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Mike Spofford

Mike Spofford has worked as a sportswriter in Wisconsin since 1995 and has been a packers.com staff writer since 2006. He has covered the Packers' last two Super Bowl appearances, XXXII and XLV.

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Defense held when it counted most

Posted Sep 8, 2011

The Packers and Saints combined for 876 total yards on Thursday night, yet, the game came down to two yards New Orleans couldn’t get.

Green Bay hung on for a 42-34 victory in the 2011 season-opener at Lambeau Field when Saints running back Mark Ingram was stuffed at the goal line on an untimed down to end the game.

Earlier, near the end of the third quarter and facing a similar eight-point deficit, the Saints failed to convert a fourth-and-1 from the Green Bay 7-yard line when quarterback Drew Brees was flushed out of the pocket and threw incomplete.

“You have to find a way to win the game and get the big stops,” linebacker A.J. Hawk said. “If you’re not making those stops when you have to, you’re not going to have a chance.”

The final stop was needed because, trailing 42-27 with 5:35 left, Brees and the Saints caught fire. A 5-yard TD pass to tight end Jimmy Graham got New Orleans within one score with 2:15 left, and the Packers – despite an explosive night on offense of their own – couldn’t run out the clock.

A three-and-out gave the Saints one last shot from their own 20 with 1:08 left. On what appeared would be the final play, Hawk leaped over running back Darren Sproles in the end zone to bat the pass away. Hawk was called for pass-interference, though, giving the Saints an untimed down from the 1-yard line, and Ingram never got close as linebacker Desmond Bishop leaped over the pile, linebacker Clay Matthews got the first hit, and safety Morgan Burnett and a host of others cleaned up.

“I knew we were there because of me, so I wanted to stop them more than anybody,” Hawk said. “Me and ‘Bish’ went over the top and the D-line did an awesome job getting a ton of push to move the line of scrimmage. The whole team was in on that. Clay hit him. A bunch of guys hit him.”

The goal-line stand concluded an aerial bonanza that saw Brees and Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers combine for 59 completions, 85 pass attempts, 731 yards and six TDs. Brees passed for 419 yards, third-most in stadium history, and both gunslingers threw for three scores. Eight receivers totaled at least 50 yards each, including five for the Saints, with Devery Henderson hitting exactly 100 yards. Greg Jennings led the Packers with seven catches for 89 yards and a TD.

“Aaron Rodgers is back,” Jennings said of his quarterback, whose 132.1 passer rating was better than Brees’ 112.5. “Man, we can be a special offense, definitely.”

Both teams also scored on returns, with Sproles taking a punt back 72 yards in the second quarter, and Packers rookie receiver Randall Cobb countering with a 108-yard kickoff return in the third. Cobb’s return was a franchise record and tied the NFL’s all-time record as well.

Cobb, who added a 32-yard TD reception in his NFL debut, gave the Packers a 35-20 lead with his record-breaking return before New Orleans mounted its first comeback. A three-play TD drive followed by a Packers three-and-out and another drive to the Green Bay 7 put the Saints in position to tie – with a score and two-point play – a game they trailed from the opening possession.

But after defensive linemen Jarius Wynn and Howard Green stopped Ingram on third-and-1, Brees went to play-action on fourth down. Chased out of the pocket by Matthews and Wynn, Brees had nowhere to go with the ball and a major scoring opportunity was wasted with 3:02 left in the third quarter.

“That’s a do-or-die play there, and we got off the field,” Matthews said. “We gave up too many yards, too many points, but we made the plays when they counted.”

Taking over at the 7 and leading 35-27, the Packers put together perhaps their most impressive drive of the night, going 93 yards and not even facing a third down until fullback John Kuhn plunged in from the 1 to restore the two-touchdown advantage.

Green Bay’s ground game also produced a rushing score by James Starks, as Starks and Ryan Grant combined for 97 yards on 21 carries, a healthy 4.6-yard average.

The Packers couldn’t grind out one more first down when they had to have it in the final two minutes, though, leading to the clock-at-zero drama.

“Anytime you win a game, you’ll take it,” Matthews said, “whether it’s ugly or not.”

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