That’s why there wasn’t exactly a euphoric feeling in the locker room following Sunday’s 28-26 victory over the Detroit Lions at Lambeau Field. The win was badly flawed and full of anxious moments against a currently winless team that hasn’t won in the state of Wisconsin in 19 years.
But the Packers won, thanks to an exhausted defense that got a stop in Green Bay territory midway through the fourth quarter and thanks to a frustrated offense that managed to milk the final 6 minutes, 32 seconds off the clock to seal it, preventing a 14-point second-half lead from getting away.
“There’s nothing lucky about winning in this game,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. “I think our team showed a lot of resiliency, fought through a lot of tough spots.”
Players said even McCarthy had to remind them a couple of times that they won, because the post-game mood was so sour. McCarthy even quipped in his post-game press conference that it didn’t “feel like” the Packers were 3-1 at the season’s quarter pole.
But the Packers will make no apologies. None are needed in the NFL. Not even when the Lions gain 170 more yards (431 to 261), run almost twice as many plays (78 to 40), convert seven more third downs (10 to 3), and possess the ball for more than a full quarter longer (37:37 to 22:23).
Just ask the Atlanta Falcons, who needed a late field goal at home to squeak by the winless San Francisco 49ers, 16-14. Or the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints, who topped the winless Carolina Panthers at home by that same score.
The wins all count the same, even the ones that aren’t all that satisfying.
“(McCarthy) knows we don’t feel the way we need to feel right now off of a win,” linebacker Nick Barnett said. “We won the game, and we’re excited about that, but at the same time we know that this performance needs to pick up. We need to be a better team.”
The Packers felt as though there’d be no question who was better on Sunday with a 28-14 lead early in the third quarter.
The offense had scored on its opening drive of the game, as Aaron Rodgers hit Donald Driver for a 29-yard touchdown just 2:20 in, and it took advantage of a fumble deep in Detroit territory by Lions running back Jahvid Best – on great penetration at the point by rookie defensive end Mike Neal – to assume control.
Rodgers fired a pinpoint pass over the middle against tight coverage to Jermichael Finley for a 13-yard score three plays after the fumble and then, following a three-and-out, went 68 yards in four plays for another TD. Driver’s 48-yard grab when Rodgers knew he had a free play (the Lions jumped offsides at the snap) set up Greg Jennings’ 17-yard score and the Packers led 21-7 midway through the second quarter.
The Lions countered with a 21-yard TD pass from Shaun Hill to Calvin Johnson with just eight seconds left in the first half, Johnson’s second score of the game. But any momentum from that was snatched back on the opening drive of the third quarter, when Charles Woodson made a diving interception of Hill’s pass, got up behind a convoy of blockers and raced 48 yards for a touchdown and a 14-point lead.
It was a record-breaking touchdown for Woodson – his eighth interception return for a score with Green Bay, breaking a tie with Herb Adderley in team annals – and it had the 70,729 fans at Lambeau all fired up.
But from there, smooth sailing it was not.
Over the next 17½ minutes, the Lions had four drives and kicked four field goals to get close. During that span, Rodgers threw two interceptions and kickoff returner Jordy Nelson fumbled one away, the special-teams turnover giving the Lions a first down at the Green Bay 18-yard line trailing just 28-23.
But the defense rose up, forcing three straight incompletions from Hill (34-of-54, 331 yards, two TDs, two INTs, 77.0 rating) after a first-and-goal at the 6, which led to the fourth field goal to keep the Packers ahead, 28-26 with 11:51 left.
“Anytime as a defense you can go back out and make a stand after a turnover,” Packers cornerback Tramon Williams said, “whether it’s on the 20-yard line, whether it’s on the 1-yard line, if you can make a stand, that can shift the momentum quick.”
Rodgers (12-of-17, 181 yards, three TDs, two INTs, 105.3 rating) then tried to seize that momentum by firing deep to Jennings on the first snap of the ensuing drive, but it resulted in his second interception when cornerback Alphonso Smith outfought Jennings for the ball as they crashed to the ground.
The Lions then drove all the way to Green Bay’s 38-yard line, not far from kicker Jason Hanson’s field-goal range, as Hanson had drilled a 52-yarder in the third quarter. But Woodson came up big, tripping up Best after just a 1-yard gain and then breaking up back-to-back pass attempts to Johnson (six catches, 86 yards, two TDs) to force a punt with 6½ minutes left.
“If you want to be a good team, you want to be a team that is known to go out in adverse situations and come up big, then that’s what you’ve got to do,” said Woodson, who led the team in tackles and played superbly despite Johnson’s productive day. “It doesn’t matter if he throws a pick, if Jordy fumbles, it doesn’t matter. Defensively we still have to go out and do our job, and we did a great job today throughout that second half of just keeping them to field goals, and getting off the field late in the game when we needed to.”
The offense finally did its job, too, picking up five consecutive first downs – having not recorded one since 7 minutes remained in the third quarter – to kill the rest of the clock. Running back John Kuhn carried seven times for 34 yards on the drive and Rodgers moved the chains with completions to Driver (three catches, 89 yards) and Donald Lee. Kuhn’s 8-yard run on third-and-7 with under a minute left and Detroit out of timeouts made it official.
“To finish that game right there, I thought was a real statement for our offense,” McCarthy said. “We had plenty of tough moments through the game, but to finish the game off like that is something we can build on.”
The Packers will need to, because there are two ways to look at a game like Sunday’s, and both have value.
There’s one school of thought that says the Packers can’t afford to continue playing like this, giving up so many yards on defense, sputtering at times on offense, and turning the ball over too much. All true.
But there’s also the view that teams that go somewhere when it’s all said and done are battle-tested and can find ways to win when they don’t play their best. It’s not the easy way, but it’s worth something.
“These are the type of wins that we need,” Woodson said. “I don’t think you feel like, ‘We’re glad the game’s over and we snuck out of there.’ You’re going to need games like that down the stretch. It’s going to be a long season, and they’re not all going to be blowouts of course. You’ve got to win some close games, and today was a close one. We won.”