GREEN BAY – It wasn’t exactly how you draw up your first home win since late September, but the Packers will take it. Happily.
Green Bay let a 10-point lead get away, needed to tie the game in the final two minutes and then won it on the first possession of overtime on rookie running back Aaron Jones’ 20-yard touchdown run.
The 26-20 triumph over the Buccaneers on Sunday at Lambeau Field came one day after starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers returned to practice, and it got the Packers back to 6-6 on the season.
Most important, it kept them alive in what could evolve into a wild NFC playoff chase over the final month, particularly if Rodgers can come back for the final three regular-season games.
“By no means was that a pretty victory,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. “But these are great moments of adversity. Just the way we slugged it out, we’ll be a better team moving forward.”
With the offense suffering through fits and starts, the Packers got major contributions from the other phases, particularly from the 2016 draft class.
Linebacker Kyler Fackrell blocked a punt in the second quarter, helping set up a touchdown. On Tampa Bay’s next possession, Kenny Clark knocked the ball free from Buccaneers QB Jameis Winston as he was wrapping him up for a sack, and fellow defensive lineman Dean Lowry snagged the fumble out of midair and rambled untouched 62 yards to the end zone.
That put the Packers up 17-7 late in the second quarter, but nothing came easy from there.
The defense got a red-zone stop at the end of the first half and another at the start of the fourth quarter, thanks to an errant shotgun snap on third-and-goal. Two Tampa Bay field goals made it 17-13.
After the offense went three-and-out for the third straight time to start the second half, the Bucs finally cashed in, overcoming more red-zone blunders and scoring on Winston’s 11-yard pass on third down to tight end Cameron Brate, his second TD of the game.
With 6:02 left, down 20-17, the Packers needed a drive to avert their fourth straight home loss for the first time since 1991, and they got it. QB Brett Hundley, with an interception on his ledger and no first downs since the eight-minute mark of the second quarter, drove 70 yards for a field goal to tie the game with 2:01 to go.
“It was nothing special, man,” Hundley said of the mood in the huddle in a crunch-time moment after all the second-half struggles. “I told them do what we do, and that’s execute. We moved the ball efficiently.”
Added McCarthy of his young quarterback’s demeanor: “He was even-keel, but he wanted to get back out there and get going.”
Hundley mixed in the running of rookie Jamaal Williams, a read-option run to convert a third down, a couple of completions and a roughing-the-passer penalty to get to third-and-1 from the Tampa Bay 5. With the Bucs showing blitz, a quick flip outside to receiver Jordy Nelson on a run-pass option came up short, and McCarthy opted for the tying field goal.
“I thought the fact we were able to get our defense off the field for a breather, I was confident kicking it and playing defense,” he said. “I thought our pass rush really picked up. It speaks volumes about the confidence we have in one another.”
Clark’s second sack of the day – the defense’s seventh, led by Clay Matthews with 2½ – thwarted Tampa Bay’s last chance, and the Packers got nothing going in the final minute, sending it to overtime.
The Packers won the toss and then turned it over to Williams, the workhorse on the day with 21 carries for 113 yards and a TD.
Sandwiched around another effective read-option run by Hundley for 18 yards, the rookie fourth-round back out of BYU ran three times for 15 yards and took a short pass and tip-toed down the sideline for 12 more to the Tampa Bay 20.
Slipping out for a quick breather, Williams was replaced by Jones, who had missed the last two games with a knee injury and hadn’t touched the ball since Nov. 12 at Chicago.
Jones promptly took a handoff, found nothing up the middle, cut back to his left and was suddenly off to the races, diving across the goal line for the winning score.
“That’s Aaron Jones for you, man,” Hundley said. “All he needs is one. Big play. To come in and ice the game like that on one carry, you can’t really have better than that.”
On a day Winston, playing his first game in a month, outgained Hundley through the air by almost 200 yards (270-84) and more than doubled his passer rating (112.8 to 48.3), the Packers found a way.
Call it ugly, fortunate or the “grind-it-out” variety, to quote McCarthy, it was a win the Packers absolutely had to have.
“I like the ruggedness of what we’ve had to go through,” McCarthy said. “We’ll be a better football team tomorrow because of what we accomplished today.”
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