Short-handed Packers pull together, topple NFL's last unbeaten team in Arizona

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Aaron Rodgers wasn’t interested in faking it. In a league where coaches and players hide their excitement behind a worn veil of detachment — one week at a time, one game at a time — the Packers’ star quarterback openly acknowledged how he is taking in each victory, the most recent being Thursday’s 24-21 defeat of the Cardinals in a showdown between NFC powers.

“I enjoy the hell out of them, I really do,” he said in a cramped media gathering at State Farm Stadium. “I adjusted my perspective last year and did some things off the field that put me in a really good head space, and I’ve just really been enjoying life and football at a whole new level. I just have a greater appreciation for moments like this, a greater connectedness to my teammates. I told them in the locker room after the game to just savor these moments because these are the type of things you think about and talk about 20 years from now when you’re done playing — the special locker room celebrations, the elation on the sideline after a big play that seals the game. There is nothing like this game.”

Onlookers might be hard-pressed to find an ending more bizarre than Thursday’s. Trailing by three and 15 seconds left to play, the Cardinals had the ball at the Green Bay 5-yard line. A field goal to force overtime was a virtual fait accompli, but Arizona decided to take a shot at the touchdown — which is where things went haywire.

According to one source familiar with the sequence, coach Kliff Kingsbury called for a pass play to the left but quarterback Kyler Murray saw a more favorable matchup to the right, where veteran A.J. Green was one-on-one with journeyman cornerback Rasul Douglas. Murray then signaled for a back-shoulder fade to Green but, the source said, Green did not see change and failed to turn around while the ball was in the air, believing the pass was going to the other side of the formation.

Douglas deflected the pass with one hand, then then pulled it in before stepping out of bounds for his first interception since Dec. 30, 2018.

“I honestly don’t know — miscommunication,” Murray said when asked what happened. “I couldn’t tell you, but we’ve just got to be better.”

Added Kingsbury: “Miscommunication, obviously. I mean, we feel like it’s a safe throw if he knew the route to run. No question. … It was the right place to go with the ball. Just didn’t communicate on some level and then the guy made a good play.”

The loss ended the Cardinals’ rein as the league’s last unbeaten team and left them tied with Green Bay (7-1), Tampa Bay (6-1) and Dallas (5-1) for fewest losses in the league. They knew going in it was a statement game for them in the sense that some were questioning their viability as an NFC power. Those doubters are likely to remain, although Arizona repeatedly made a game of it on a night when so many things were going wrong.

They committed three turnovers which resulted in 10 points. They were held to four plays or fewer on four of their first five offensive possessions. Star wideout DeAndre Hopkins was in and out of the lineup (mostly out) because of a strained hamstring, and a couple of other regulars went down to injury in the game.

Through much of the first two-plus quarters they they could not find a rhythm offensively because the Packers, aware that Murray was a significant threat with his legs as much as his arm, played a lot of umbrella coverages in the secondary and had their ends rush conservatively upfield in passing situations. When Murray did attempt to run up the middle, the ends and linebackers typically closed quickly, limiting his ability to make yards.

But Murray found his way in the third quarter, after the Packers went up 17-7. He drove the unit 81 yards in 12 plays, with James Conner scoring from the 2-yard line. And after Rodgers answered with a 91-yard drive that culminated with his second touchdown pass to Randall Cobb, Murray responded with a 75-yard drive that ended with another Conner touchdown run, this one from 9 yards out to make it 24-21.

The Packers appeared to go up by two scores late in the fourth quarter, when officials called a 1-yard touchdown run by Aaron Jones. But the call was reversed upon review for no gain, which was followed by another rush for no gain, a delay penalty, a Rodgers rush to the 1-yard line and finally a batted pass on fourth down.

That set the stage for Murray, who began the night as a front-running MVP candidate. He had completions of 23 and 29 yards and ultimately took the Cardinals from their own 1 to the Green Bay 5. But that only set the stage for heartbreak, putting an end to their seven-game winning streak and hopes of an undefeated season.

“As far as the undefeated season, yeah, I think it’s a thing that you think about but you’re going to face adversity,” said Murray, who was 22 of 33 for 274 yards and no touchdowns, with two interceptions and 21 yards on six carries. “This is the NFL. We knew it would come at some point. We fought the whole game. We just came up short. If we make the last play, we’re not talking about this. It is what it is.”

From the Packers side, there was a lot of talk about perspective. The team has faced moments of adversity throughout the season, both real and manufactured, yet they have fought through it. Consider:

  • A 38-3 Week 1 loss to the Saints prompted national discussions about whether the offseason turmoil with Rodgers staying away from the team was a distraction that had lingered into the season. Answer: Seven consecutive wins.
  • At Cincinnati, Mason Crosby missed three consecutive field goals after making a franchise-record 27 in a row. All were in the final three minutes of regulation or overtime, with two being potential walk-offs. Result: He got one more try thanks to the play of the offense and defense and kicked the game-winner.

And yet nothing rivaled Thursday night, where they were facing an undefeated team on the road — in a short week — without their top three wide receivers, defensive coordinator, starting left tackle, and two talented cornerbacks. Result: They refused to blink or buckle.

Perspective? Listen to Douglas, a 2017 third-round pick of the Eagles who had bounced around the league, spending one year with Carolina and never making the active roster with Las Vegas, Houston or Arizona. It is the type of journey that will test a man’s will and conviction, which explains why Douglas used the word “blessed” to describe his interception.

“I’ve been in the league five years and had never been on a practice squad before,” he said. “You feel like you’re working for nothing, kind of. Then you get a call from somewhere else. So I’m just thankful.”

Perspective? Listen to Rodgers, who knew the team needed to control the clock and run the ball to limit Murray’s opportunities. The Packers wound up with 151 yards on 34 carries, one week after gaining just 57 yards on 15 carries. There were struggles in the passing game without Davante Adams, Allen Lazard and Marquez Valdes-Scantling, but enough plays were made to keep the Green Bay on track for possibly a third consecutive trip to the NFC Championship Game.

“Every year is so different,” said Rodgers, who was 22 of 37 for 184 yards and two touchdowns with no turnovers. “You never know how the team is going to come together and the chemistry and the relationships and guys stepping up and dealing with injuries and all the adversity. We have a good group of guys. It’s a different feeling to the team even from the last couple of years. I’m not sure how it’s going to finish up, but I like the energy that we have in the locker room.”

FollowJim Trotteron Twitter.

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