GREEN BAY — The magnitude of the Green Bay Packers’ task Sunday at Lambeau Field became evident to quarterback Aaron Rodgers when he looked around the locker room before the game and wondered where everyone was.
The injury situation wasn’t a complete surprise, but among the players on the inactive list were stalwarts Mike Daniels, Nick Perry, Davon House, David Bakhtiari and Randall Cobb.
Rodgers’ reaction? “Man, there’s some studs not playing.”
By halftime, when the Packers were booed off the field by their home crowd, many were wondering if the rest of the team hadn’t bothered to show up, either. As they trudged to the locker room, the Packers trailed the winless Cincinnati Bengals by two touchdowns and had very little going for them.
They were without seven key players due to injury. They were playing a desperate Bengals team. Rodgers had thrown a rare pick-six. There was no running game to speak of. The pass protection was leaking. The Bengals were making the pass defense, which had rookie backs Kevin King and Josh Jones playing major roles for the first time, look utterly clueless. It was 89 degrees on the field, the hottest home game in Packers history. And they had a Thursday night game against the Chicago Bears staring them in the face.
For those reasons, it was an early season pivot point for the Packers. They could have continued down the same path in the second half and watched their record drop to 1-2, which would have meant still another slow start under coach Mike McCarthy. Or they could regroup, forget about their injury misfortune and put up the kind of fight that they always do later in the season.
To the delight of the Lambeau, um, faithful, the Packers chose the latter route, putting together a dominant second half, overcoming the 21-7 halftime deficit and watching Rodgers take over at the end for a 27-24 overtime victory that likely will reverberate well into January.
“That’s a character win, 100 percent,” Rodgers said.
The late-game highlights will be remembered far longer than the occasionally gory details.
Rodgers capping a 12-play, 75-yard touchdown drive by throwing a 3-yard laser to wide receiver Jordy Nelson with 17 seconds left to send the game into overtime. The defense getting off on the right foot in overtime when linebacker Blake Martinez steamrolled halfback Joe Mixon for a 2-yard loss on the first play, leading to a three-and-out by Cincinnati. And finally Rodgers, the master of the free play, drawing the Bengals offsides and finding wide receiver Geronimo Allison for a 72-yard catch-and-run that set up Mason Crosby’s winning field goal.
“It didn’t always look like a win today, especially in the second quarter, but I think this team took a big step forward in confidence and believing in themselves,” Rodgers said.
“We got some new guys into the mix that haven’t been around. This is good for them to see it’s never over until it’s over.”
It would have been so easy for the Packers to call it a day well before that comeback began. Banged up and playing poorly, they could have turned their attention to the Bears at any point. That’s not what happened, though, and they somehow turned it into an impressive victory.
True, the Bengals aren’t the team that earned five straight playoff bids from 2011 to 2015 and their offensive failures — they didn’t score a touchdown in their first two games — caused them to fire their offensive coordinator after dropping to 0-2. But the Bengals were good enough Sunday to teach the Packers a valuable lesson going forward.
When you have injury woes and you’re playing catch-up against a motivated team, style points no longer matter. Figure out a way to move the ball. Play 100 miles per hour on defense. Have confidence in your young talent to get the job done. And don’t let minor setbacks dent your resolve.
“That’s a sign here of something building,” Crosby said. “You just find a way to win. It doesn’t always look pretty, but that was a gusty second-half performance and then you win the game in overtime.”
That’s what Super Bowl teams do. They have days when nothing seems to go right and they still come out on top. They survive and advance to the next game.
“We had kind of a rallying cry at the beginning of the season, it’s just no excuses,” Rodgers said. “The guys that are out there are expected to play and play well, and I’m expected to play and play well. So we’ve got to dig deep sometimes and push through some adversity.”
The Packers did that Sunday, outgaining the Bengals 266-108 and outscoring them 20-3 after halftime.
“It’s huge,” linebacker Clay Matthews said. “I’m sure everyone would have loved to have the game gone a different way and we’re accustomed to not being down by that much, but I think you can take something away from this. Especially to play for four quarters and then some, I think it speaks volumes about this team and hopefully the resolve and finishing (ability) that we have.
“But it’s a lot better to come out on the winning side of this because it very easily could have gone the other way.”
It didn’t, though, and that bodes well for the Packers because Thursday’s game against the Bears doesn’t figure to be much different.