DALLAS – Down by three points, on his own 25-yard line, 1:13 on the clock, one timeout.
Is Aaron Rodgers thinking tie the game or win it?
“I’m thinking touchdown,” Rodgers said, moments after leading the Packers back from the brink for a 35-31 victory over the Cowboys at AT&T Stadium on Sunday.
“We had time. We had a timeout. The key to any good two-minute drive is the first play. You have to get some positive yards.”
Rodgers’ opening 14-yard back-shoulder pass to Davante Adams did more than that. To hear Rodgers tell it, the first play set up the last one, the TD toss to Adams near the end-zone sideline with 11 seconds to go.
His mind and poise in these situations are uncanny, just as they were last January on this same field on the draw-it-up-in-the-dirt third-and-20 sideline pass to Jared Cook to set up the playoff win.
Rodgers felt that with Cowboys rookie cornerback Jourdan Lewis playing behind Adams on the first play, allowing a low back-shoulder throw to slip through, the defender would adjust to take it away later.
When he did, Rodgers threw a higher back-shoulder ball that Adams skied to grab in the end zone, and Lewis had no chance.
The only sign Rodgers couldn’t just do whatever he wanted on the last drive was it took two tosses to Adams to finish it right. On the play before the touchdown, he went back-shoulder to Adams, but it was no good.
His trusty receiver convinced him to go right back to it again.
“I was going to call another play, and ’Tae came back and said call it again … with his eyes. He just said, ‘Throw a better ball,’” Rodgers said. “I just put a better throw on it and he made a great catch.”
It was a remarkable finish given the way the game started. Early on, it was Cowboys QB Dak Prescott looking like Rodgers, extending plays on third down, avoiding rushers for big gainers.
Prescott hit a 49-yard pass on third-and-13 on the game’s opening possession, converted on third-and-6 with an 18-yard completion out of trouble when the Packers could have forced a field goal, and scrambled up the middle for 21 yards on third-and-5. Each Rodgers-like play was the key snap on Dallas’ opening three touchdown drives.
But Rodgers wasn’t about to be upstaged. He didn’t look as fleet-footed as Prescott on a late scramble, but he managed to avoid getting tripped up by two tacklers and picked up 18 yards for a first down in the red zone with 21 seconds left.
“I was focused on getting my knees up,” Rodgers said of his running style.
“Once I was able to get loose, it was about getting the first down and getting out of bounds. My eyes got big for a second, thinking I could cut it back inside and try to score.”
Out of timeouts by that point, Rodgers did the right thing. But he gave just as much credit to everyone else’s execution along the way, which kept a large menu of plays at his disposal throughout the frantic final drive.
Tight end Martellus Bennett and rookie running back Aaron Jones had a chain-moving catch and run, respectively, that got the Packers to the edge of kicker Mason Crosby’s range.
“The genius and the beauty in those situations is the moment isn’t as big as you think it is,” Rodgers said. “It’s the little things being executed perfectly. It was important plays at the most important times.”
And important decisions, too. The Cowboys’ defensive front gave him a look that prompted the handoff to Jones for 15 yards. The rookie had earned everyone’s confidence as the game wore on, so much so he got the call on an earlier fourth-and-1 that set up a TD pass to Jordy Nelson to start the fourth quarter.
That score was Rodgers’ brain at work as well. He said the play-action fake that got Nelson wide open in the back of the end zone was a check the two hadn’t run since the Miami game back in 2014. He called it because the Cowboys played a totally unexpected coverage in the end zone, and Nelson knew exactly what to do. Chemistry class, anyone?
Late-game heroics ended that Miami game as well, of course, and there’s no substitute for road wins when a team’s back is against the wall. They can go a long way as a season unfolds, and as the Packers, hopefully, continue getting healthier, this one could be a catalyst in a 2017 season with a challenging road slate.
“Our identity is morphing as we get guys back,” Rodgers said. “Our identity is that when we have to have it, there’s zero excuses. That’s just the case.”
So is the assertion that Rodgers beats teams with his mind as much as his arm and legs. In whatever proportions, they’re a special combination.
“We’ve been through that before in this building,” Adams said. “When you have 12 back there, it allows you to be a little more calm. He’s going to take full control of the offense and full control of the game. He orchestrated a beautiful drive.
“It looked really easy. Sometimes it isn’t always as easy as it looks, but he makes it look that way.”
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