PITTSBURGH — At first glance, playing the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night at Heinz Field appeared to be a stroke of luck for the Green Bay Packers.
There was only one conceivable reason for that, but it was a pretty good one.
Despite entering the game with an 8-2 record, the Steelers have gained a reputation for playing down to the level of inferior competition. And, if nothing else, the Packers qualified as inferior competition. After losing four of their five games since quarterback Aaron Rodgers went down with a broken collarbone, they were a dispirited team in dire straits as the season hit the home stretch.
The Packers had a 5-5 record and were looking up at most of their rivals in the NFC playoff race. Backup quarterback Brett Hundley was looking like a wasted three-year investment. The defense still couldn’t hold up against good passing offenses. And, per usual, the injuries just kept on coming.
But just when everyone was ready to count out the Packers for good, they went into Three Rivers and battled the high-flying Steelers on even terms until the final play, when Chris Boswell’s 53-yard field goal gave Pittsburgh a 31-28 victory. Besides validating NBC’s curious decision to keep what many expected to be a mismatch in prime time, the game in a roundabout way gave the Packers their first sign of life in weeks.
It would be easy to claim the Steelers once again played down to the level of their competition in this one. But it wouldn’t be correct.
For the most part, the Steelers looked like themselves. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw the ball well, halfback Le’Veon Bell was productive running and receiving, wide receiver Antonio Brown was a handful for Green Bay’s secondary and Pittsburgh’s defense played to its form, which means it was tough up front and suspect in the secondary.
No, the reason NBC lucked out and got a thoroughly entertaining game was because, for the first time in a long time, the Packers played inspired football.
Was it because their backs were pressed against the playoff wall? Was it because they watched Rodgers, who isn’t eligible to return for at least two more games, lob some passes in pregame warmups? Or was it because coach Mike McCarthy didn’t want to be embarrassed in his hometown and coaxed an all-out effort out of his players when no one gave them a chance?
This much we know: McCarthy’s team has shown this kind of resolve in the face of adversity before. Not in Pittsburgh, but elsewhere.
Late in the 2010 season, the Packers were on the verge of getting booted from the playoffs, had Matt Flynn making his first start in place of Rodgers (concussion) and were facing the mighty New England Patriots in Foxborough. They didn’t win that day, dropping a 31-27 decision that ended with them knocking on the door for the go-ahead touchdown, but their play so inspired them that it carried them all the way to a victory in Super Bowl XLV.
Last season, the Packers were stumbling along at 4-6 when Rodgers boldly proclaimed that they would run the table over the final six regular-season games. So they did. In fact, the Packers’ mission carried them all the way to the NFC Championship Game before losing.
Whatever the reason for their inspiration Sunday, the Packers have to bottle it and drink it before every game. Sure, they have talent deficiencies — some caused by injury, some by faulty decision-making — but against the Steelers they played with a spirit that had been missing since Rodgers went down.
The only way for this team to have any chance at all is to play inspired football. If doing that was good enough to keep them on even terms with the powerful Steelers for 59 minutes, 56 seconds, it might allow them to make a late-season run.
“I think the way we reacted tonight is the way we’ll react tomorrow,” McCarthy said. “The team’s got great fight.”
Perhaps the best development for the Packers was that Hundley finally justified McCarthy’s faith in him. He wasn’t perfect, especially trying to escape the pocket, but his 134.3 passer rating was positively Rodgers-like.
Hundley hit wide receivers Randall Cobb and Davante Adams on long touchdown passes and threw a screen pass that halfback Jamaal Williams turned into a 54-yard touchdown. But the best was yet to come. When the Packers fell behind 28-21 late, he engineered a 12-play, 77-yard drive that ended with Williams’ 4-yard, game-tying touchdown run. Along the way, Hundley completed seven of his eight passes for 72 yards.
“I just want to give this team an opportunity to win and I feel like we’re close,” Hundley said. “We are really close.”
If Hundley’s play was encouraging, so was the Packers’ resolve. It took a spectacular 23-yard sideline catch by Brown to put the Steelers in business with 13 seconds left or the game might well have gone into overtime.
Or maybe the Packers’ luck in Pittsburgh would have run out anyway. The last time they played at Three Rivers, back in 2009, they came up short in a 37-36 shootout when Roethlisberger fired a touchdown pass to wide receiver Mike Wallace on the game’s final play. The good news? They rebounded to make the playoffs that year, too.
The Packers found out Sunday what a little inspiration can do.
All that’s left is to turn it into victories.