CINCINNATI – Everything came crashing down at once.
Josh Sitton was trying to get dressed while trying to explain what had gone so bizarrely wrong during Sunday’s 34-30 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, and the Green Bay Packers tell-it-like-it-is left guard was doing a pretty good job of it, too. Then he reached up for his beat-up pair of cowboy boots and all his belongings went flying – his pricey designer headphones, Top Gun aviator sunglasses and his tattered baseball hat to the Paul Brown Stadium visitors’ locker room floor, his iPhone and tin of chewing tobacco into his locker.
It had been that kind of day.
“I’m pissed,” Sitton said – referring to dropping the game, not his possessions. “I don’t like losing games – I don’t like losing games we should’ve won. We could have done a lot of things different to win that game. And we didn’t.
“We had opportunities the entire day to get in the end zone and we didn’t. We just didn’t make as many plays as them. And we had plenty of frickin’ opportunities. That’s frustrating. We thought we had those guys on the ropes, and we thought we could have scored every time we touched the ball. And we didn’t.”
Instead, the Packers (1-2) lost one of the more kooky games they’ve played under coach Mike McCarthy – “It’s definitely one of the most different games that I’ve had to call in my time,” he said – and now head into their unusually early bye week wondering how they could go from a 14-0 hole, to seemingly in control at 30-14 with 5 1/2 minutes left in the third quarter, to defeat.
For while the decisive play for the Bengals (2-1) came when Packers rookie running back Johnathan Franklin dove over the line of scrimmage on fourth down and ended up coughing up a fumble that Cincinnati safety Reggie Nelson – and, after Nelson fumbled, cornerback Terence Newman – returned a combined 64 yards for the go-ahead touchdown, that was just one of several violent momentum swings in the game.
From Jeremy Ross fumbling a first-quarter kickoff, to the Bengals turning the ball over on four consecutive possessions, to quarterback Aaron Rodgers throwing interceptions on back-to-back series after not throwing two interceptions in a game since the 2010 NFC Championship Game in Chicago, to Franklin’s game-turning fumble, the game was downright weird. All that was missing was that drunken interloper who ran onto the field during the fourth quarter of the teams’ 2005 meeting and stole the ball out of Brett Favre’s hand late in the game.
“It was a crazy game, back and forth all day, and when it came down to crunch time and making plays, they made a couple more than us,” Packers inside linebacker A.J. Hawk said. “It was a battle the whole game. I think once we had that momentum, we needed to find a way to stay with it and we didn't. They took it back and ran with it.”
That they did. In fact, the Bengals became the first NFL team to win a game after surrendering 30 unanswered points since Sept. 12, 1999, when the Dallas Cowboys gave up 32 straight points to Washington but won, 41-35, in overtime.
“It was a frustrating game. Down 14 – we spotted them 14 – scored 30 in a row and then they scored 20 in a row to finish it. Disappointing,” said Rodgers, who went from a career-high and franchise record-tying 480 passing yards last week to completing 26 of 43 passes for 244 yards with one touchdown, two interceptions and four sacks (64.5 rating). “You feel like you gave the game away.
“Offensively, we had a lot of turnovers. I played poorly. And the defense played well enough for us to win. We should have come out of it with a win.”
If they had, it would have been a remarkable victory given the adversity they were facing. Not only were playing with only two healthy running backs – James Starks and Franklin – with starting running back Eddie Lacy (concussion) and fullback John Kuhn (hamstring) each sidelined, but they lost Starks to a right knee injury late in the first half, lost tight end Jermichael Finley to a concussion when he was drilled on a seam route on the Packers’ first true possession and lost star outside linebacker Clay Matthews to a hamstring injury, which he suffered while forcing his second fumble in as many series in the second quarter.
“It’s very frustrating especially in the manner in which we lost and to be on the sideline and feel as if you could’ve impacted the game,” Matthews said, adding that he has no doubt he’ll be back for the team’s post-bye Oct. 5 game against Detroit. “It’s obviously very difficult, but it’s part of the game. I don’t like it, but we’ll correct our mistakes, we’ll move forward. Our record is not going to change with the bye week, but we’ve just got to get this thing moving in the right direction, and we will.”
It seemed the Packers were doing just that after Ross’ fumble led to BenJarvus Green-Ellis’ 2-yard touchdown run made it 14-0 just 5:52 into the game. Cornerback Sam Shields got the comeback started with a phenomenal interception of an Andy Dalton pass intended for A.J. Green, even though the Green Bay offense went nowhere and had to settle for a 41-yard Mason Crosby field goal – the first of a number of squandered opportunities.
The Packers failed to turn the Bengals’ next turnover, a Jermaine Gresham fumble forced by Brad Jones, into points, and the defense took things into its own hands on the next turnover, with safety M.D. Jennings scooping up Green-Ellis’ fumble after Matthews’ hit and returning it 24 yards for a touchdown that cut the lead to 14-10.
Matthews then did a Superman leap to strip Dalton on the next series, but despite taking over at Cincinnati’s 21, all the Packers got out of it was a quarrel between Rodgers and McCarthy, and another field goal. After Starks picked up 11 yards on the first three plays and a holding penalty set them up with first-and-goal from the Cincinnati 5, Rodgers rolled right and threw incomplete on first down. Then, on second and third down, he made animated gestures toward the sideline after Starks got 2 yards on second down and a designed rollout on third down turned into Rodgers scrambling short of the goal line. FOX Sports’ cameras caught Rodgers and McCarthy arguing once the quarterback got to the sideline and Crosby’s 19-yard field goal trimmed the lead to 14-13.
“I had called a play in a certain situation and he was frustrated by it,” McCarthy explained. “I feel good. One every three weeks (with such a disagreement) would be awesome.”
All that was prologue to the game’s stunning twists and turns. The defense forced a three-and-out punt to set up the offense with a 2-minute drill to close the half, but yet again, the Packers drove inside the Cincinnati 5-yard line but only had a field goal to show for it. (Green Bay finished 2 for 4 in red-zone opportunities on the day.) Still, it gave the Packers a 16-14 lead at the break.
Taking the ball to start the third quarter, the Packers went 80 yards in nine plays – with help of two Bengals penalties, including one for roughing the passer – en route to Franklin’s 2-yard touchdown run and a 23-14 lead. It went to 30-14 on Rodgers’ 7-yard TD to James Jones.
Then, everything fell apart. The Bengals went 65 yards in 1:40 to pull within 30-21; Rodgers threw his first interception on a pass to Jones; Mike Nugent missed a 52-yard field goal; Rodgers threw his second interception on a pass down the sideline for Randall Cobb; and the Bengals pulled within 30-27 – on Marvin Jones’ 11-yard TD.
Even then, though, all wasn’t lost. Datone Jones blocked the extra point, leaving the Packers up 3, and with 10:55 left, Rodgers and the offense dinked and dunked their way down the field, chewing up clock like they had with a 7 1/2 minute drive to ice last week’s victory. After converting a pair of third downs, they faced third-and-12 and Rodgers hit Cobb with a quick throw and Cobb stretched for the first down. The officials initially gave him the first down, but when Bengals coach Marvin Lewis challenged the spot and won, it was fourth-and-inches at the Bengals’ 30.
McCarthy contemplated a 48-yard field-goal attempt, then decided to go for it. Without Kuhn, Lacy or Starks to give it to, he decided on Franklin, who leaped and was hit by Michael Johnson, and the ball came loose. Nelson initially recovered it, then was hit by Cobb and fumbled it forward, allowing Newman to scoop it up and run for the go-ahead score.
“With the challenge, obviously you had plenty of time to think about it. (I) probably overthought it because my initial thought was to kick the field goal,” McCarthy said. “I’m paid to make those decisions. When they go wrong, I’m responsible.”
Even so, the Packers had the ball with 3:47 to go and moved from their own 20 to the Cincinnati 25. On third-and-5, Carlos Dunlap batted Rodgers’ pass at the line. Faced with fourth down after calling timeout, Rodgers had Jones open to his left, but rookie left tackle David Bakhtiari missed his cut block on Johnson, who tipped the ball and ended any chance of a comeback.
“It was a game of momentum — momentum swings, adversity — and it clearly swung Cincinnati’s way in the fourth quarter,” McCarthy said. “You’ve got to give them credit. They played excellent defense down the stretch.”
And the Packers?
“It's bad. It's not a good feeling,” Bakhtiari said. “We're the Green Bay Packers and we're 1-2 right now. I'm just a rookie, I just got here and I can tell it's not something that they're used to, that they're not comfortable with and they don't like.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.