GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Green Bay Packers’ defense needed to make a stop.
It made two.
With a huge forced fumble and recovery by Za’Darius Smith and a third-down stop by Chandon Sullivan, the Packers escaped New Orleans with a 37-30 victory in a heavyweight showdown on Sunday night.
For the second time in as many seasons under coach Matt LaFleur, Green Bay is 3-0, taking advantage of empty (or mostly empty) stadiums in Minnesota in Week 1 and New Orleans on Sunday. The Saints, a powerhouse that should be in the hunt in January, fell to 1-2 and lost their first 'Sunday Night Football' home game under Sean Payton in 11 matchups.
“It's a new world we're living in, playing in," Rodgers said. "I miss the fans, I really do. I miss the environment. I miss the cheers and the jeers and the noise on third down and everything that goes with road games.”
Smith’s forced fumble set up Mason Crosby’s go-ahead field goal. Sullivan’s tackle of Alvin Kamara, who was the best player on the field, allowed the Packers to add an insurance touchdown and bleed a lot of the remaining clock.
The game appeared to turn in the Saints’ favor early in the fourth quarter. With the game tied at 27, LaFleur kept his offense on the field on fourth-and-1 from the 48. Aaron Jones was stuffed, first by safety Malcolm Jenkins and then cornerback Marshon Lattimore. Jones was given the first down but it was an easy overturn on review.
Smith, however, turned the tables when he made his first and, really, only play of the night. With Taysom Hill in at quarterback, the Saints went with a read-option. Hill kept it but Smith poked it loose and recovered at Green Bay’s 43. The Packers couldn’t take full advantage but Crosby’s 49-yard field goal put the Packers back on top 30-27.
Green Bay’s beleaguered defense did it again. It wasn’t a turnover this time but, on third-and-5, Sullivan foiled a receiver screen to Kamara to force a punt.
Green Bay turned that into the clinching touchdown. On second-and-goal from the 1, LaFleur called his umpteenth bootleg. For the umpteenth time, it worked. Rodgers found tight end Robert Tonyan for an easy touchdown that made it 37-27 with two minutes remaining. Not only were the points critical, but the Packers burned 4:36 of the final 6:36.
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The Saints booted a field goal to pull within 37-30 with 32 seconds remaining but the onside kick dribbled out of bounds.
That made Rodgers 21-of-32 for 283 yards and three touchdowns. Green Bay is 3-0; Rodgers has nine touchdowns vs. zero interceptions.
“Right now, our offense, I feel really good about it,” Rodgers said.
The Packers, without receiver Davante Adams (hamstring) and defensive tackle Kenny Clark (groin), lost inside linebacker Christian Kirksey (shoulder) in the second quarter. That left Green Bay’s defense incredibly soft in the middle.
When the Packers could stop the run even a little bit, their defense had a fighting chance. With Green Bay leading 20-17 early in the third quarter but the Saints driving, rookie linebacker Krys Barnes stopped Latavius Murray for a gain of one on first down from the 19. That was enough to hold the Saints to a game-tying field goal.
Green Bay answered with the go-ahead touchdown, a leaping, 18-yard catch on third-and-2 by veteran tight end Marcedes Lewis. Lewis pushed off on standout safety Malcolm Jenkins, made the grab at the 3 and tumbled into the end zone.
The lead didn’t last long. Green Bay got the first-down run stop but it wasn’t enough this time. After a 17-yard completion to Emmanuel Sanders, Green Bay tackled like a bunch of tackling dummies. Brees’ harmless checkdown turned into a 52-yard touchdown by Kamara. Will Redmond had Kamara after the catch for what should have been a tackle for loss. But Kamara got away. He then broke a tackle by Ty Summers for what should have been a gain of about 10. Then, it was off to the races. Jaire Alexander tried to bring Kamara down with a shoulder, for some reason. That didn’t work. Finally, near the goal line, he stepped through safety Darnell Savage’s diving attempt. That tied the game at 27 with 33 seconds remaining.
Allen Lazard had a huge game with six receptions for 146 yards and one touchdown to help offset the loss of Adams. He had a 72-yard reception early in the third quarter to set up Jones' touchdown run on fourth-and-goal that gave Green Bay a 20-17 lead.
"This is everything I've been preparing for," he said while holding the game ball afterward.
The tight ends, though, were the story. Tonyan caught five passes for 50 yards, Jace Sternberger three for 36 and Lewis one for 18. The Saints keyed on the run; the Packers ran one bootleg after another to make them pay.
New Orleans had 397 yards to 369 for Green Bay but had the game's only turnover. In three games, the Packers have zero giveaways and have scored 122 points. That's the sixth-most points through three games since 1940.