CINCINNATI—With four minutes left on Sunday, all signs pointed to rookie running back Johnathan Franklin as the hero for the Packers.
One play changed that. Dramatically and definitively.
Franklin fumbled on fourth-and-1 at the Cincinnati 30-yard line and two Bengals combined to race the other way for the game-deciding score with 3:47 left, sending the Packers to a mind-numbing 34-30 loss at Paul Brown Stadium.
“I’ve got to hold it high and tight,” said Franklin, who lost control of the ball trying to jump over the pile for the first down. “I was trying to make a play and everything, and I know the game was on the line right there. I’ve got to get better. I can’t do that.”
The crucial turnover – the eighth for both teams combined in a topsy-turvy, unpredictable game – put a stain on Franklin’s day that essentially blotted out an otherwise impressive performance that no one could have seen coming, given his struggles in training camp and the preseason.
Having never taken a snap on offense heading into Sunday, Franklin had to take over for running back James Starks in the second half after Starks departed with a knee injury.
All the fourth-round draft pick from UCLA did was dart and dodge his way to 103 yards and a TD on 13 carries, including a 51-yard run that set up a score giving Green Bay a 30-14 lead. Franklin also added three receptions for 23 yards, with one a diving catch in the red zone on which he got up, raced 7 yards to the 2-yard line and then ran it in himself on the next play.
On the pivotal fourth down, the Packers were leading 30-27 and driving for a potential game-clinching score. Mike McCarthy decided to eschew a 48-yard field goal, which would have kept the Bengals within a touchdown, and gave the ball to the hot hand.
Only that hand suddenly got slippery.
“It’s life. Me, you, everybody, we’re always learning. Every day,” said Franklin, whose day only got stranger when he left with a leg injury on the Packers' final drive. He was headed for treatment on the injury from the medical staff as soon as he was done with media interviews.
“You’ve always got to grow. If you aren’t moving forward you’re moving backwards. I just have to understand why certain things happen and grow from it and take a step. We’ve got a long season. Hopefully I’m blessed with another opportunity, and I have to continue to work.”
Franklin’s fumble was one of several missed opportunities for the Packers, who converted four first-half takeaways by the defense into just 13 points. The lone TD was scored by the defense itself, on a fumble return by safety M.D. Jennings.
On the other three takeaways, the Packers managed just two field goals despite starting all three possessions inside the Bengals’ 40-yard line.
“We usually are pretty good once we get a turnover and get in the red zone, we get a touchdown,” receiver James Jones said. “We didn’t get it done today.”
The Packers also settled for three points at the end of the first half despite having first-and-goal at the 5-yard line at the two-minute warning. The points gave the Packers a 16-14 lead at intermission and had officially wiped out an early 14-0 deficit, but the feeling was they should have had a firmer control on the game.
That came with Franklin’s out-of-nowhere performance in the second half, but his fumble made it two straight fruitless drives inside the Cincinnati 30, both ending with turnovers as the Bengals scored the final 20 points of the game.
Aaron Rodgers threw his second interception of the game on the previous possession, the quarterback’s first two-pick game since the 2010 NFC Championship in Chicago.
“The defense played hands down one of the best games I’ve seen from our defense,” said receiver Randall Cobb, who was the target at the 5-yard line on Rodgers’ second interception. “They put us in great situations and we weren’t able to execute on offense.
“I wouldn’t say frustration, I wouldn’t say panic, but we know we had opportunities. We were there, and we didn’t get the job done.”
Despite plenty of chances.
“That’s tough to swallow, a loss like that,” Jones said. “It gives us a sour taste in our mouth for the bye week.” Additional coverage - Sept. 22