During the Green Bay Packers’ Mike McCarthy era, every New Orleans Saints game served as a unique measuring stick. Not only did it pit two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks or two of the more explosive offenses in football over that time, but it matched up two potential options for the Packers’ coaching search post-Mike Sherman. When the Saints would beat the doors off Green Bay in the Superdome, we’d be reminded Payton could have been the Packers coach. Drew Brees won a Super Bowl the year before Aaron Rodgers and the two have been chasing one ever since. Matt LaFleur’s 2020 team entered its Week 3 matchup once again requiring the ruler: how far along was this team compared to last year? Were they really ready to compete with the big boys in the NFC?
LaFleur painted another masterpiece, made due without two of his stars, Aaron Rodgers tossed three touchdown passes, and the Packers proved this start is real with a 37-30 shootout win in New Orleans.
Every gunslinger matchup requires at least one defensive stop, and the Packers made it on a 3rd-and-5 when Drew Brees tried to get Alvin Kamara on a screen with Kamara split out. It was seemingly the only time all game a Packers defender took New Orleans’ lightning bug back down on first contact all game, but it was the difference. Rodgers and the offense marched down the field with a 30-27 lead, turning it into 37-27 on a beautiful play-action play to Robert Tonyan at the goal line to seal the biggest win of the 2020 season for Green Bay and one of the defining wins of LaFleur’s young head coaching career.
Down Davante Adams, who reportedly pushed to play, Allen Lazard took center stage with 6 catches for 146 yards and a touchdown, including a gorgeous diving catch for 48 yards to set up his first score. The play exemplified the stark arm strength difference between the two quarterbacks — not that it hurt Brees much. Rodgers rolled to his left and fired a beautiful rainbow shot some 50 yards in the air. If the turf monster doesn’t attack Lazard, it’s a walk-in touchdown. Still, Lazard finished the drive with another boot play to give the Packers their first lead at 13-7.
Would the Saints have an answer without their star? The good news for Payton and Brees came early: they have another one and he’s just as good. While Michael Thomas sat out again with a high ankle sprain, Kamara posted 117 yards combined in the first half alone while the Saints averaged 8.7 yards per carry between Kamara and Latavius Murray. Kamara’s 49-yard touchdown scamper in the second half included no fewer than five broken tackles, including Will Redmond’s attempt at the line of scrimmage that would have stopped the play for no gain.
Even with the pulverizing presence of Kenny Clark, containing the New Orleans run game which boasts multiple quality back and an athletic-yet-bruising offensive line would have been a challenge. Without him, shoddy tackling and poor gap discipline nearly doomed the Packers, but with the offense for Green Bay hitting on all cylinders, Payton couldn’t stick to the ground attack, instead using Kamara in the passing game to the tune of 13 catches, 139 yards, and 2 touchdowns.
He was almost the difference, until Payton tried to get too cute, taking the ball out of his Hall of Fame quarterback’s hands, as well as Kamara’s. With the Saints rolling and the game tied at 27 after New Orleans scored on four straight possession, Payton went into his bag of tricks with a familiar face early in the fourth quarter. Taysom Hill fumbled a wildcat exchange with a little help from Za’Darius Smith right after the Packers offense sputtered on a fourth-and-short. Green Bay re-took the lead, one of six lead changes on the night, with a Mason Crosby field goal and never relinquished the lead in the fourth.
Chandon Sullivan and a gang of Packers defenders made the clinching tackle on Kamara on the next possession to force a three-and-out, something the Packers still have yet to do themselves this season, giving the ball back to Rodgers and Co. Between some masterful playcalling and artful deception by Rodgers including catching the Saints offsides when they never intended to call a play, set up the Tonyan score. Green Bay would have to settle for a meager 37 points after topping the 40 mark each of the first two weeks.
To manage such a feat without Adams speaks to LaFleur’s artistry in this game. Green Bay played the more disciplined game. They boasted the more creative approach, springing guys like Lazard, Tonyan and Jace Sternberger free. In fact, the Packers tight ends combined for 9 catches, 104 yards, and 2 scores due in large part to brilliant design and play-stacking from LaFleur. Rodgers played conductor, while saving the true brilliance for a handful of big throws down the field to Lazard.
Beating the Vikings and the Lions helps the stat sheet, but beating the Saints adds to the bonafides, not to mention the playoff seeding. This was the win to announce LaFleur’s arrival among the game’s best. Lose the caveats — not one of the best new coaches or young coaches, but call him what he is: one of the best head coaches in the NFL, full stop.
The rivalry between LaFleur and Payton won’t have the same juice. History amplifies stakes, which is part of the reason Packers-49ers brings an energy this tilt can’t match. Still, the Saints look to be one of the conference’s elite teams. If Green Bay wants to be in that mix, if LaFleur desires to be in the realm of the Paytons and the Shanahans, these are the matchups his teams have to win players. In primetime, with the offense rolling, facing off with another Super Bowl contender provides a measuring sticks that can reveal the true character of a team, its resourcefulness in the face of adversity and its quality in clutch moments.
If attitude reflects leadership, then LaFleur deserves enormous kudos for having his team ready to go short-handed. While the defensive showing raises looming questions, as do injuries to Christian Kirskey and Kenny Clark, this offense looks capable of scoring with anyone. And despite losing his matchup with Kyle Shanahan twice last year, LaFleur in 2020 has shown to be a different coach, capable of matching wits with the game’s best. If he can go toe-to-toe with guys like Payton and his old mentor Shanahan, this Packers team can beat anyone.