GREEN BAY – The Packers rallied from 17 points down entering the fourth quarter for a wild 18-17 victory over the Saints in Sunday's home opener at Lambeau Field.
Here are five takeaways from the improbable triumph:
1. "It was like a nightmare that went to a dream."
Head Coach Matt LaFleur couldn't have described it any better, as seemingly nothing went right for three quarters before the Packers morphed into some unstoppable juggernaut.
"I've never been a part of something like that before," LaFleur said, "where it looked so bleak for" … so long, yeah.
Penalties bogged down the offense. Missed connections and miscommunications galore. A costly personal foul on defense contributed to New Orleans' opening points. The punt coverage broke down and allowed a touchdown return. A sack knocked the Packers out of field-goal range late in the first half, and an interception started the second half.
Then the ultimate letdown actually began the fourth quarter. With the Packers going for it on fourth-and-2, 13 yards from their first score, QB Jordan Love and running back Patrick Taylor weren't on the same page, and what appeared to be an easy pass for the first down sailed incomplete. The score still stood at 17-0.
"That was frustrating," Love said. "We put a great drive together, decided to go for it right there and came up emptyhanded. It definitely sucked, going back to the sideline after that one, but … nobody batted an eye."
2. And that's really the only explanation, that nobody quit.
"We had to go two-minute, and that's when we started making plays," LaFleur said.
"That whole fourth quarter was a blur."
What happened in that blur was a drive for a field goal, a three-and-out by the defense (with the help of a penalty and Rashan Gary sack), two defensive pass interference flags on the Saints worth 67 yards, a clutch 11-yard connection to rookie WR Jayden Reed on third-and-10 down to the 2, and then Love converting on fourth-and-goal with a zone-read keeper on which he dodged All-Pro linebacker Demario Davis at the goal line to score.
The aggressive call for a two-point conversion made the score 17-11, and it was game on.
"I felt the energy on the sidelines," LaFleur said. "Those guys, there's a belief."
The defense got another three-and-out, again with the help of a penalty, as the Saints' offense – with backup QB Jameis Winston in for starter Derek Carr, who injured a shoulder on one of Gary's three sacks – looked much like the Packers' offense did in the first half.
After the punt, Love & Co. were 80 yards from the go-ahead touchdown, and the QB himself sparked the drive with a 24-yard scramble up the far sideline, with the help of a great boundary block from a teammate. That got the ball across midfield, Reed made a diving grab down the seam for 30 yards into the red zone, and WR Romeo Doubs hauled in an 8-yard TD on a back-shoulder throw to put the Packers in front and sending the 78,043 Lambeau faithful into a frenzy.
"Those guys are special," Love said of Reed and Doubs. "They made some great plays when we needed it most. That's a credit to everybody. It wasn't perfect a lot of that game, but guys never flinched. They showed out, showed up and made plays at the end."
3. But the game still wasn't over.
With 2:56 left on their own 25, the Saints put together their only drive of substance in the second half. A 28-yard sideline completion from Winston to WR Chris Olave over CB Corey Ballentine – playing because Jaire Alexander (back) was out and rookie Carrington Valentine (bicep) left the game – helped get New Orleans into field-goal range.
But rookie kicker Blake Grupe missed wide right from 46 yards out with 1:05 left, and the Packers kneeled it out from there.
When it was all said and done, the Saints managed just five first downs in the second half shutout, and only four after Carr left. Gary had his first career three-sack game as the defense – and the entire team – redeemed itself from the fourth-quarter failure a week ago in Atlanta to somehow get to 2-1.
"There was never a doubt, right?" LaFleur said. "Not how you draw it up."
Asked about the defensive effort in the comeback, LaFleur's mind was still a blur.
"I was racking my brain trying to figure out how to get a first down most of the game," he conceded. "We really held them to 10 points (with seven coming via special teams). So, a lot of the credit goes to our defense today."
Check out photos from the Week 3 matchup between the Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints at Lambeau Field on Sunday, Sept. 24, 2023.
4. Unfortunately, the Packers continue to get banged up.
In addition to not having Alexander or Valentine, the defense also lost inside LB De'Vondre Campbell to an ankle injury in the first half.
On offense, WR Christian Watson (hamstring), RB Aaron Jones (hamstring), T David Bakhtiari (knee) and G Elgton Jenkins (knee) all missed the game, and T Zach Tom was reported to have a knee injury late in the game as well.
"When you look at that inactive list, you're like, 'There's a lot of big-time names on that list,'" LaFleur said. "But it doesn't matter because that's the National Football League and everybody's dealing with different things.
"The resiliency of that locker room was incredible. I have never seen anything like it. It's hard not to too emotional about it."
5. Can anybody get healthy for Thursday night vs. the Lions, and can all the mistakes get cleaned up on a short week?
LaFleur was making no promises in the health department, but there was hope in his comments that maybe some players can get back in the lineup. It's wait and see.
The miscues, particularly the 11 penalties for 90 yards and several blown opportunities in the passing game, can't be glossed over, either, especially with a division rival coming in and the early hold on first place in the NFC North on the line.
The comeback was incredibly uplifting, but most important piece to focus on is why the Packers were in such a bad spot in the first place.
"Everything," LaFleur said of what needs fixing. "There's a lot to correct.
"I would say (the comeback) does give you momentarily some momentum, but that all gets erased as soon as Thursday hits. It's (already) Wednesday in our world. We'll give them tomorrow to try to get their bodies back, and then it's a grind from here on out until Thursday. That's the way Thursday Night Football rolls."