GREEN BAY — It would be nice if Brett Hundley’s arrow kept pointing up, if the Green Bay Packers’ fledgling quarterback would get better each and every week he starts in place of the injured Aaron Rodgers.
It wouldn’t be realistic, though.
One week after an encouraging performance against Pittsburgh’s rugged defense, Hundley failed Sunday to complete a single pass down the field against Tampa Bay’s defense, which statistically is the worst in the NFL. But that’s all part of the maturation process for NFL quarterbacks. They’re up, they’re down and they’re all-around until, well, until they aren’t.
The problem for the Packers is they’ve put themselves in a must-win situation in the race for the NFC playoffs and can’t afford for Hundley to perform inconsistently while learning on the job. Or so they thought.
Now, the Packers know better. In their 26-20 overtime victory over Tampa Bay Sunday at Lambeau Field, the Packers finally found a way to win without their quarterback playing well. Actually, the way Hundley and the Packers threw the football against the Buccaneers, it might be more accurate to say they stumbled upon a winning formula they can use until Rodgers returns.
That formula goes something like this: Get a touchdown from the defense, a momentum-turning play from the special teams and a season-high 199 yards rushing from the offense. Oh, and it helps if you have an accommodating opponent that can’t get out of its own way.
That perfect storm rolled into Lambeau on Sunday as the Packers evened their record at 6-6 and kept their slim playoff hopes alive even though Hundley, making his sixth NFL start, threw for a mere 84 yards. The Packers won because they finally gave Hundley the support he has needed since he assumed the job after two-plus seasons of carrying a clipboard.
“It helps a lot,” Hundley said. “We try to do that every week. Today all three phases really played their butts off. It helps all three phases. We’ll go back, look at film, get it rolling on offense. But the defense played their butts off and the special teams came up with some huge plays for us.”
The message was Hundley doesn’t have to do it all by himself, like Rodgers has done so often over the years. In fact, Sunday’s game showed Hundley really doesn’t have to do much. If he protects the ball and everyone else pitches in, the Packers will have a chance to win.
Sunday’s performance is what the Packers have needed since Rodgers broke his collarbone. In fact, getting contributions from everyone else is their only hope for winning games when they have no idea what they’re going to get from their quarterback on a week-to-week basis.
“Frankly, since Aaron was injured, whether it was the day of or the day after, I made it clear that all three phases need to play better or play different,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “That was the difference today. And at the end of the day, we did what we had to do to win the game.”
It began with the special teams. Kyler Fackrell looped around the center and blocked a punt, giving the Packers the ball in Buccaneers territory. Five running plays later, the Packers had a touchdown and a 10-7 lead.
On the ensuing Tampa Bay series, nose tackle Kenny Clark sacked Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston and forced a fumble, which defensive end Dean Lowry picked out of the air and returned 62 yards for a touchdown.
“I think they were huge,” Fackrell said of the second-quarter plays. “They definitely swung the momentum in our favor with the short field on the blocked punt and then obviously Dean’s touchdown. They were huge. They were really necessary plays for us to win.”
The Packers defense allowed 395 yards, but it twice forced the Buccaneers to kick field goals, once when Winston was surprised by a quick snap on third-and-goal at the 3.
The defense also held in the final 2 minutes after the Packers had tied it up at 20, giving the offense the boost it needed to win the game.
“That’s how we go into every game,” Clark said. “We’ve got to do our best to take a step forward as a defense and try to put more games on our shoulders and try to make more plays for our offense to put them in great field position.”
That certainly is true given the week-to-week uncertainty in the passing game. The same could be said for the running game. Workhorse Jamaal Williams had 113 yards on the ground, Aaron Jones made his one carry count when he took it 20 yards for the winning touchdown and Hundley ran for 66 yards on seven carries.
The offense woke up late, driving 70 yards for the tying field goal and 72 yards for the winning touchdown in overtime. In those drives, the load was carried by the running of Williams and Jones, with two surprising read-option runs by Hundley thrown in at critical times.
“I think it helps the offense a lot,” Williams said. “I think it takes pressure off of Brett and just lets him know he doesn’t have to do it all by himself. It lets him know that we’re here to help him. We’re here to make his job easier. Running the ball, as long as we get 4 or 5 (yards) each time, we’re in good shape.”
The Packers clearly figured out a way to win Sunday. The question now is if it’s too little, too late.