GREEN BAY – Down seven starters or so. Down 14 points at halftime.
But never down and out.
“That’s a character win, 100 percent,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said moments after leading the Packers’ on a game-tying touchdown drive in the waning moments of the fourth quarter, and a game-winning drive for a field goal in overtime.
The Packers rallied to beat the Bengals, 27-24, on Sunday at Lambeau Field despite numerous obstacles – some injury-related, and some of their own making against a fiery Cincinnati squad Rodgers characterized as “desperate” to avoid an 0-3 start.
With the seven game-day inactives all regulars, two on offense and five on defense, the Packers also lost starting right tackle Bryan Bulaga late, when his ankle injury flared up again.
Add to that the 89-degree kickoff temperature for the hottest home game in team history (the previous highs were 85 degrees in Milwaukee in 1978 and 84 in Green Bay in ’63), and the Packers turned it into one of their more memorable September victories in recent times.
“That’s early-season football,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. “You have to have those wins, have those moments of adversity. We talk about advancing through the adverse moments.”
The worst it looked was at halftime, down 21-7 with Rodgers having thrown just the second pick-six of his career, returned 75 yards for a touchdown by Cincinnati corner William Jackson.
The comeback started with a Jordy Nelson touchdown catch on the opening drive of the second half. After both teams traded field goals (and the Bengals missed one), it came down to Rodgers stepping into the huddle at the Green Bay 25-yard line with 3:46 left.
All he did was complete 9-of-11 for 65 yards, hitting a diving Nelson near the front pylon from 3 yards out and 17 seconds left to tie the game at 24.
“We used the clock really well and didn’t give them any time at the end,” Rodgers said. “Mike dialed up a great play, a wrinkle we’d worked on. It kind of looks like something else we’ve been doing, and luckily I was able to fit it in.”
The Bengals won the overtime coin toss and took the ball, but the Packers’ defense immediately got it back to Rodgers with a three-and-out.
Two young defensive stars on the day, second-year linebacker Blake Martinez and rookie safety Josh Jones, made big tackles on Cincinnati’s OT series. The 78,323 at Lambeau were roaring as the defense completed a stretch of allowing the Bengals just three points on their last seven drives following two early touchdowns.
“Josh is a gifted young man,” McCarthy said of Jones, who had two sacks in the game and was credited with a team-high 12 tackles, one more than Martinez. “He definitely gives us more speed in there.”
From there another young star emerged on Green Bay’s ensuing overtime series, as second-year receiver Geronimo Allison got open deep down the sideline on third-and-10.
Rodgers had a free play with the Bengals jumping offside, and he hit Allison in stride. The former undrafted prospect from Illinois darted and weaved his way to 72 yards in all to get inside the Cincinnati 10, setting up Mason Crosby’s game-winning 27-yard chip shot.
On a day Randall Cobb (shoulder) sat out, the big play gave Allison his first career 100-yard game. He finished with six catches for 122, including two grabs that moved the chains on the late fourth-quarter drive.
“No surprise on Geronimo,” McCarthy said. “You could see it coming in preseason. He plays with a lot of confidence. He’s just a damn good football player."
“I wish he would have scored. Just kidding. He definitely has the trust of not only Aaron but the whole coaching staff and his teammates.”
The win improved the Packers to 2-1 and thrust them into an early three-way tie atop the NFC North with the Lions and Vikings.
More important, it proved what the Packers can overcome when things don’t go smoothly. Rodgers (28-of-42, 313 yards, 102.4 rating) was sacked six times, though not from the middle of the third quarter on.
Bengals QB Andy Dalton (21-of-27, 212 yards, two TDs, 124.1 rating) played mistake-free, receiver A.J. Green (10 catches, 111 yards, TD) proved tough to stop as expected, and Cincinnati was pounding the ball on the ground late with rookie running back Joe Mixon (18 carries, 62 yards).
The Packers caught a break with just over four minutes left when Mixon slipped in the backfield on third-and-1 from the Green Bay 27, and Dalton ate the ball on a busted play. The resulting field goal kept it a one-score game and gave Rodgers and Co. plenty of time to work with.
“We need to heal up, drink a lot of water, get a lot of sleep,” McCarthy said, referencing the upcoming Thursday night game against the Bears on a short week.
“It’s the NFL. We’re dealing with it. This is the path that’s been put in front of us. We took a step as a football team.”
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