GREEN BAY, Wis. -- As if bearing the brunt of the call that ultimately led to the end of the NFL's replacement officials wasn't enough, Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers nearly had a big comeback win undone with a blunder by the regular refs.
With Packers fans howling about what appeared to be yet another bad call -- this time by the regular officials, not the replacements -- Garrett Hartley missed a 48-yard field goal attempt with just under three minutes remaining, costing the Saints a shot at the lead.
Rodgers threw for 319 yards with four touchdowns and an interception for the Packers (2-2).
"I'm very proud of our football team, especially the week we've endured," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "We talk a lot about integrity and character, and I thought today's game had plenty of those types of situations where it showed up big."
Drew Brees threw for 446 yards with three touchdowns for the winless Saints (0-4). Brees has thrown at least one touchdown in 47 straight regular-season games, tying the NFL's all-time mark set by Johnny Unitas.
With the win, the Packers were able to put Monday night's controversial replacement official-driven loss at Seattle behind them. But even with the regular refs back this week, the Packers and their fans still nearly were dealt a crushing blow on a blown call.
After Rodgers' touchdown to Nelson, Darren Sproles appeared to fumble the ensuing kickoff but officials ruled that he was down by contact. Replays showed that the ball clearly came out but the Packers were out of replay challenges, leaving Packers fans screaming at the officials for the second week in a row.
McCarthy said he was frustrated because video replays "clearly illustrated" that it was a fumble.
Brees then led the Saints into field goal range, and Hartley hit a 43-yard attempt - but the Saints were called for holding, forcing Hartley to line up a 53-yarder. The Packers then were called for encroachment, leaving Hartley to try a 48-yarder and he missed it wide left.
It was a sigh of relief for the Packers, who spent most of the week in the middle of a nationwide firestorm after a last-second decision by replacement officials cost them a game at Seattle on Monday night. The play was a burden for the Packers to bear, but likely played a significant role in the NFL agreeing to a deal with its regular officials during the week.
Referee Jeff Triplette struck a triumphant tone during the pregame coin toss Sunday, announcing that "it's great to be back, gentlemen!" A handful of Packers fans came to the game dressed as officials, and some brought signs showing support for the regular refs.
The honeymoon didn't last long, though. Fans howled for an offensive pass interference call after Brees threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to Marques Colston late in the first quarter, but no flag was forthcoming. The boos intensified as a replay was shown on the stadium video boards.
The Packers had too many men on the field for a Saints field attempt later in the drive, giving New Orleans first-and-goal on the 1. But the defense held, forcing a 20-yard field goal by Hartley to cut the lead to 21-17 with 9:41 left in the third quarter.
Rodgers marched the Packers down the field again but needed attention from the team's training staff after a face mask by New Orleans' Malcolm Jenkins. Rodgers came out of the game for one play and backup quarterback Graham Harrell came in - then tripped and fumbled as he tried to hand it off, allowing the Saints to get the ball back in the middle of a scrum.
Brees then found Joseph Morgan wide open behind the defense, and Morgan shed tackling attempts from the Packers' Sam Shields and Tramon Williams on his way to an 80-yard touchdown and a 24-21 lead with 3:49 left in the third quarter.
Things then got even worse for the Packers, as Rodgers then threw an interception to Patrick Robinson on a deep throw intended for Jordy Nelson. Brees then completed a pair of third-and-long situations, and the Saints drove for a 27-yard field goal by Hartley to take a 27-21 lead with 13:04 remaining.
With the Packers trailing by 6, Rodgers threw an 11-yard strike to Nelson as the Saints' Corey White tried to wrap his arms around the ball at the same time as Nelson - briefly re-creating a scene eerily similar to the controversial game-ender in Seattle on Monday. This time, though, Nelson clearly came away with the ball and spiked it emphatically.
Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press