GREEN BAY, Wis. — Quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers got their bid to repeat as Super Bowl champions off to a stylish beginning, although just barely. Rodgers threw three touchdown passes and the Packers got a record-tying kickoff return by Randall Cobb on their way to beating the New Orleans Saints, 42-34, here Thursday night in the NFL’s season-opening game.
The Saints were stopped at the Green Bay 1-yard line on the game’s final play as they tried for a tying touchdown and potential two-point conversation. Rookie running back Mark Ingram was tackled shy of the goal line after a pass-interference penalty in the end zone had given the Saints a last play with no time on the clock.
“It’s tough when you do make it all the way down there and you aren’t able to punch it in. . . . They stopped us so you have to give them credit,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said.
Rodgers and the Packers were back at it seven months after ending the 2010 season with confetti raining down on them in Arlington, Tex., following their triumph over the Pittsburgh Steelers on the sport’s biggest stage. Rodgers had a sizzling start and threw all of his touchdown passes in the first quarter. He finished with 312 passing yards on 27-of-35 throwing accuracy.
“It was a good start for us,” Rodgers said. “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?”
Cobb, a wide receiver, had a touchdown catch and added a third-quarter touchdown on a 108-yard kickoff return, matching the longest kickoff return in NFL history. The night included plenty of touchbacks on kickoffs, but Cobb’s end-to-end sprint made a case that the kickoff return hasn’t been eliminated by the NFL’s new safety rules.
The Saints couldn’t quite keep up in this intriguing matchup of the past two Super Bowl champions. Brees threw for three touchdowns in a 32-for-49, 419-yard passing performance, and Darren Sproles had a second-quarter touchdown on a punt return. But the Saints had a few second-half offensive failures deep in Green Bay territory, and their defense couldn’t slow down the Packers’ offense.
“We had a chance at the end to at least tie it,” Brees said. “But you look at a lot of things along the way that it didn’t have to come down to that.”
Brees’s five-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jimmy Graham with just more than two minutes left got the Saints to within eight points. The Packers failed to run out the clock after recovering an onside kick, and Brees moved the Saints down the field to set up the final sequence.
With the ball at the Green Bay 9, Brees’s spike stopped the clock with three seconds remaining. His pass into the end zone for Sproles fell incomplete but Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk was called for interference.
“We never thought we were out of it,” Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “We kept fighting. When you have Drew Brees as your quarterback, you always have a chance. We came that close. We just didn’t come out with a win.”
The mood was celebratory and the anticipation was high in this most uniquely charming of all pro-sports towns as game time neared Thursday. Traffic around Lambeau Field was snarled by early in the afternoon and crowds gathered for the pregame concert staged by the NFL. People with houses near the stadium waved cars onto their well-maintained front lawns, mostly charging $20 or $25 for the close-by parking.
Rodgers connected on his first seven passes before his first incompletion came on a throw-away to avoid a sack. He completed 14 of 15 first-quarter passes for 188 yards and three touchdowns.
“We were on those guys left and right,” Saints safety Roman Harper said. “They made some back-shoulder throws, some throws into tight windows. You have to tip your cap to them. It was a shootout. As a defensive player, you don’t like that. But it was a hard-fought game.”
The Saints had no answers in the game’s early going. Rodgers completed all five of his passes on the game’s opening drive, finishing with a seven-yard touchdown to wide receiver Greg Jennings.
Wide receiver Marques Colston lost a fumble after a catch on the Saints’ first possession, and Rodgers’s three-yard touchdown to wideout Jordy Nelson upped Green Bay’s lead to 14-0. Brees had a swift reply, throwing a 31-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Robert Meachem. But Rodgers’s breathtaking display of passing accuracy continued, as he found Cobb for a 32-yard touchdown.
“We knew we could fight our way back,” Brees said. “We knew we’d get all the emotion early form them.”
Rodgers had a few stumbles in the second quarter, even overthrowing a deep pass when he had Nelson open for a potential touchdown, and the Saints climbed back into the game. Kicker John Kasay provided a 30-yard field goal and Sproles, added by the Saints as a replacement for departed running back Reggie Bush, showed his big-play capability with a 72-yard touchdown on a punt return. He sprinted up the middle of the field after settling under a 52-yard punt by the Packers’ Tim Masthay, then cut to his left and easily outraced Masthay to the end zone.
The Packers steadied themselves with a 17-yard touchdown run by tailback James Starks in the final two minutes of the first half and led, 28-17, at the intermission. Brees led the Saints to the Green Bay 7-yard line on the opening possession of the second half, but he was sacked on third down and New Orleans had to settle for a 38-yard field goal by Kasay.
The preseason was filled with criticism, some of it by players and coaches, that kickoffs had become too boring after the NFL made offseason rule changes to try to make the play safer — in part by liming the number of kickoffs that are returned. But Cobb wasn’t interested in a touchback after fielding Thomas Morstead’s kickoff eight yards deep in the end zone. He nearly was dropped to the turf just outside his own 20-yard line, but managed to stay on his feet after a spin move and dashed to the opposite end zone.
Sproles followed with a 57-yard kickoff return for the Saints, leading to Brees’s 29-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Devery Henderson. The Saints got the ball back on a punt but failed on a fourth-and-one gamble at the Packers 7. Green Bay capitalized with a one-yard touchdown run by fullback John Kuhn just more than three minutes into the fourth quarter.