Packers hold off Cowboys’ comeback, reach NFC title game
From Chris Wesseling, NFL.com
~Mason Crosby drilled a pair of field goals over 50 yards in the final 98 seconds, leading the Green Bay Packers to a thrilling 34-31 victory over the Dallas Cowboys in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. Here’s what we learned in Sunday’s game:
1. Including Dan Bailey’s 52-yard field goal and Crosby’s “iced” attempt a split-second before the Cowboys called timeout on the game-winner, we saw four successful kicks over 50 yards with the game on the line in an instant classic. Although Bailey’s boot tied the game at 31, it left 35 seconds and a pair of timeouts for Aaron Rodgers to work his wizardry. Rodgers somehow managed to avoid fumbling on a blindside sack by safety Jeff Heath, leading to a third-and-20 desperation play on Green Bay’s 32-yard line. Rodgers escaped the pocket, threw a dime across his body off of one foot into a window the size of the Grinch’s heart for a spectacular 35-yard toe-dragging sideline catch by Jared Cook. Crosby snuck a 51-yard field goal inside the left upright, just moments after sending a knuckleball through the right corner pocket from 56 yards out. He will never buy his own beer in Green Bay for the rest of his life.
2. No Jordy Nelson, no problem. Before Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli dialed up a series of blitzes to confuse Green Bay in the second half, Rodgers had led the Packers to 66 points in the first 74 minutes since Nelson’s Wild Card-round exit last week. Prior to the opening whistle, FOX analyst Troy Aikman declared that Rodgers is playing quarterback at the highest level it has ever been played. Rodgers spent the next 60 minutes of game time proving Aikman right. The man who turned the Hail Mary into a routine play deployed every other weapon in his arsenal on Sunday, extending plays, throwing receivers open, pump faking to dupe defensive backs, picking up first downs with his legs and tricking Dallas’ defense into untimely penalties. Rodgers’ 34-yard touchdown pass to Richard Rodgers was his 14th on a “free play” due to defensive offsides since 2012. No other quarterback has more than three such scores over that span. A master craftsman possessing the position’s most gifted and varied toolbox, Rodgers has advanced the art of quarterbacking over the past two months.
3. The new version of the “triplets” brought the Cowboys back into the game just as the Packers were threatening to run away and hide with a 28-13 lead late in the third quarter. While social media was clamoring for a Tony Romo appearance, rookie quarterback Dak Prescott hit 13 of 17 throws for 142 yards, two touchdowns and a two-point conversion in his final three possessions. Directing a textbook one-minute drill, he picked up 42 yards in six plays to give Bailey an opportunity for the game-tying field goal.
Fellow rookie Ezekiel Elliott churned out 125 yards on 22 carries, highlighted by a phenomenal spin move on Clay Matthews to set up Dez Bryant’s seven-yard touchdown that ultimately tied the contest at 28 with five minutes remaining.
4. Speaking of Bryant, he joined Hall of Famer Michael Irvin as the only Cowboys receivers with at least 130 receiving yards and two touchdown catches in a postseason game. Bryant enjoyed not just his best game of the year but also one of the finest performances by a wide receiver all season. After hauling in back-to-back passes of 21 yards and a 40-yard touchdown in the second quarter, he forced a red-zone pass interference penalty on LaDarius Gunter and beat the Packers cornerback again for the game-tying seven-yard score in the final stanza.
5. The Cowboys’ vaunted offensive line draws all of the hype, but the Packers’ front five deserve credit for the stellar pass protection that allows Rodgers to hold onto the ball and routinely use his improvisational skills en route to chunk plays. Green Bay’s offensive line survived a scare when blindside tackle David Bakhtiari went down with a knee injury in the second quarter. The second-team All Pro returned for the second half after missing one series.
6. Bakhtiari wasn’t the lone Green Bay starter to get nicked up. Safety Morgan Burnett was ruled out after sustaining a quadriceps injury. Wideout Davante Adams twisted his ankle late in the game, but returned for the final field-goal drive. Those two injuries will be worth monitoring for the NFC Championship Game in Atlanta. In one of the most entertaining games of the regular season, those two teams battled to a 33-32 Falcons victory back in Week 8.
7. While Gunter was handled by Bryant, fellow defensive back Micah Hyde and rookie defensive tackle Kenny Clark came through with their best efforts of the season for Green Bay’s defense. The steadily improving Clark was a disruptive force at the line of scrimmage, in one case single-handedly thwarting an Elliott screen play. After a first-quarter sack, Hyde’s film study paid dividends when he jumped a bubble screen to Bryant for a third-quarter interception.
8. Heath snapped Rodgers’ career-long streak of 318 consecutive pass attempts without an an interception — the second-longest streak of the 21st century. Heath would have played the hero with a clutch red-zone interception just after the two-minute warning had rookie cornerback Anthony Brown not bailed Rodgers out with a pass interference penalty in coverage of Ty Montgomery. Heath had one more chance to earn the game ball via the aforementioned blindside hit on Rodgers with 23 seconds remaining, but the quarterback’s giant hands put a vice grip on the ball. Heath played an inordinately important role in the final labyrinthine moments of a football opera.