Holding off what in all likelihood was Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre's final drive at Lambeau Field, the Packers hung on for a 28-24 victory over the Vikings as Favre came up 20 yards short of the potential game-winning touchdown in the final seconds.
"An excellent team win and an excellent character win," Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. "And it was definitely something that we needed."
That's for sure. The consecutive overtime defeats the past two weeks had dropped the Packers to 3-3, and as the former Green Bay legend drove Minnesota from its own 17 as far as the Packers' 15-yard line, it looked as though Favre might overcome his three second-half interceptions, pull off one last miracle in front of a sold-out Lambeau (71,107), and drop the Packers below .500 with their third straight last-second defeat.
But a false start followed by a facemask penalty on right tackle Phil Loadholt as he was trying to block linebacker Clay Matthews cost the Vikings 20 yards, pushing them all the way back to the 35. Ultimately, after replay correctly reversed a typical Favre rocket of a touchdown pass to Percy Harvin with 48 seconds left – Harvin's second foot was out of bounds in the back of the end zone – the game came down to two throws intended for Randy Moss on third and fourth downs from the 20.
But both sailed high and incomplete, out of the back of the end zone, and with a huge sigh of relief the Packers not only had beaten their former quarterback for the first time in three tries but had pulled into a first-place tie in the NFC North with the Chicago Bears at 4-3. Minnesota dropped to 2-4.
"All the stuff we've been going through, these guys show so much heart, so much dedication just to go out there and fight, fight fight 'til the end," safety Nick Collins said. "This team can battle through anything."
Including more injuries on defense, as if that even seemed possible. The Packers got Matthews back from his hamstring troubles but defensive end Cullen Jenkins strained a calf muscle during warm-ups about an hour before the game and couldn't play. On top of that, defensive end Ryan Pickett re-injured the ankle that forced him to sit out last week, and he was out again early on.
But the defense overcame all that and was able to slow down the Vikings after they got on a roll in the first half.
The Packers had grabbed a 14-7 lead on the strength of some big plays by receiver James Jones (four receptions, 107 yards), a 1-yard touchdown run by Brandon Jackson and a 9-yard TD catch by tight end Andrew Quarless. But the Packers had squandered other chances to score in the half, as quarterback Aaron Rodgers threw two interceptions in scoring territory, one to defensive end Jared Allen on a screen pass, and the other to safety Madieu Williams, who snagged a bullett into the end zone intended for Greg Jennings that had been deflected by cornerback Frank Walker.
In the meantime, Minnesota's big-play guys were starting to take over as the Vikings grabbed the lead by halftime.
Receiver Percy Harvin, who had 106 yards from scrimmage (65 receiving, 41 rushing), took an inside handoff and scored from 17 yards out for Minnesota's first touchdown, tying the game at 7. Then, running back Adrian Peterson (28 carries, 131 yards) scored from a yard out to tie the game at 14 and Ryan Longwell's 28-yard field goal gave Minnesota scores on three straight possessions for a 17-14 advantage.
But the Green Bay defense shifted the momentum back in a big way in the second half.
On Minnesota's first possession, linebacker A.J. Hawk intercepted Favre as he was being pressured from behind by linebacker Brad Jones. The offense took advantage of the turnover and drove 41 yards for the go-ahead score, as Rodgers (21-of-34, 295 yards, 2 TD, 2 INT, 84.8 rating) connected with Jennings from 14 yards out to make it 21-17.
Then just two snaps into the Vikings' next drive, Favre was trying to avoid pressure again as he threw a short pass right to linebacker Desmond Bishop, who returned the pick 32 yards. Suddenly, with two scores less than a minute apart, the Packers led 28-17.
"It's huge to get the momentum in a game," Hawk said. "We came out on fire as a defense (in the second half). They were really rolling against us, running the ball well, completing big third downs and scoring touchdowns, so we needed something, and luckily we got that.
"It's crazy how fast it can switch, though."
It did, as Favre and the Vikings answered with a 58-yard TD drive, capped by a 4-yard pass to Moss, to get within 28-24 with 4:12 left in the third quarter.
Strangely enough, there would be no more scoring in the game, but not for a lack of trying.
The Packers drove all the way to the Minnesota 34-yard line early in the fourth quarter, only to have running back John Kuhn stuffed on fourth-and-inches. Then the Vikings countered by getting all the way to the Green Bay 35, but Collins made an incredibly athletic play, jumping over and around Harvin to intercept a third-down pass for Favre's third interception in a span of four drives.
Taking over with 9:18 left, Green Bay could only kill three minutes on the clock and punted, with Minnesota taking over on its own 17 for what turned out to be the final, nail-biting possession.
"Obviously it was a gut-check time," said cornerback Tramon Williams, who was the primary reason Moss had just three catches for 30 yards on the night. "We'd pretty much been in this situation all year and been coming up on the short end of the stick."
But not this time. After Favre's final two heaves to Moss were no good, he was left with numbers (16-of-29, 212 yards, 1 TD, 3 INT, 50.4 rating) that paled in comparison those from last year against Green Bay, when he threw seven TDs with no picks, torching the Packers in two big victories.
The Packers had come so agonizingly close to victories the past two weeks, but this time it was their opponent who was left to lament what might have been.
"We knew it was going to be a grinder, character, gut-it-out type of performance and our guys stepped up big," McCarthy said. "I was very, very proud of those guys today."
As Collins said, the players were proud of each other, too, and rightly so after what the team has been through.
"We all have the intestinal fortitude to pull these games out," nose tackle B.J. Raji said. "Early in the season it didn't go our way. Tonight it did.
"This was a long time coming. I'm glad we got this one. Hopefully we can continue this like we did last year get on a roll."