Rodgers propels Packers past Saints in opener

By Steve Keating

GREEN BAY, Wisconsin (Reuters) - Aaron Rodgers tossed three touchdowns in the first quarter as the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers opened the new NFL season with a thrilling 42-34 win over the New Orleans Saints on Thursday.

If a bitter labor dispute that had threatened to disrupt the season left fans with a sour taste, compensation came in the form of a mouth-watering opener pitting the last two Super Bowl winners at one of the sport's iconic venues, Lambeau Field.

Any lingering hard feelings faded right after the kickoff and were long forgotten by the time the Packers stopped the Saints on the one-yard line with no time remaining to clinch a heart-stopping victory.

The Packers and Saints delivered exactly the type wildly entertaining contest that has made the NFL America's most popular sport as Rodgers and Saints quarterback Drew Brees, the most valuable players in the last two Super Bowls, each threw three touchdowns and combined for more than 700 passing yards.

Green Bay rookie Randall Cobb electrified the capacity crowd with an NFL record-equaling 108-yard kickoff return while Saints speedster Darren Sproles returned a punt 72 yards for another score on a perfect late summer night for football.

"I thought Aaron was outstanding," Packers coach Mike McCarthy told reporters. "Aaron commands the offense.

"He had a big night and that's way Aaron plays. He has set that standard and he's off to a great start."

After a day of tailgating, the kickoff celebrations moved inside Lambeau Field and the Packers kept the party going, a red-hot Rodgers tossing three touchdowns in the opening quarter for a 21-7 lead.

The Packers quarterback was in sizzling form completing 14-of-15 passes, including touchdown strikes to Greg Jennings (seven yards), Jordy Nelson (three yards) and Cobb (32 yards).

"I've just got to ask myself, what would have happened if we had off-season workouts?" said Rodgers, who joins Jack Kemp (1964) as the only quarterbacks to throw three touchdowns in the first quarter.

"Could we have started any faster and scored more points tonight."

Brees, also flashed his Super Bowl MVP credentials finding newcomer Sproles with a 36-yard pass then zipping a 31-yard laser to a leaping Robert Meachem to cap a quick fire six play 80 yard scoring drive.

The Saints were on the march again in the second quarter, John Kasay booting a 30-yard field goal before Sproles sent a jolt through the crowd with his electrify punt return that sliced the Green Bay advantage to 21-17.

But Packers would answer with James Starks powering his way for 17-yard touchdown for 28-17 lead going into the half.

New Orleans continued to chip away at the Packers lead with Kasay connecting on a 38-yard field goal to open the second half scoring but the Packers hit back in style as Cobb took the kickoff and weaved his way into the NFL record books.

"I'm not suppose to bring that out," said Cobb. "I was just doing anything I could to contribute and I was trying to make the most of opportunities."

The Saints refused to buckle, Brees hooking up with Devery Henderson for a 29-yard touchdown to close to within 35-27.

Green Bay opened the fourth quarter with another touchdown drive John Kuhn bulling his way over from the one.

Again, the Saints would not wave the white flag, Brees finding Jimmy Graham with a five-yard touchdown pass to the stage for an unexpected nail biting finish.

With less than a minute to play, Brees, helped by a pass interference call, marched the Saints down to the Packers one.

Despite all the offensive fireworks the biggest play of the night was provided by the Packers defense with a goal line stand stopping Mark Ingram to end the game.

"You have to get a yard, it's on the goal line to win the game," said Ingram, who was making his NFL debut. "I have to get a yard."

(Editing by Alastair Himmer)