CHICAGO — Mason Crosby saw the release, but not the target.
Moments before his eventual game-winning field goal, the Packers’ veteran kicker was jostling for a spot on the sideline to watch what Aaron Rodgers might have up his sleeve on third-and-11 with less than a minute left in Sunday’s game against Chicago.
Crosby watched the play develop and the deep ball exit his quarterback’s hand, but he didn’t know who it was intended for until Jordy Nelson’s No. 87 flashed underneath the ball as it descended.
It was the pass that defined the Packers’ season – a 60-yard heave from Rodgers to Nelson that set up a 32-yard field goal for Crosby to seal a 30-27 win over the Bears and allow Green Bay control of its own playoff destiny.
“I couldn’t believe when Aaron let that ball go,” Crosby said. “I didn’t anticipate Jordy running right underneath it. I couldn’t see him. I went back over and got one more kick in the net and knew we were going to go win it.”
What Crosby missed was Nelson gaining a step on Bears cornerback Cre’Von LeBlanc 15 yards downfield and throwing up his arm to signal Rodgers to throw the ball deep over his shoulder.
In a blink of an eye, Rodgers uncorked a pass to his longtime target. Battling below-zero wind chills, Nelson tuned out the world and looked the ball into his hands for what will go down as one of the biggest completions of the 2016 season.
As Crosby turned to get in one more practice attempt, the offense sprinted downfield to spike the ball with 3 seconds remaining. Teammates started to celebrate but Nelson didn’t smile.
“I know we didn’t have timeouts,” Nelson said. “Aaron did a great job of keeping everyone calm and understanding the situation. Obviously he knows what he’s doing out there. We all got lined up, make sure we’re all set, clocked it. Other guys on the sideline were happy but I need to see the ball go through the uprights before I got too excited.”
That’s when the spotlight turned onto Crosby, holder Jake Schum and long-snapper Brett Goode. The field-goal unit hit a 34-yard field goal before halftime, but it wasn’t the most aesthetically pleasing as it knuckled low through the uprights.
Crosby still felt confident and the first attempt was perfect, but Bears coach John Fox called timeout right before the snap. Crosby and Schum didn’t mind. Both players actually liked the timeout since it gave them a chance to judge the wind in that end zone.
“We always know no matter what, let’s get it off,” Schum said. “It gives Mason an extra kick to see what the wind is doing and how it’s pushing the ball. It’s just an extra rep for us. Call the timeout, we’re going to finish it.”
The timeout didn’t change the result. Crosby drilled it down the middle to give the Packers their fourth consecutive win, bringing them within one game of Detroit (9-5) for the NFC North lead.
The 60-yard completion was somewhat poetic for Nelson, who eclipsed 1,000 yards on the play for the fourth time in his NFL career with the catch.
As cool as Nelson was on the receiving end of Rodgers’ pass, the rest of the team was openly wearing its nerves and excitement on the field and sideline.
“I was just standing there watching it like, ‘Go get it Jordy,’” said running back Ty Montgomery, who rushed for 162 yards and two touchdowns in the win. “He came down with it and it was awesome.”
Nelson finished with seven catches for 124 yards, his fourth 100-yard performance of the season. He and tight end Jared Cook (six catches for 85 yards) were the favorite targets of Rodgers, who gutted through a calf injury to throw for 252 yards.
As soon as Crosby’s kick eclipsed the crossbar, the Packers’ sideline wasted no time storming the field to celebrate the win. It was in that moment Nelson finally gave in to the celebration.
“It was obviously a big play for us,” Nelson said. “We needed to get the first down if we wanted to put ourselves in a situation to win the game. Those are awkward situations for a defense.
“Obviously they didn’t want to give up the field goal so they wanted to stop us there. Just did my job. Once I got past the DB, I threw my arm up to make sure Aaron saw me and he did. He saw it so it he let it go.”
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