Packers survive Saints in high-scoring thriller
Green Bay, WI – Flipped sideways by a hit, Randall Cobb remained on his feet and darted downfield for an NFL record.
The rookie's 108-yard kickoff return in the third quarter Thursday night didn't exactly steal the spotlight from Aaron Rodgers and his other Packers teammates, but nothing was a better snapshot of this thrill-a-minute NFL season opener.
That is, until the breathless final seconds.
Rodgers passed for three touchdowns, all in the first quarter, and Green Bay made one final stop at the goal line to beat the New Orleans Saints, 42-34, and become the eighth straight reigning Super Bowl champion to open the season with a win at home.
The Saints marched deep into Green Bay territory on the final drive, getting an extra play with no time on the clock because of a pass interference penalty on linebacker A.J. Hawk.
But rookie Mark Ingram was stuffed in front of the line to end the game.
"They did all the things they needed to do win a game like that," said Saints head coach Sean Payton.
Rodgers completed 27 of his 35 passes, finding nine different receivers for 312 yards. He threw touchdown passes to Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson and Cobb in the first quarter.
Cobb's 108-yard touchdown return tied a four-year-old league record, while James Starks and John Kuhn both rushed for scores for the Packers (1-0).
Drew Brees threw for 419 yards and three touchdowns on 32-of-49 passing for the Saints (0-1) and Darren Sproles returned a punt 72 yards for a TD.
New Orleans recovered from a fumble on its first play from scrimmage and a 14-0 deficit in the opening nine minutes to make of game of it.
"Obviously they jumped out early. We knew we might need to weather the storm and we did that," said Brees. "We had a chance at the end to at least tie it."
Indeed, the last two Super Bowl champions played till the end. Brees passed the Saints to the Green Bay nine-yard line, then had his final pass to Sproles knocked down by Hawk, who leapt over the running back's shoulders.
"I was waiting for them to signal the game was over," said Packers head coach Mike McCarthy.
Instead, a flag was thrown for pass interference, giving New Orleans a final play. McCarthy said stuffing Ingram was a good early test for his team.
"It was a great adversity play for our defense to make a stand and win the game," he said.
Despite the specter of a prolonged lockout, the NFL's labor dispute lasted just four months, leading to a shortened preseason but no loss of any regular season games.
Neither team showed much rust on offense.
Indeed, Rodgers was 14-of-15 for 188 yards and three touchdowns in the first quarter alone as the Packers, gifted an extra possession by a New Orleans fumble, built a 21-17 lead.
"What would have happened without offseason workouts?" Rodgers joked. "Could we have started any faster?"
The first drive was a symphony: He connected on his first five throws, including a 36-yarder to Nelson, and found Jennings alone on Patrick Robinson for a seven-yard touchdown pass. Jennings spun to find the ball there in the front left corner, and Rodgers passed for 74 yards on the 76-yard drive.
Green Bay got the ball back almost immediately when safety Nick Collins put his helmet on the ball, forcing a Marques Colston fumble on New Orleans' second play from scrimmage.
Tramon Williams recovered the ball, and the Packers scored in six plays when Rodgers hit Nelson in the end zone for a three-yard TD and 14-0 lead just 8:36 into the game.
Brees, the Super Bowl MVP two seasons ago, found Sproles for a 36-yard catch on the ensuing possession, sparking an 80-yard drive that ended with Robert Meachem beating Williams deep over the middle for a 31-yard touchdown catch.
The Packers also went 80 yards on their next series for another touchdown. Cobb caught a pass over the middle and juked his way down the field before diving head-first into the end zone for a 32-yard score.
After John Kasay's 30-yard field goal got New Orleans within 21-10 in the second quarter, the Packers went three-and-out to became the first team to punt.
Sproles fielded it near the middle of the field and cut a path untouched for a 72-yard touchdown, cutting the Saints' deficit to four points.
But the Packers used 14 plays -- seven runs, seven passes -- to score on another 80-yard drive. With the Saints defending against a pass, Starks busted through the left side of the line and broke three tackles for a 17-yard TD run to give Green Bay a 28-17 lead at halftime.
After Kasay booted a 38-yard field goal to open the second half, Cobb took the ensuing kick back for a 35-20 Green Bay lead. McCarthy watched him catch the ball in the back of the end zone and hoped he would down it, saying afterward that "there's a time to bring it out and a time not to bring it out."
Cobb, who said he knew he wasn't supposed to take it out, spun off a hit from Leigh Torrence that flipped him horizontally and sprinted down the left side of the field to tie the record for longest kickoff return set by Ellis Hobbs of the New England Patriots against the New York Jets on September 9, 2007.
"The feeling of being at Lambeau Field, it was one of the greatest feelings I've ever had," said Cobb, who was selected by the Packers out of Kentucky in the second round of this year's draft.
"I'm glad he did," McCarthy, in hindsight, said of the return. "It was one of the best returns I've seen in live action. Incredible."
The Saints didn't take long to respond, needing just three plays to score when Brees found Devery Henderson for a 29-yard touchdown pass. In the fourth quarter, Kuhn scored on a one-yard run and Brees connected with Jimmy Graham from five yards.
Green Bay has a 15-7 lead in the all-time series between the teams...Ryan Grant and Jermichael Finley returned for the Packers after missing much of last season with injuries. Grant rushed for 40 yards on nine carries and Finley had three catches for 53 yards...New Orleans lost to 7-9 Seattle in the first round of the playoffs last season.