GREEN BAY, Wis. -- B.J. Raji, one of the most laid-back football players you'll ever meet, lost his cool at the bottom of a pile of players. Jordy Nelson spiked the ball so hard after scoring the game-winning touchdown that he lost his balance and flipped to the ground. Charles Woodson, meanwhile, lost his absolute mind and still hadn't regained it an hour after the game.
Most of us are drawn to tightly wound explanations, and it would be natural to suggest the Green Bay Packers rode an emotional wave to a 28-27 victory Sunday over the New Orleans Saints. They were six days removed from the now-infamous "Fail Mary" play at Seattle's CenturyLink field, and they were aware how precarious their playoff hopes were in just the fourth week of the NFL season.
To be honest, I don't know if the Packers won Sunday because of an uncharacteristically chippy performance. More simply, I think they played better and made fewer mistakes than the Saints. If anything, they got emotional as they realized the implications of losing a game that got tight in the fourth quarter. But I also think their Week 3 loss to the Seattle Seahawks will come to define their season, one way or the other, and on Sunday the early indications suggested it would lead to better things.
"I think our energy level was definitely a lot higher," guard T.J. Lang said. "We definitely didn't want to go 1-3, so there were a lot of guys flying around. It did get chippy ... and that's what happens when you're coming off a tough loss. Everyone plays with a lot more emotion and energy."
Well, that's what is supposed to happen. We have all seen teams that hurtle toward oblivion after a stunning early-season defeat. I'm reminded among other things of the 2009 San Francisco 49ers, who opened the season 2-0 before losing to the Minnesota Vikings on Brett Favre's miracle touchdown throw to receiver Greg Lewis. The 49ers were soon in the midst of a five-game losing streak that scuttled their season.
At 1-2, the Packers were facing some long odds if they lost Sunday's game. Since the NFL moved to its current playoff format, 85.3 percent of teams that started 1-3 missed the playoffs. In a league in which most teams have relatively equal talent, the so-called "snowball effect" is very real.
"I think 1-3 would have been difficult," Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "We've got a tough schedule coming up. We've got to play some games on the road. We've got to learn to win on the road with this group of guys that we have, [and] 1-3 would have made that very difficult, I think. When you start having consecutive losses, you can't help but have that feeling of, 'Here we go again,' at times."
The Packers were highly susceptible to such thoughts Sunday, which included some questionable calls from referee Jeff Triplette's crew. Those calls might normally be classified as part of the typical course of an NFL game, but the Packers' sensitivities were heightened after replacement officials granted Seahawks receiver Golden Tate a highly disputed touchdown on Monday.
On Sunday, Saints receiver Marques Colston got away with a push off during a 20-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter, one that conjured eerie memories of Tate's push on Packers cornerback Sam Shields. Later, the Packers were out of challenges and thus could not reverse Triplette's call that Saints kick returner Darren Sproles was down by contact prior to a fumble caused and recovered by Packers rookie Dezman Moses.
By that time, the Packers seemed to be in a fury. Raji's penalty on a Saints field goal attempt gave them a first-and-goal at the 1-yard line. Woodson's outburst at Saints tight end David Thomas, as well as Nelson's aggressive spike, came after the midpoint of the fourth quarter.
"You can't help but have those thoughts start going through your head," Raji said. "We were able to withstand a lot of those interesting calls, and it feels good to come out on top."
Indeed, Packers cornerback Tramon Williams bailed out Raji with a third-down pass breakup after his penalty. Nelson's emotion seemed sparked at least in part by what was his best game of the season, an eight-catch performance that almost matched his season's output to date.
And you'll never see an 8-yard catch celebrated more forcefully than after receiver James Jones hauled one in to convert a third down with two minutes remaining. The Saints were out of timeouts, and the play sealed the game.
"[Last week] unified us as a team," center Jeff Saturday said. "I think you can see as a team what you can endure. And I think that builds a lot of confidence. It builds a lot of characters. It just forges you as a team. You see, 'Hey, look man, things can go wrong and we've still got the type of team that can win these games.'"
The Packers endured a singular moment in recent NFL history last week, and came out the other side 2-2. You might think it's dramatic to suggest they saved their season Sunday, but based on the tension and urgency we saw against the Saints, I think the Packers would agree.