Scary thought: Packers are better
By Ed Gene Wojciechowski, ESPN
~GREEN BAY, Wis. — First of all, there was no way the Green Bay Packers were going to lose to the New Orleans Saints on Thursday evening.
Not at Lambeau Field. Not on a night when their 2010 Super Bowl championship sign was unveiled. Not when 70,000-plus Green Bay fans serenaded their team with “Roll Out The Barrel” as the Pack rolled up 42 points and then rolled up Saints rookie running back Mark Ingram at the goal line on the game’s final play.
The defensive stand preserved the Packers’ eight-point win and also sent a chilling reminder to the rest of the league that Green Bay still has a chip on its shoulder pads. You could hear it in Aaron Rodgers’ voice after the game, when he mocked/teased anyone — fans, media, the Twitterati — who questioned the Packers’ lack of player-organized workouts during the lockout.
“It was a good start for us,” he said, straight-faced. But wait for it …
“I’ve just got to ask myself, ‘What would have happened if we had offseason workouts? Could we have started any faster and scored more points tonight?'”
The answer is no. The Packers scored touchdowns on each of their three first-quarter possessions. They scored in every quarter. For a while there, I thought Green Bay punter Tim Masthay was nothing more than a rumor.
But the Saints recovered in time to make it a game and make the Packers perspire. Together the two teams combined for 76 points and 876 total yards. And had Ingram scored from the 1-yard line and the Saints made a two-point conversion …
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bit worried,” said Packers nose tackle B.J. Raji.
Relax. There’s no shame in outscoring Drew Brees’ Saints. The Saints are going to put up forehead-slapping numbers all season. But so are the Packers.
In case you’re wondering whether the Packers are better this season than last, they are. And those concerns about a Super Bowl hangover? Forget it. The Packers must have taken a couple of aspirin and chowed down on some White Castle sliders after they partied in February.
The Packers scored so often and so easily Thursday, they nearly broke a 92-year-old team record for most points in a season opener. The only Packer not to do the Lambeau Leap was Vince Lombardi’s statue. Otherwise, it looked like a high-jump competition.
So efficient were the Packers that the press-box announcer seemed almost stunned when Green Bay didn’t record a first down at will. When a Rodgers pass completion came up short of a first down, the announced called it one anyway. Then, sheepishly, he said, “Excuse me, third-and-2.”
Apology not necessary.
The 2011 version of the Packers is better than the 2010 version because of a rookie wide receiver (Randall Cobb) who somehow lasted until the 64th pick. They’re better because of a backup second-year running back (James Starks) who runs like he’s the starter. They’re better because the starting running back (Ryan Grant) and the matchup-nightmare starting tight end (Jermichael Finley) are both back from injuries.
But as always, the Packers are better because Rodgers has somehow improved from a season ago. He completed a handful of passes Thursday night that defied logic — and the outstretched hands and arms of Saints defenders. His totals: 27 of 35 attempts for 312 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions.
“He has set the standard, and he’s off to a great start,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said.
When the Saints blitzed, Rogers picked them apart like meat from a chicken wing. When they didn’t blitz, he stood in the pocket, surveyed the field, thought about offseason workouts, wondered if he’d locked his car, read the latest Grisham novel and then hit nine different receivers for completions. It was surgical.
“A-Rod obviously threw for a zillion yards,” Raji said.
Brees had 419 yards and three scores of his own. But Brees had to work for his. Rodgers made it look like he was throwing against stick figures.
The Packers don’t want to be Super Bowl one-and-dones. They have an offense that will easily surpass their 2010 scoring average of 24.25 points. And yeah, the defense gave up 477 yards and those 34 Saints points, but it also stopped fourth-down attempts at the Green Bay 7 and the Green Bay 1.
And now they have Cobb, whose draft-day selection caused veteran Packers wide receiver Greg Jennings to do a double take.
“I was actually kind of shocked,” Jennings said. “I think Aaron was shocked as well.”
So were the Saints on Thursday night. Cobb’s first official NFL touchdown reception came on a botched route. His second TD came on a kickoff he never should have returned. Just think how good he’ll be when he does what he’s supposed to do.
Ask this year’s Packers whether they can outdo last year’s Packers and the response is unanimous.
“Absolutely,” said linebacker Clay Matthews, one of the first to pop Ingram at the goal line on the final play.
“I think we’re hungry again,” said cornerback Charles Woodson. “I think we will be better.”
The Packers and Saints opened the regular season with a game to remember, and they could end the NFC playoffs with one, too. I picked them to play for the conference championship and I’m not alone.
“I’m quite sure of it,” said Woodson of a New Orleans-Green Bay playoff scenario. “We’ll see them again. … It very well could happen.”
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