Green Bay needed a spark. Quarterback Matt Flynn came into the game and lit a fire for 77,000-plus Packers fans looking to warm up from a wind chill of 7 and a hypothermia-inducing performance by their offense and defense.
Entering the game with 8:22 remaining in the third quarter, Flynn rallied the Packers from a 23-7 fourth-quarter deficit, completed 21-of-36 passes for 218 yards and a score, and kept the Packers from losing for the fourth time since starter Aaron Rodgers went down with a collar bone injury.
Unfortunately, keeping them from losing wasn’t exactly winning.
Three hours and 54 minutes after the opening kickoff, the Packers and Vikings ended their contest with a 26-26 stalemate. It’s the first tie for the Packers since Sept. 20, 1987, when they fought to a 17-17 draw with the Denver Broncos in Milwaukee. While it keeps the Packers a half-game off the lead in the NFC North rather than a full game behind, it was a game that Flynn – whose last time under center for Green Bay was a record-setting 480-yard, six-touchdown performance in 2011 vs. Detroit – was sure they would win.
“I had no doubt,” Flynn said. “Looking in the guys’ eyes in the huddle, I don’t think there was any doubt. Especially when we started to make some plays. I think that hyped up the sideline and hyped up the guys and we just felt like we couldn’t be stopped. That’s how you have to go about it. That’s the mentality you have to have. I’m proud of the guys for fighting. We just have to finish.
“I don’t think anyone in this locker room would say it’s a moral victory or anything like that.”
Flynn was the fans’ choice to start at quarterback when Rodgers went down against Chicago. Rodgers’ former clipboard carrier had put on a historic air show in his one and only start in Green and Gold. That game, along with a win he nearly pulled off the year before at New England, earned him a lucrative contract that offseason with Seattle. But after getting beat out by Russell Wilson, Flynn found himself in Oakland, where he was beat out by Terrelle Pryor. Eventually cut, he turned up in Buffalo, where he couldn’t beat out an undrafted free agent for the right to fill in for injured rookie starter E.J. Manuel.
Whatever lightning in a bottle Flynn had in Green Bay didn’t travel well out west. Or back east. But with Seneca Wallace underwhelming in relief in a loss to the Bears, and Tolzien throwing five interceptions to one touchdown in losses to Philadelphia and New York, the recently re-signed Flynn got his chance on Sunday against the Vikings after Tolzien went just 7-of-17 for 98 yards with a 6-yard rushing touchdown.
The difference was immediately apparent.
Flynn changed the call the very first play he was in after surveying the defense and completed a pass to tight end Andrew Quarless. He did it again on the next play – a second-and-1 handoff to James Starks that went for 34 yards.
“Yeah, we changed that run,” Flynn said. “I’ve always been comfortable here in this offense making the checks, making the audibles. I kind of know what the coaches are looking for. I definitely need to study more and get more familiarized with what we’re trying to accomplish. But they definitely gave me the freedom and said, ‘Are you comfortable with no huddle?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, let’s get it rolling.’ We definitely had some success with that … but not enough.”
Flynn was aided by hard-running rookie Eddie Lacy, who was only a horn short of a rhino by dragging defenders for 110 yards on 25 carries, along with 48 yards on six catches. But Green Bay’s defense had less success corralling the Vikings’ Adrian Peterson, who ran for 146 yards on 32 carries. Peterson’s backup, Toby Gerhart, was even more effective per rush, gaining 91 yards on eight carries.
Despite his struggles in other uniforms, Flynn’s comfort level and confidence operating Green Bay’s offense was the most obvious difference from Tolzien, who was signed to the practice squad at the start of the season, elevated after Rodgers went down and put in the starting lineup when Wallace suffered a groin injury. Despite just four reps with the starting offense leading up to the game, Flynn hardly looked two years removed from the system.
“We’ve had experience with him before and, for the most part, the offense is still pretty similar,” fullback John Kuhn said. “He’s got chemistry with some of the guys that were here when he started before and I think that kind of takes shape in the second half, and it was good being able to see him facilitate the ball like that.”
Flynn led Green Bay on a nine-play, 80-yard drive in the fourth quarter that included three defensive penalties and ended with a 3-yard scoring run by Lacy that made it 23-13. Coach Mike McCarthy called for a two-point conversion that was intercepted by Vikings safety Jamarca Sanford. That failed conversion, let alone the decision not to kick, would be pivotal.
“I think once you cross that fourth-quarter line, you have to look at the whole picture … how many series are available to you, obviously what’s going on on the headsets getting ready for each series on offense, the way they were running the football, our defense,” McCarthy said. “So, you look at all those things, you’re playing at home and that’s a positive because you’ve got the crowd behind you. I’m comfortable with the decision. We had a good play. I wish Matt had a couple more reps of that play because I think it would’ve been a little cleaner for him. I thought it was a solid decision.”
On Green Bay’s next drive, Flynn went 7-for-8, with the final fling being a low liner to Jarrett Boykin for a 6-yard touchdown that pulled the Packers to within three points, 23-20. After Green Bay’s defense forced a punt, Flynn directed a 10-play drive that ended with a tying Mason Crosby field goal. Flynn converted a fourth-and-6 from the Minnesota 40 after Vikings defensive end Everson Griffin jumped offsides, resulting in a free play. Flynn heaved the ball off his back foot, leaning back and about to be hit by linebacker Audie Cole. James Jones adjusted to the underthrown ball and came back to haul it in at the 11-yard line.
After winning the toss in overtime, Flynn looked like he was on the way to a storybook ending, with a 15-yarder over the middle to Jordy Nelson and a 34-yarder down the sideline to Boykin. From the 7, Lacy gained 5 yards on the next two plays, giving Flynn a chance win the game on third-and-goal from the 2. But his pass to Nelson in the end zone was beyond the receiver’s grasp. It was one of a handful of plays Flynn wished he had back, but it led to a 26-yard field goal that put Green Bay ahead 26-23.
“I have to make a better play,” Flynn said. “I wasn’t real sure about the angle. I hadn’t repped that play and didn’t want to make a throw that I wasn’t 100 percent sure about and take a chance on getting picked.
“(There were some) other plays in overtime where I just … my mind went blank on a route and there was one play I thought Jordy had one route and it was James who had it and I had to roll out and throw it away. That first drive (in the third quarter), I was rushing my feet, I was kind of excited to get in there so I kind of rushed my feet and made some low throws that were very poor. There are a couple things that I’ll probably lose sleep over tonight. But that’s football. That’s part of the game. You watch what you did and why you did it and try not to let it happen again.”
Gerhart led a 12-play drive for the Vikings that resulted in a 35-yard Blair Walsh field goal to tie it up at 26. After the teams’ exchanged three-and-out punts, Flynn and Green Bay would have one more chance with 1:59 remaining. Green Bay got as far as its 35-yard line, but two false-start penalties, a holding call and three incompletions fanned out their comeback.
“Walking out of this building, I’m going to be disappointed,” Flynn said. “Once I take a step back and relax a little bit, there’s a lot of positives to take away. But right now it hurts.”
McCarthy wouldn’t immediately name Flynn the starter for Thursday’s Thanksgiving Day matchup at Detroit. But barring an unexpected return under center by Rodgers, it’s hard to imagine Flynn not making his first start since his 2011 roasting of the Lions.
All things considered, that’s at least something for Packers fans to be thankful for.
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W. Keith Roerdink has covered the Packers since 1992. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.