay in field goal range at the Giants 29. The 18-yarder to Jennings two plays later made it a gimme kick for Crosby, but the game had been won on those back-to-back passes to Finley and Nelson, leaving the Giants dumbstruck by the speed of the Packers' attack.
"You get into a situation like that and you have to trust your instincts and plays that we've run a lot,'' Rodgers said. "That drive is really an example of us trusting the things that we've done in practice so many times and executing them as well as we can.''
Rodgers finished 28 of 46 for 369 yards, with four touchdowns, one interception and two sacks. But ironically, his 106.2 passer rating was his lowest this season, breaking his year-long streak of at least 110.0 ratings. But when Green Bay needed him most, Rodgers delivered, and the Packers are now one of only two defending Super Bowl champs to start a season 12-0 (joining the 1998 Denver Broncos).
"We dropped some passes today, but we caught them when it counted,'' McCarthy said. "This wasn't our best performance. A lot of points on the board. We had adversity football. And our offense stepped up and nailed it shut when we needed it. We were happy to get out of here with a win. It was a tough game. I'm sure it was a fun game to watch.''
With three of their final four games at home (next week against Oakland, Week 16 against Chicago and Week 17 against Detroit) and only a road trip to Kansas City in Week 15 still to play, the Packers now have a 16-0 record well within their grasp. As an undefeated Super Bowl champ, they have been taking everyone's best shot all season, but the Giants pushed them like no one pushed them all season. They answered the challenge, however, and still want more.
"The guys we've got in this room, man, it's ridiculous, because they're still hungry,'' Finley said. "It's like we're 0-0 and we're still hungry like we haven't won a game. This locker room is ridiculous right now. It's just one of those years, and we're taking it all in as the season goes on.''
Once again in Green Bay, this season of perfection brought out the best in the Packers, and on Sunday in the Meadowlands, it was when they needed it most.