GREEN BAY, Wis. – Aaron Rodgers doesn't want to come out of a game under any circumstances, but his coaches figured not being able to focus with his right eye was serious enough to send him to the bench during a critical stretch of the third quarter.
Things nearly fell apart for the Green Bay Packers when backup Graham Harrell fumbled in the red zone. Then Rodgers returned, only to throw an interception.
But the MVP got it sorted out from there, rallying the Packers to a 28-27 comeback win over the New Orleans Saints at Lambeau Field on Sunday. Rodgers threw a go-ahead touchdown to Jordy Nelson in the fourth quarter, allowing the Packers to shake off a week's worth of controversy.
"We've probably had to deal with more adversity than most of the teams I've played with, especially early on we've had some interesting games already," Rodgers said. "We're four games in. So, I think the character of this team is very strong. Winning games like this says a lot about the kind of men that we have."
With Lambeau Field fans howling about what appeared to be yet another bad call — this time by the regular officials, not the replacements — the Saints' Garrett Hartley missed a 48-yard field goal attempt with just under three minutes remaining.
Rodgers threw for 319 yards with four touchdowns and an interception for the Packers (2-2).
Driving the Packers deep into Saints territory in the third quarter, Rodgers got roughed up by Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins and was poked in the eye as Jenkins was flagged for a face mask.
"I wanted to stay in the game — obviously, I don't like coming out for anything," Rodgers said. "Just didn't have any depth perception immediately thereafter and so I figured we were a yard away and we could punch that thing in there. Unfortunately, didn't happen."
Packers coach Mike McCarthy said Rodgers wasn't required to come out of the game for a play because of the penalty. But the Packers were being cautious.
"He could not refocus with his right eye, so with that the medical staff wanted to get him to the sideline," McCarthy said. "I don't know if they put the eye drops in, that was the discussion on the field. That's why we took him out at that point. But he wanted to stay in. He was able to stay in because the injury occurred on a penalty. But we took the high side of caution here and unfortunately it resulted in that fumble."
Harrell tripped and fumbled as he tried to hand it off, allowing the Saints to get the ball. Brees then found Joseph Morgan wide open behind the defense for an 80-yard touchdown and a 24-21 lead.
"I mean, that play could happen to anybody, including myself," Rodgers said. "We run an outside zone on the goal line there's often penetration and he was trying to make a handoff while falling down which is something that I've done before and it's just unfortunate that we weren't able to complete that handoff. He'll be fine."
Rodgers then threw an interception to Patrick Robinson and the Saints drove for a 27-yard field goal by Hartley to take a 27-21 lead with 13:04 remaining.
With the Packers trailing by 6, Rodgers led a drive that ended with an 11-yard strike to Nelson.
Packers wide receiver James Jones said Rodgers' teammates took notice of his toughness.
"Oh, yeah. I mean, he's got to come back in," said Jones, who caught a pair of touchdowns Sunday. "He's tough. We all play with bumps and bruises, and he's one of those guys that's got to fight through those bumps and bruises and play with it. He's a tough guy. He was not going to sit out that game."
Drew Brees threw for 446 yards with three touchdowns for the winless Saints (0-4).
"It's going to hurt when you lose a game like this," Saints interim coach Aaron Kromer said. "But I will not let them get down. We are too close."
Brees now has thrown at least one touchdown in 47 straight regular-season games, tying the NFL's all-time mark set by Johnny Unitas.
"Yeah, it's disappointing," Brees said of the loss. "It stinks. But despite where we're at, right now I think this team's going to do something."
With the win, the Packers were able to put Monday night's controversial replacement official-driven loss at Seattle behind them. But even with the regular refs back this week, the Packers and their fans still nearly were dealt a crushing blow on a blown call.
After Rodgers' touchdown to Nelson, Darren Sproles appeared to fumble the ensuing kickoff but officials ruled that he was down by contact. Replays showed that the ball clearly came out, but the Packers were out of replay challenges, leaving Packers fans screaming at the officials for the second week in a row.
Brees then led the Saints into field goal range, and Hartley hit a 43-yard attempt — but the Saints were called for holding, forcing Hartley to line up a 53-yarder. The Packers then were called for encroachment, leaving Hartley to try a 48-yarder and he missed it wide left.
"You guys were all happy that the officials were back, and we tried to tell you that they'd still get booed," Nelson said with a laugh.
NOTES: Packers S M.D. Jennings, who played a key role in the controversial play at Seattle, left the game with a shoulder injury. ... Packers WR Greg Jennings caught a touchdown in the second quarter but later came out of the game. Jennings has been struggling to stay healthy with a groin injury.
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