DALLAS – Intense. Or just tense. Take your pick. Go ahead and choose both.
The Packers used every last second to beat the Cowboys in a classic of an NFC Divisional playoff on Sunday at AT&T Stadium, getting a walk-off, 51-yard field goal from Mason Crosby for a 34-31 triumph that all but silenced the 93,396 in attendance.
Crosby’s kick was the longest ever to win an NFL postseason game, giving Green Bay its eighth straight victory and a trip to Atlanta for the NFC title game next Sunday, when a berth in Super Bowl LI will be on the line.
It will mark Green Bay’s second trip to the conference title game in the last three years, and the fourth one in Head Coach Mike McCarthy’s 11 seasons.
McCarthy was as “exhausted” as he’s been at a post-game podium in a long time, and for good reason.
“Well, that was one heckuva football game to be a part of, and I’m sure it was a great one to watch,” McCarthy said.
“This game, this was about us. Our great players are stepping up and everybody else as a team took a step today. Obviously a fantastic finish, and that’s what these games come down to.”
In a game full of momentum swings, the Packers had the ball last after both teams traded late fourth-quarter field goals in a span of 58 seconds. Crosby drilled one from 56, and then the Cowboys’ Dan Bailey answered from 52 with 35 seconds left.
That turned out to be just enough time for Packers QB Aaron Rodgers to put Crosby in position for the win. Green Bay picked up 17 yards on a screen pass to running back Ty Montgomery but then lost 10 yards on a sack.
Facing third-and-20 from his own 36, Rodgers rolled left and fired to tight end Jared Cook, who made a spectacular tip-toe catch while falling out of bounds for a 36-yard gain. The clock read just 3 seconds.
While the throw was as pinpoint as it gets, McCarthy said the pass protection is the biggest challenge on the play, and Rodgers made a smart decision to roll left after rolling right on the previous snap against the aggressive Dallas blitz.
“We have great confidence in him, and rightfully so,” McCarthy said of his superb quarterback. “The credit for that last drive, as far as the plays, the adjustments, the protection adjustment, that’s Aaron.”
Rodgers was keeping an eye on both Randall Cobb and Cook moving across the field from the back side, and he felt comfortable with left guard Lane Taylor blocking right in front of him, giving him room to set his feet and fire.
“It worked out the way we were hoping it would protection-wise,” said Rodgers, who finished 28-of-43 for 356 yards with two TDs, one interception and a 96.7 passer rating. “He made a great catch.
“We’ve made those throws before in practice. It’s a matter of trusting your muscle memory and your training, and thinking about a positive picture when you break the huddle and making the play.”
Rodgers was positively hot in the first half, leading the offense to three straight touchdowns for a 21-3 lead despite the absence of leading receiver Jordy Nelson. The first momentum swing back went to the Cowboys, behind their rookie duo of quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott, pulling within 21-13 at halftime.
The Packers responded with a 75-yard scoring drive to open the second half, as Cook finished it on a short TD grab. Cook was Green Bay’s leading receiver, with six catches for 104 yards and the one score. Cobb added seven catches for 62 yards, Davante Adams added five for 76, and Montgomery had 81 yards from scrimmage (47 rushing, 34 receiving) plus two rushing TDs.
Green Bay took that 28-13 lead into the fourth quarter as both teams traded interceptions in the third. Micah Hyde stepped in front of a wide-receiver screen to pick off Prescott in the red zone before Rodgers threw his first interception in 318 pass attempts on the ensuing drive.
Adams had a step on his man down the right sideline on third down, but Rodgers’ throw was just a tad too far inside. Cowboys safety Jeff Heath made a diving interception, Rodgers’ first miscue through the air since the fourth quarter in Tennessee two months ago.
From there, the Cowboys erased the 15-point deficit in the final period. Green Bay’s defense had been without veteran safety Morgan Burnett (quad injury) since the first quarter, forcing two rookies in safety Kentrell Brice and cornerback Josh Hawkins to play extensively.
Dallas eventually tied the game on Dez Bryant’s second TD catch of the game and a two-point conversion on a QB draw by Prescott with 4:08 left. Bryant had nine catches for 132 yards and the two scores, while Prescott (24-of-38, 302 yards, three TDs, one INT, 103.2 rating) and Elliott (22 carries, 125 yards) more than did their part.
“It was definitely a game of momentum, and when they hit the big plays, the energy was strong,” McCarthy said. “They made some big plays on third downs to get conversions. This is playoff football. There’s a reason why these two teams played today. You’re going to have plays like that.”
Rodgers spoke of nothing but confidence in being able to score not just once, but twice, when called upon down the stretch. He did just that with the help of Crosby, who extended his NFL record for consecutive postseason field goals to 23 with his two long, booming clutch kicks. He even had to make the last one twice, as the Cowboys called their last timeout to try to ice him just before the snap.
“It was extra special tonight,” Rodgers said. “He’s the best kicker in the league. It’s incredible he makes it twice. A lot goes into that operation.
“I’m proud of our guys. We stuck together, believed in each other like we have on this entire run. I don’t think anybody doubted we were going to score on those last two drives, and that says a lot about this team.”
It sure does.
“For Mason Crosby to knock it through twice, that in itself tells you a lot about the character, the way we’ve been able to fight through. It’s pretty good insight into who we are as a football team,” McCarthy said.
“This is an outstanding victory for us. We’ve won a lot of games in a row, and our focus is on to Atlanta. We’re an excellent football team two steps away from achieving greatness.”
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