At Lambeau, it's a Super Bowl-like atmosphere
GREEN BAY, Wis. - Sauntering into Cheesehead Country ...
3:45 p.m. Rental car pulls into the parking lot adjacent Lambeau Field after the 3 1/2-hour drive from Chicago.
It's a pleasant late-summer day - 75 degrees, bright blue skies and warm sunshine, a little breezy but none of that typical Midwestern humidity.
It's the Thursday kickoff game of the 2011 NFL season, and there may never have been a more celebrated opening-night matchup - New Orleans vs. Green Bay, a showdown between the last two Super Bowl champions.
The atmosphere fits the hype. Nearly four hours before game time, the area is a zoo, with party animals already inhabiting real estate stretching for miles. Coming off the Packers' Super Bowl championship run, the fans would be cranked up no matter the opponent. Facing the Saints amps up the electricity to double wattage.
I wind my way slowly toward the stadium, the streets already a sea of humanity as I pass Packer fans ensconced in tailgating activities. They're sucking suds, puffing on stogies, scarfing brats and creating mild havoc - all in good fun, of course.
Some brave New Orleans fans launch into the 'Who dat?' battle cry made famous by the Saints during their championship run - right in front of the statues of Vince Lombardi and Curly Lambeau near the Miller Lite Gate in front of the stadium.
Sacrilegious. Green Bay supporters boo the interlopers into oblivion.
After all, the Packers ARE religion in this part of the country. And right now, Aaron Rodgers is God.
4:15 p.m. I pick up my credentials and get perhaps the stiffest security check at a sports venue I've had since it has become customary after 9/11. Friendly, but thorough. No bomb in this bag, fellas.
I visit with Kevin Harlan, who is calling radio play-by-play for Westwood One. We agree the scene is as crazy as it gets for the regular season.
'It's kind of like the Super Bowl, really,' Harlan observes. 'It's a really big deal.'
Who does he favor in the game?
'I think the Packers will pick right up from where they left off last year,' he says.
4:45 p.m. I swing outside the stadium for a quick perusal of activity. The west side is relatively quiet, but the east side is jammed with people in what seems a cross between a rock concert and a pep rally.
Video of the 2011 Super Bowl game runs on a pair of monstrous Diamondvision screens on an inner parking lot. Thousands are parked in front in rapt attention. Closer to the stadium, hundreds of fans ring the street off of Holmgren Way, catching a glimpse of the Packer players as they arrive in their Hummers and SUVs and luxury cars.
5:05 p.m. This IS like the Super Bowl. Pre-game entertainment is provided on-stage on the east side. Kid Rock opens (isn't he Detroit?), and Lady Antebellum finishes. Holy Sheboygan.
By Wisconsin state law, every fan must wear a Packer jersey. Seems like it, at least. Never saw so many adults running around in NFL authentics - surely never as many women. Rodgers' No. 12 and Clay Matthews' No. 52 get the most love, but it's spread around.
'It's just showing respect for your favorite player, and for the team you root for,' says Liz Chapin, 25, a Green Bay native who now flies in four times a season or so for games from her current home in Los Angeles. 'Sort of makes you a part of the team.
'And a woman can look just as good in a football jersey as a man.'
Much better, a lot of times. Chapin, in fact, appears quite stylish in her No. 90 - in honor of 337-pound nosetackle B.J. Raji - with shorts and knee-high suede boots.
The paucity of cheeseheads on display surprises me. Out of fashion, Chapin informs me.
'That sort of represents the Brett Favre era,' she says. 'We're trying to get away from that.'
6:10 p.m. The Packers are the NFL's only community-owned franchise, with 112,000 shareholders from throughout the area. Maybe that's why this team is so beloved, win or lose. Things do get amplified, however, after you win a Super Bowl.
6:45 p.m. Fans are filling their seats quickly. Guess that happens when tailgating starts so early in the day.
The Packers have issued 600 media credentials.
'Not a record, but sort of like playoff numbers,' says Sarah Quick, Green Bay's assistant media relations director. 'A lot of international media is here.'
The journalist sitting next to me, Jolien Storsbergen, writes for USA Sports, a magazine in The Netherlands. She has been sent to cover a couple of NFL games over the space of 10 days, 'but this one, mainly,' she acknowledges. 'This is the place to be.'
Storsbergen displays a huge championship ring from the 2005 Amsterdam Admirals of NFL Europe. She served as marketing manager for the club in the now-defunct league.
Was the quality of play good?
'Not always,' she said. 'But it was fun. It's a pity they stopped the league.'
7:25 p.m. Fireworks shoot off. It's Independence Day in September in Green Bay.
7:35 p.m. The Packers win the toss. Fans erupt into euphoria.
7:37 p.m. The national anthem, followed by a fly-by of F-16s representing the Wisconsin National Guard. Just a little more pageantry. Are they going to play a football game after all of this?
7:45 p.m. On the game's opening drive, the Packers look like Super Bowl favorites. Rodgers hits Jordy Nelson for 36 yards to the New Orleans 13. Three plays later, the QB connects with Greg Jennings for seven yards and a score. The crowd of 70,555 roars its approval. Green Bay 7, New Orleans 0.
7:52 p.m. On the Saints' second offensive play, Marques Colston fumbles after a reception and the Packers recover at the New Orleans 36-yard line. It's the kind of start the locals were hoping for.
8 p.m. Rodgers finds Nelson all alone for 3 yards, a TD and a 14-0 advantage. Nelson races into the stands behind the end zone for a 'Lambeau Leap,' where he is pummeled by fans. All is well in the Packer world.
8:06 p.m. On third-and-six, Saints QB Drew Brees escapes pressure and dumps off to Darren Sproles, who takes the catch-and-run play for 36 yards and a badly needed first down at the Green Bay 40. Two plays later, Brees goes deep off of play-action for 31 yards and a TD to Robert Meachem. Saints are back in the game, trailing 14-7 with 3:31 left in the first quarter.
8:16 p.m. Rookie Randall Cobb catches a Rodgers pass over the middle, puts on a nifty move to break into the open, then dives into the end zone for a 32-yard TD reception in his first NFL game. It's 21-7 with 10 seconds remaining in the period, and the Pack faithful is thinking blowout.
Rodgers finishes the quarter 14-for-15 passing for 188 yards and three touchdowns. It's the most yards he has thrown in any one quarter in his career. At this rate, he'll pass for 752 yards and 12 TDs.
8:39: p.m. Sproles catches a punt, blasts into the clear and goes 72 yards for a touchdown, drawing the Saints to within 21-17 with 8:37 left in the first half. The 5-6, 190-pound scatback - take heart, Jacquizz Rodgers - is going to be a major weapon in his first year with New Orleans.
8:45 p.m. Aaron Rodgers makes his first mistake, overthrowing a wide-open Nelson on what could have been a 77-yard TD strike. Rodgers comes right back to Jennings for 13 yards and a first down. Masterful.
8:56 p.m. James Starks busts up the middle for 17 yards and a score, capping a 14-play, 80-yard drive that consumes 6:38 of the clock.
Green Bay leads 28-17 at the two-minute warning. The score stands at the half. The Packers look like a well-oiled machine.
9:30 p.m. The Saints move from their own 20 to the Green Bay 7, but on third-and-two, Drees is sacked for a 13-yard loss. Saints settle for a 38-yard John Kasay field goal, cutting the deficit to 28-20.
9:35 p.m. My word. Cobb takes the kickoff eight yards deep in the end zone - don't return it! He evades a couple of potential tacklers at the 10, takes a hit at the 25, does a 360, is helped by teammate John Kuhn to stay on his feet (is that legal?) and breaks loose to paydirt. Ten seconds later, Cobb is in the end zone, and there is bedlam at Lambeau. Exhausted, he climbs into the stands for an abbreviated 'Lambeau Leap.' The 108-yard return equals the NFL record. Man, is his uncle Tex proud.
9:40 p.m. Sproles receives the ensuing kick in the end zone, flies up the sideline and goes 57 yards to the Green Bay 46. Is this good theater or what? Three plays later, Brees finds Devery Henderson for 29 yards and a score. It's Green Bay 35, New Orleans 27, with still 6:54 left in the third quarter. This is the shootout the folks at NBC dreamed of.
9:55 p.m. New Orleans has the ball second-and-one at the Green Bay 7-yard line, but the Saints fail on three cracks to get the first down. Great defensive stand by the Pack.
10:04 p.m. Rodgers' pocket presence is remarkable. With pressure all around him, he somehow stays on his feet to connect on a 9-yard pass to Donald Driver. It's part of a methodical 12-play, 93-yard TD drive that takes 6:12 and increases Green Bay's lead to 42-27 with 11:50 to play. It's the second-most points the Packers have scored in an opener, behind only the 53 they scored in 1919, the team's first season. Even I don't remember that one.
10:28 p.m. The Saints ain't done yet. Jimmy Graham's five-yard TD catch cuts the margin to 42-34 with 2:15 on the clock.
10:34 p.m. New Orleans' onside kick doesn't work, but the Saints force the Packers to punt, taking the ball at their own 20 with 1:08 and no timeouts remaining. Brees goes to work. Five plays, five pass receptions.
10:38 p.m. It's down to this: third-and-one at the Green Bay 9, three seconds left. Brees fires over the middle for Sproles, incomplete. But Packer linebacker A.J. Hawk is flagged for pass interference.
First-and-goal from the 1-yard line. One play for all the marbles. The give is to Mark Ingram, who is stopped short of the goal line by a swarm of Packer defenders.
Game over. Packers score the wildest of victories, 42-34. And the Packer faithful let it all hang out with a noise barrage that would lift the lid off of Lambeau, if there were one.
10:45 p.m. Rodgers hugs his new best friend, Cobb, as they jog up the ramp and into the Packer locker room together.
11 p.m. Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy seems mostly relieved to have put that one in the win column as he meets with the media.
'A great game to watch,' he says. 'TV's happy. Our fans are happy. We got great production from our offense. So did (the Saints). Two great offenses tonight. Two good defenses that came up on the short end of it.'
Rodgers finishes 27-for-35 passing for 312 yards and three TDs.
'Aaron was outstanding,' McCarthy says. 'He commands the offense. He had a big night. That's the way Aaron plays. He has set that standard. He's off to a great start of the season.'
McCarthy grins when asked about Cobb's record-tying, good-decision defying kickoff return.
'I wasn't cheering for him until he spun off that tackle at about the 25,' the Packer coach says. 'I was a little unhappy with his decision. Great result, though.'
As for the 5-10, 190-pound Kentucky product's debut performance: 'You gotta be excited about Randall. He showed that the first day of training camp. When other players talk about players who have a chance to be special, he's one of those guys who is mentioned.'
Rodgers compliments his O-line and exults over the Packers committing no turnovers.
'To pitch a shutout against a defense that thrives on turnovers, it's a good night for us,' he says. 'I felt good about the way I threw the ball. We got a lot of good performances from a lot of people.'
Rodgers finishes with a dig on Brees' pregame claim that the Saints might have an advantage because of their organized workouts during the lockout. The Packers, with few players living in Green Bay during the offseason, didn't have the luxury.
'I've just got to ask myself, what would have happened if we had offseason workouts?' the Green Bay QB says. 'Could we have started faster and scored more points tonight?'
NFL football is back. It doesn't get much better than they way it was on opening night.