GREEN BAY, Wis. - With a brief pregame celebration on the floor of historic Lambeau Field on Thursday night, the Green Bay Packers turned the page on their Super Bowl-winning season of 2010.
But that didn’t stop the Packers from picking up where they left off - especially on offense - in their opener against the New Orleans Saints.
In a matchup of the two most recent Super Bowl champions, the Packers scored touchdowns on their first three series of the game and had four TDs in five meaningful first-half possessions in a wild 42-34 victory over the Saints before 70,555 fans.
While the Packers’ offense was in midseason form, the defense gave up 477 total yards. But they came up big in a clutch situation, stopping Saints rookie running back Mark Ingram cold on the game’s final play from the 1-yard line to preserve their eight-point lead and the win.
It marked the eighth straight season in which the reigning Super Bowl champions had won in the first game of the NFL’s Kickoff Weekend.
Unlike many of the other opening games, however, the two teams put on quite an offensive show with the Packers putting together touchdown drives of 80, 36, 76 and 80 yards to take a 28-17 halftime lead.
The teams combined to score 76 points and piled up 876 total yards even though the Saints and Packers both featured top 10 defenses last season.
Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the most valuable player of Super Bowl XLV, and Saints counterpart Drew Brees, who took the same honor a year earlier, hooked up in a marvelous duel that saw them combine for 731 passing yards and six TDs.
Brees, who moved his team 79 yards to the Packers’ 1 in the final minute of the game, connected on 32 of 49 passes for 419 yards and three scores in directing the Saints to 477 total yards. He had a passer rating of 112.5.
Rodgers came out firing and threw for 188 yards in the first quarter alone, eventually finishing with 312 passing yards while hitting on 27 of 35 attempts. He led his team to 399 total yards and finished with a 132.1 passer rating.
“It was a really good offense that we played ? Aaron did a real good job,” said Saints coach Sean Payton. “They’re an up-tempo team. Both offenses were converting, but we had trouble getting off the field on defense. There will be a handful of things we have to look at and improve on, but part of that is a credit to Green Bay as well.”
Despite falling behind 14-0 in the first 8-1/2 minutes and trailing 42-27 late in the game, the Saints refused to fold, scoring a touchdown with 2:15 to play on a 5-yard pass from Brees to tight end Jimmy Graham.
The Saints’ defense forced the Packers to punt on their next possession, which gave Brees and the offense one last chance with time winding down.
Brees gamely drove his team to the Packers’ 1 after linebacker A.J. Hawk interfered with running back Darren Sproles on a pass into the end zone on what would have been the final play of the contest.
But Ingram was stopped short of the goal on a run into the middle of the line to end the game. If the Saints had scored there, they would have had a two-point conversion to try to send the game into overtime.
“It was great to get that last stop; the stop on the 1-yard-line was huge,” said Hawk. “The goal-line defense, that’s team defense. I know (linebacker) Clay (Matthews) was probably the first to hit him, but I think our defensive line did an awesome job.
“You have to move the line of scrimmage, and our defensive line pushed them back,” he said.
That was the story of the game for the Saints’ offense, which scored just one touchdown on five trips to the red zone.
“I think the biggest stat for us that is disappointing is our red-zone efficiency,” Brees said. “That’s not going to win you a lot of games, especially on the road in this type of environment against this team.”
The Saints also missed out on a scoring opportunity late in the third quarter when, trailing 35-27, Ingram was again stopped for no gain on third-and-1 from the Packers’ 7.
At that point, Payton elected to go for a touchdown and possible game-tying two-point conversion. However, the Packers brought a heavy pass rush that forced Brees to hurriedly throw an incomplete pass and they got nothing.
“In hindsight, it’s easy to say kick the field goal,” Payton said. “But that being said, we felt like we had a play we had a we wanted to run. It’s not an easy call, but it’s one that you look back on and I’ll kick myself a little bit.”
Rodgers got his team off to a fast start, connecting with wide receivers Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson for touchdowns of 7 and 3 yards, respectively, the first two times they touched the ball.
The Rodgers-to-Nelson touchdown capped a short 36-yard drive which was set up on a fumble by Saints wide receiver Marques Colston after he made a 12-yard catch on New Orleans’ second offensive play of the game.
The touchdowns put the Saints in a big hole with 6:24 to play in the first quarter, but they came back.
Brees threw the first of his three touchdown passes, hitting Robert Meachem for a 31-yard score to cut the deficit in half before Rodgers came right back with a 32-yard TD to rookie wide receiver Randall Cobb to push the lead to 21-7.
John Kasay kicked a 30-yard field goal before Sproles returned a 52-yard Tim Masthay punt 72 yards for a touchdown that pulled the Saints to within four points at 21-17.
The Packers, however, extended their lead to 28-17 with a 17-yard scoring run by James Starks before Kasay’s 38-yard field goal made it 28-20. But the Saints’ special teams was hit for a 108-yard kickoff return by Cobb, which tied the NFL record set by New England’s Ellis Hobbs in 2007.
Saints wide receiver Devery Henderson, who had six receptions for 100 yards, pulled in a 29-yard TD pass from Brees to trim their deficit to 35-27 before John Kuhn’s 1-yard scoring run pushed it back to 15 with 11:50 to play in the game.
“Obviously, it was a hard-fought game,” said Payton. “I was proud of the way we hung in there and fought back, but the Packers did a very good job and did all the things they needed to do to win a game like that.”