GLENDALE, Ariz. — Here the Green Bay Packers found themselves, again. Victors. Survivors. On the right side of yet another wild and crazy game after edging out the previously undefeated Arizona Cardinals 24-21 while extending their own win streak to seven games, improving to 7-1 on this NFL season.
“That’s kind of how we’ve been playing this year,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers smirked Thursday night, referring to the heart-pounding finishes that have defined the first half of his team’s 2021 campaign. “We’ve not been super efficient at times, but we come up with some big plays.”
And those big plays – displays of impressive resiliency – have delivered some massive wins.
There was the Week 3 thriller against San Francisco when Rodgers marched his team 42 yards in 37 seconds to set up Mason Crosby’s 51-yard field goal for the 28-27 victory.
Then came the Week 5 win over Cincinnati after Crosby and Bengals kicker Evan McPherson missed a combined five field goals in the final two minutes and overtime (a league record) before Crosby’s successful make in overtime.
And now Rodgers and the Packers both reveled and breathed a collective sigh of relief after cornerback Rasul Douglas intercepted Kyler Murray in the end zone with 12 seconds left on the clock, denying the Cardinals a game-winning drive and securing the Green Bay W.
The Packers weren’t supposed to win this game. Vegas had favored the Cardinals by 6, and COVID protocols forced Green Bay to take the field without its top two wide receivers, Davante Adams and Allen Lazard, and defensive coordinator Joe Barry. And injuries had sidelined other key contributors on both sides of the ball.
But somehow, the Packers found a way, weathering adversity once again, to remain one of the hottest teams in pro football.
The game, in many ways, embodied Green Bay’s season to date.
It wasn’t perfect. There were some missed opportunities. But the performance featured just the right amount of special contributions along with what is becoming a signature unflinching characteristic necessary to distinguish the Packers from another quality opponent.
During this seven-game stretch, which came after a stunning, season-opening blowout loss to New Orleans, the Packers have found a variety of ways to win. Normally, the recipe features Rodgers with the ball in his hands in some kind scenario, whether abusing the opposing defense all game long en route to a throttling, or while delivering late-game heroics.
This time, however, the game came down to the defense – the unit long considered the Achilles’ heel of an otherwise juggernaut. And this time, the special teams units also made their mark with a turnover that set up a field goal – ultimately the margin of victory.
And Rodgers’ team didn’t even need him to carve up the Cardinals defense for a 300-yard performance. Green Bay instead put on a clinic in balance and ball control as Rodgers passed for 184 yards and two touchdowns while running backs A.J. Dillon and Aaron Jones led a rushing attack that generated 151 yards and a touchdown.
No Adams, Lazard and injured fellow wideout Marquez Valdes-Scantling meant a loss of explosiveness and big-play ability. But coach Matt LaFleur adapted, composing a game plan that utilized a more methodical approach, which enabled his team to dominate time of possession 37:35 to 22:25 and helped keep electrifying Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray off the field.
Meanwhile, a masterful defensive game plan – cooked up this week by Barry, via Zoom, and play-calling fill-ins Jerry Gray (defensive backs coach) and Kirk Olivadotti (linebackers coach) – succeeded in largely keeping the mobile Murray in the pocket and pressuring him into throwing errant passes.
But there were indeed imperfections. LaFleur, also the offensive play-caller, was kicking himself for two trips deep into the red zone that produced a combined three points – the last of which saw the Packers fail to score despite moving one foot shy of the goal line only to turn the ball over on downs with 3:23 left on the clock while clinging to a 24-21 lead.
The defense let Murray and his squad out of the shadow of the end zone as the third-year quarterback completed a 23-yard strike to A.J. Green on third-and-10. And then Murray drove his team down to the 8-yard line with 15 seconds left.
But then came the interception from Douglas, who just four weeks ago was a member of the Cardinals’ practice squad before the injury-riddled Packers signed him.
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“The resiliency of these guys showed. These guys take on that mentality of ‘We never want to flinch,’ and I couldn’t be happier to be their coach,” LaFleur gushed of his players.
“We’re a gritty team,” Rodgers said. “Adversity has hit us many times in the fourth quarter and we’ve responded well.”
Rodgers praised the leadership of the coaching staff and in the locker room for instilling that grittiness. Meanwhile, LaFleur pointed to Rodgers and his fellow veterans, and the kinds of players that management has aimed to fill the roster with, and praised them for their unselfishness.
“It’s just the people in the locker room,” LaFleur said. “Our guys believed. … These guys always believe, going into every game, and that’s pretty powerful.”
Who would’ve thought? After such a tumultuous offseason and great uncertainty over Rodgers’ plans for this season, here the Packers are, deeper than anyone could have expected, more resilient than anyone envisioned and steadily growing stronger.
“Savor these moments because these are the things you’ll talk about 20 years after you’re done playing,” Rodgers said he told his teammates after the game, and then reflecting further on the win and those that had preceded it, he added, “We have a good group of guys. There’s a different feeling to this team, even from the last few years. I’m not sure how it’s going to finish up, but I like the energy that we have.”
Another wild finish, another win, and week by week, although still imperfect, the Packers are displaying the characteristics of a legitimate contender.