GREEN BAY – Only about 10 minutes after he and his unproductive offense were loudly booed by the home crowd to end regulation, Brett Hundley ran off Lambeau Field with a wide grin, raising his arms up to the suddenly cheering fans, celebrating the Packers’ surprising, ugly but much-needed win Sunday over the Buccaneers.
It wasn’t pretty – not at all, and especially not in the sputtering second half – but Green Bay prevailed, 26-20, against Tampa Bay in overtime, evening its record at 6-6 and preserving its faint playoff hopes, as it gets one week closer to a possible Aaron Rodgers return.
On his very first carry of the afternoon, rookie running back Aaron Jones scored the game-winning touchdown, a 20-yard scamper and dive into the end zone on the opening drive of overtime.
"Do something," Jones said when asked what was going through his mind before the final play, which was his first touch. "It was my first carry. Make the most of it because Jamaal was hot, so I probably wouldn’t have got another carry after that."
Green Bay won with defense, special teams and its rushing offense. Certainly, they didn’t win with Hundley’s right arm, as the quarterback – in his sixth career start and coming off his best performance last week at Pittsburgh – completed 13 of 22 passes for just 84 yards with an interception and a 48.3 rating. The 84 passing yards were the fewest in a Packers win since 1994.
(Listen to in-depth Packers discussion on this week's episode of OnMilwaukee's Postgame Tailgate podcast here.)
But Green Bay had a relentless pass rush, blocked a punt and scored a defensive touchdown. The Packers recorded seven sacks – one short of the team record – and defensive end Dean Lowry returned a fumble 62 yards for a touchdown in the first half. That was after a second-quarter score by running back Jamaal Williams and in addition to kicker Mason Crosby’s two converted field goals.
The Packers needed all those points to stay in the game, because they couldn’t do anything offensive in the second half. On four of five second-half possessions, Green Bay went three-and-out, including on the final series of regulation, when it was booed off the field for its failure. All told, the Packers ran just 53 plays to Tampa Bay’s 74, were outgained 395 total yards to 276 and had the ball for 11 fewer minutes (37:17 to 26:44 in time of possession). But the turnover battle was even, with one giveaway each, and Green Bay gained nearly 200 yards on the ground.
"I would definitely classify that as a grind-it-out victory," said head coach Mike McCarthy. "By no means was that a pretty victory, but these are great moments of adversity. Just the way we slugged it out, we’ll be a better football team moving forward because of what we accomplished here today."
McCarthy insisted that the grind-it-out win was good for the confidence of his football team, and said that it also was a character-defining game. The Packers wouldn’t prefer it to be this way, but Sunday’s performance was probably the formula for how they can (sometimes) win without Rodgers: run the ball, minimize mistakes on offense, win the field-position battle and get positive contributions from special teams, and make some impactful big plays on defense.
Though Hundley wasn’t able to throw the ball downfield – his longest completion was 14 yards – the Packers were successful utilizing the read-option on offense. Williams had 21 carries for 113 yards, while Hundley rushed seven times for 66 yards, both of which were career-highs.
"I think it helps the offense a lot," Williams said of the importance of establishing the run. "It takes the pressure off of Brett and just lets him know he don’t got to do it all by himself. And let him know we’re here to help him; we’re here to make his job easier a little bit more. So, you know, running the ball … as long as we get 4 or 5 yards each time, we’re in good shape."
"This game is about finding those certain ways to win," Hundley said, adding that he didn’t hear the crowd booing. On Green Bay’s winning drive in overtime, he had two incompletions but scrambled twice for 25 yards, appearing determined to win the game with his legs when he knew he couldn’t do it with his arm.
When asked afterward about throwing for just 84 yards, Hundley was untroubled.
"I’m fine with it. If we win (the game), I’ll throw for 50 yards," he said. "The name of the game is winning, and that’s all that it comes down to."
It was just the Packers’ second win in the seven games since Rodgers broke his collarbone on Oct. 15. Their goal remains to win out, get Rodgers back for Week 15 in Carolina and push to make the playoffs. They took a small but important step forward on Sunday. Let’s take a look back at it now.
With respect to Williams, who mustered the only offense the Packers had, this week’s honor has to go to the pass rush. Green Bay’s front seven was superb, led by defensive linemen Kenny Clark, Mike Daniels and Lowry, along with linebackers Clay Matthews, Blake Martinez and Jake Ryan.
Matthews broke out, finally, with a season-high 2.5 sacks, with Clark adding another two and Ryan, Lowry and Daniels combining for 2.5 more. Martinez was all over the field, once again leading the Packers in tackles with 12, and Lowry’s fumble return was the game’s biggest play. Green Bay needed its defense to step up on Sunday, and it did.
"Anytime you can score on defense and also, the offense was slow a little bit in the first half, I think it showed that we can put points on the board too," Lowry said. "So, that’s always our mentality is to, when the opportunity is there, to make that play and score. That was just an example of that, and that was a big play in the game."
Hundley. There’s really no way around it, and he still did an admirable job managing the offense and scrambling for gains. But, unlike last week against the Steelers, Hundley didn’t show any willingness or ability to take shots down the field – or he was constrained by his coaches. His 13 completions and 3.82 yards per attempt were his fewest since his first start five weeks ago, and the Buccaneers have the NFL’s worst pass defense. Assuming other teams load the box to stop Green Bay’s running game the way Tampa Bay did in the second half Sunday, Hundley will have to prove he can win through the air.
"For me right now, it’s just finding consistency in what I do and it’s finding a way to win," Hundley said. "This game isn’t about throwing four touchdowns or running for 100 yards as a quarterback every week, but sometimes you’ve got to do it, and it’s just finding those certain ways to win in given situations.
For me just getting more experience, this is a game that’s going to help me down the road as well, when the passing offense isn’t going as well as we want it to but running the ball is, and it’s those type of things for me that allow me to get more comfortable and just believe in what I can do."
There was a game plan, and the Packers stuck with it, committing to the run and reducing Hundley’s exposure. McCarthy didn’t seem to trust Hundley, again sticking with highly conservative playcalling, but Hundley’s poor play also suggested that might have been the right strategy. Without its superstar leader, Green Bay needs to find new, different and unconventional ways to win. On Sunday, McCarthy’s team did that.
"We came out of halftime, (wanting) to run the football," McCarthy said. "The three-and- outs held us back. You look at the play totals, I think we were minus 20, 21 plays compared to where they were. We have to get opportunities. We need more attempts at the plate to run the football and to get to some of the reaction things that we have up.
"That’s why you plan, that’s why we practice, but at the end of the day, you have to do whatever you have to do to win. When you go and win a game at a critical time with your basics, the base things – that was kind of something that we talked about as a football team, just getting back to basics, relying on the fundamentals and the techniques, and when it counts. The scoring run was probably a play that you put in on day one. That’s our approach and that’s the path we’re going moving forward."
"My wife's been rubbing it down. She got me better – and the training staff, too." – Brett Hundley on getting over his recent hamstring injury
This might have been the defense’s best performance of the season. Tampa Bay’s 20 points were the fewest the Packers have allowed to a team other than Chicago since Week 1, and while they gave up 395 yards, that’s a bit misleading, since the defense was on the field an inordinately long time. Green Bay’s dormant pass rush finally woke up, and next week it gets to face Cleveland’s last-ranked scoring offense.
After the game, safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix acknowledged that the Packers haven't covered screen passes very well – Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston threw for 270 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions, using short passes to the flat to open up longer throws downfield – but he said, "As a whole, I think we got out and stopped the plays when we needed to stop them."
Built into Hundley’s quarterbacking struggles, Jordy Nelson has practically disappeared as a dynamic deep threat. The veteran wide receiver had five catches for just 17 yards against the Buccaneers, and he hasn’t gone over 35 yards since Hundley took over as the starter. Davante Adams has taken over as the primary playmaker, but the team needs Nelson stretching the field, and Nelson needs Hundley to get him the ball.
Afterward, McCarthy downplayed the idea of a diminished role for Nelson. "I think if you look at the way they were playing, they were rolling the coverage, rolling the safety there, particularly, towards Davante," McCarthy said. "It was more of just the way the reads and progressions came about."
It’s Browns week, baby! Green Bay plays at winless Cleveland on Sunday (noon on FOX), before traveling to Carolina in Week 15 to play the Panthers on Dec. 17, when the Packers hope Rodgers will return to action. At 6-6, Green Bay is tied with Detroit for second place in the NFC North behind Minnesota, with their final two games of the season against the Vikings and Lions.
Born in Milwaukee but a product of Shorewood High School (go ‘Hounds!) and Northwestern University (go ‘Cats!), Jimmy never knew the schoolboy bliss of cheering for a winning football, basketball or baseball team. So he ditched being a fan in order to cover sports professionally - occasionally objectively, always passionately. He's lived in Chicago, New York and Dallas, but now resides again in his beloved Brew City and is an ardent attacker of the notorious Milwaukee Inferiority Complex.
After interning at print publications like Birds and Blooms (official motto: "America's #1 backyard birding and gardening magazine!"), Sports Illustrated (unofficial motto: "Subscribe and save up to 90% off the cover price!") and The Dallas Morning News (a newspaper!), Jimmy worked for web outlets like CBSSports.com, where he was a Packers beat reporter, and FOX Sports Wisconsin, where he managed digital content. He's a proponent and frequent user of em dashes, parenthetical asides, descriptive appositives and, really, anything that makes his sentences longer and more needlessly complex.
Jimmy appreciates references to late '90s Brewers and Bucks players and is the curator of the unofficial John Jaha Hall of Fame. He also enjoys running, biking and soccer, but isn't too annoying about them. He writes about sports - both mainstream and unconventional - and non-sports, including history, music, food, art and even golf (just kidding!), and welcomes reader suggestions for off-the-beaten-path story ideas.