GREEN BAY, Wis. — As if bearing the brunt of the call that ultimately led to the end of the NFL’s replacement officials wasn’t enough, Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers nearly had a big comeback win undone by a blunder from the regular refs.
Rodgers threw a go-ahead touchdown to Jordy Nelson in the fourth quarter, and the Packers shook off a week’s worth of controversy with a rally to beat the New Orleans Saints 28-27 on Sunday.
With Lambeau Field fans howling about what appeared to be yet another bad call — this time by the regular officials, not the replacements — Garrett Hartley missed a 48-yard field goal attempt with just under three minutes remaining that cost the Saints a shot at the lead.
“We’ve probably had to deal with more adversity than most of the teams I’ve played with, especially early on we’ve had some interesting games already,” Rodgers said. “We’re four games in. So, I think the character of this team is very strong. Winning games like this says a lot about the kind of men that we have.”
Rodgers threw for 319 yards with four touchdowns and an interception for the Packers (2-2).
“I’m very proud of our football team, especially the week we’ve endured,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “We talk a lot about integrity and character, and I thought today’s game had plenty of those types of situations where it showed up big.”
Drew Brees threw for 446 yards with three touchdowns for the winless Saints (0-4).
“It’s going to hurt when you lose a game like this,” Saints interim coach Aaron Kromer said. “But I will not let them get down. We are too close.”
Brees now has thrown at least one touchdown in 47 straight regular-season games, tying the NFL’s all-time mark set by Johnny Unitas.
“Yeah, it’s disappointing,” Brees said of the loss. “It stinks. But despite where we’re at, right now I think this team’s going to do something.”
With the win, the Packers were able to put Monday night’s controversial replacement official-driven loss at Seattle behind them. But even with the regular refs back this week, the Packers and their fans still nearly were dealt a crushing blow on a blown call.
After Rodgers’ touchdown to Nelson, Darren Sproles appeared to fumble the ensuing kickoff but officials ruled that he was down by contact. Replays showed that the ball clearly came out but the Packers were out of replay challenges, leaving Packers fans screaming at the officials for the second week in a row.
“You guys were all happy that the officials were back, and we tried to tell you that they’d still get booed,” Nelson said with a laugh.
Brees then led the Saints into field goal range, and Hartley hit a 43-yard attempt — but the Saints were called for holding, forcing Hartley to line up a 53-yarder. The Packers then were called for encroachment, leaving Hartley to try a 48-yarder and he missed it wide left.
It was a sigh of relief for the Packers, who spent most of the week in the middle of a nationwide firestorm after a last-second decision by replacement officials cost them a game at Seattle on Monday night. It was a burden for the Packers to bear, but likely played a significant role in the NFL agreeing to a deal with its regular officials during the week.
Referee Jeff Triplette struck a triumphant tone during the pregame coin toss Sunday, announcing that “it’s great to be back, gentlemen!” A handful of Packers fans came to the game dressed as officials, and some brought signs showing support for the regular refs.
The honeymoon didn’t last long. Fans howled for an offensive pass interference call after Brees threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to Marques Colston late in the first quarter, but no flag was forthcoming. With the Packers leading 21-14 in the third quarter, fans — and McCarthy — were on the officials again when McCarthy challenged a catch by Jimmy Graham but it wasn’t overturned.
A 20-yard field goal by Hartley cut the lead to 21-17 with 9:41 left in the third quarter. Rodgers responded with a drive but needed attention from the team’s training staff after getting poked in the eye on a face mask by New Orleans’ Malcolm Jenkins.
“I wanted to stay in the game — obviously, I don’t like coming out for anything,” Rodgers said. “Just didn’t have any depth perception immediately thereafter and so I figured we were a yard away and we could punch that thing in there. Unfortunately, didn’t happen.”
Rodgers came out of the game for one play and backup quarterback Graham Harrell came in — then tripped and fumbled as he tried to hand it off, allowing the Saints to get the ball. Brees then found Joseph Morgan wide open behind the defense for an 80-yard touchdown and a 24-21 lead.
Rodgers then threw an interception to Patrick Robinson and the Saints drove for a 27-yard field goal by Hartley to take a 27-21 lead with 13:04 remaining.
With the Packers trailing by 6, Rodgers threw an 11-yard strike to Nelson as the Saints’ Corey White tried to wrap his arms around the ball — briefly re-creating a scene eerily similar to the controversial game-ender in Seattle on Monday.
This time, though, Nelson clearly came away with the ball and spiked it emphatically.
NOTES: Packers S M.D. Jennings, who played a key role in the controversial play at Seattle, left the game with a shoulder injury. … Packers WR Greg Jennings caught a touchdown in the second quarter but later came out of the game. Jennings has been struggling to stay healthy with a groin injury.