The Green Bay Packers were a legitimate Super Bowl contender in 2020, and they defined that status early last season with a thrilling victory over the New Orleans Saints. To open the 2021 campaign, the schedule-makers gave them another opportunity against New Orleans but the Packers fell flat on their faces, putting up a performance so completely horrendous that Jordan Love made his regular season NFL debut in garbage-time relief of Aaron Rodgers.
A disastrous first half for the defense gave way to an awfully un-Rodgers-like performance from the reigning MVP after the break, as both primary phases of the game failed the Packers throughout the contest. With the Saints spotted to a 17-3 lead, Rodgers threw a pair interceptions on the Packers’ first two series of the second half — one from inside the Saints’ 10-yard line and one from inside the Packers’ 10. Both were questionable decisions compounded by uncharacteristically poor throws, and with them went any chance of a comeback.
Whereas the Packers made a name for themselves by starting out hot in 2020, they could not have looked much worse over the first 30 minutes of the 2021 season. Joe Barry’s defense allowed scores on each of the Saints’ three series before halftime, including two touchdown drives of 15 plays or more. Meanwhile, the Green Bay offense, which scored on its opening drive 13 times in last year’s 16 regular season games, could not find a rhythm early and punted quickly on the first series after picking up just one first down.
The most dangerous weapons for either team’s offense in the early going were Jameis Winston’s legs, as the Saints’ new starting quarterback scrambled for first downs three times on New Orleans’ first two series as Green Bay’s pass rush failed to contain him. Sean Payton’s group methodically worked its way down the field, posting a field goal on the opening series and finding the end zone on the second on a pop pass from Winston to Alvin Kamara. Kamara would get going a bit later on in the half, finishing the game with 83 yards on 20 carries and that receiving touchdown.
The Packer offense recorded just one first down on each of its first two series, punting away both times after Aaron Rodgers misfired on third down passes. The first 29 minutes of game time were a complete mess for Green Bay overall, as the offense posted just 12 plays and 21 yards while the Saints racked up 16 first downs, and 208 yards en route to a 17-0 lead.
The Packers found a little bit of juice on offense in the last minute of the first half, which provided some reason for hope coming out of the break. With Green Bay holding just one timeout and desperately needing points before halftime, Matt LaFleur finally opened up the vertical passing game a bit. Rodgers found Allen Lazard for 14 yards and then dropped a dime to Davante Adams for a 30-yard gain to get into field goal range with seven seconds remaining, and Mason Crosby put Green Bay on the board with three points heading into the break.
And, for a few minutes in that third quarter, it seemed like the Packers would get right back in the game. The offense came out looking like its old self to open the second half, with the team driving down the field and picking up five first downs. But on a second-and-7 from the 9-yard line, Rodgers was pressured quickly and tried a quick pass to Davante Adams, throwing the ball straight to rookie cornerback Paulson Adebo for an interception. Royce Newman’s blown block led to the pressure, but Rodgers’ lackadaisical throw was far behind Adams, leading to the pick.
The defense forced a punt for the first time on the ensuing series, but on the next drive, Rodgers set up the Saints to deliver a knockout blow. His third-down heave from the Packers’ own 8-yard line sailed well over Marquez Valdes-Scantling’s head and into the arms of safety Marcus Williams, and New Orleans expanded their lead to 24-3 shortly thereafter.
Not content to let the Packers be the only group to make awful mistakes, the officials got into the act late in the third quarter. A tipped ball fell in the hands of Packers safety Darnell Savage in the end zone, and he returned the interception out near midfield. But referee Carl Cheffers threw a flag on Za’Darius Smith for roughing the passer, a call that received universal criticism from across the NFL mediaverse:
-didn't go to the helmet— Christian D'Andrea needs help to buy Ale Asylum (@TrainIsland) September 12, 2021
-didn't go low
-didn't land on Jameis
-wasn't excessively late
and yet, still a roughing penalty on Za'Darius Smith that wipes out a Packers' interception ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ pic.twitter.com/bO6LInjdeA
Two plays later, the Saints extended their lead to 31-3 and any shred of hope for a comeback was over. A late 55-yard touchdown from Winston to Deonte Harris added insult to injury and forced the Packers’ backups onto the field with over ten minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. Rodgers would finish the game with 133 yards on 15-of-28 passing.
One of those backups was, of course, Jordan Love, who took his first regular season NFL snaps. His first pass went for a completion, a 19-yard toss on third-and-7 to rookie Amari Rodgers. That was also Rodgers’ first catch, as he was nonexistent on offense until late in the game. Love’s second completion would go to Randall Cobb, who did not catch a pass from Aaron Rodgers on the day. Love drove the Packers into the red zone, but poor offensive line play reared its ugly head again to put a final exclamation point on the game. Love was sacked by Tanoh Kpassagnon and fumbled, and New Orleans recovered and kneeled out the clock.
Perhaps the one bright spot for the Packers was that they appear to have found their punter. Corey Bojorquez averaged 44 gross yards per punt, but had a pair of booming kicks and no glaring errors on the day.
The Packers had one scary injury moment early in the second half, as second-year tight end Josiah Deguara went down with an injury. He appeared to hit his head while making a block and was down on the field for several minutes, but was able to get up and walk off the field on his own power. He was later ruled out of the game with a concussion.
Green Bay will be back on the field next week for their home opener, hosting the Detroit Lions on Monday Night Football.