Playoffs  

 

Aaron Rodgers' pinpoint accuracy leads Packers over Cowboys

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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- He took a shotgun snap, went through his progressions and slipped gingerly to his left, avoiding outside pressure from Dallas Cowboys defensive end Demarcus Lawrence. And then Aaron Rodgers -- a man desperately striving to avoid an inglorious exit for the fourth consecutive postseason -- saw open field in front of him, and was confronted with a bedeviling conundrum.

In normal conditions the deceptively athletic Green Bay Packers quarterback could have run for the end zone, or perhaps the first-down marker three yards shy of the goal line. This time, however, that was out of the question. Rodgers' partially torn left calf had bothered him all afternoon, restricting his pocket mobility; attempting to limp his way across the frozen tundra and into the secondary was out of the question.

So Rodgers, the best player in football, simply did something epic.

Still sliding to his left, Rodgers surveyed the end zone, cocked his arm and threw back across his body, somehow threading a ball between Cowboys defensive backs Sterling Moore and J.J. Wilcox. If the 79,704 fans at Lambeau Field -- a stadium record -- and tens of millions of television viewers seemed shocked by the abruptness and accuracy of the deftly delivered dime, which ended up in the hands of rookie tight end Richard Rodgers (no relation, though he and his quarterback do share an alma mater) in the back of the end zone with 9:10 remaining in Sunday's game, their reaction would prove to be justified.

After all, the pinpoint pass that would provide the winning points in the Pack's 26-21 divisional-round playoff victory over the Cowboys played out a tad differently than Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy drew it up.

More than an hour after the game, as the victorious quarterback prepared to leave Lambeau and turn his attention to next Sunday's NFC Championship Game against the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks in Seattle, I asked him what read the rookie tight end from Cal had been on the fateful touchdown pass.

"He was two ... and kinda five," Rodgers replied, offering a faint smile.

Come again?

"Well, originally two -- but when it broke down and he slid back across, that made him five."

Wrap your head around that: After a regular season that will almost surely result in Rodgers earning a second Most Valuable Player award, he completed a gritty and stirring postseason comeback by delivering an Are you kidding me? dart to his fifth read -- and that was only one of many ridiculously well-placed throws he delivered on Sunday.

"The legend grows," said Packers cornerback Tramon Williams, one of the heroes of Green Bay's brilliant postseason run of four years ago, when Rodgers legitimized himself as a superstar with an MVP performance in the Pack's 31-25 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV.

As one of only five-remaining Packers (excluding Rodgers) to have played with both iconic Green Bay passers of the past two-plus decades, Williams wasn't surprised when the "F-word" was invoked in a follow-up question: For given the physical and mental toughness he displayed in leading the Pack back against a driven and determined Cowboys team, Rodgers' triumphant effort could truly be described as (Brett) Favre-esque.

If Favre's rugged resilience and penchant for outrageously conceived playmaking were unrivaled, Rodgers is doing a pretty damned good imitation. He is the Toast of Titletown for a reason, and his intestinal fortitude clearly matches his phenomenal skill.

"I hear ya," said Jordy Nelson, the Packers' Pro Bowl wide receiver, in regard to the Favre/Rodgers resemblance. "But don't tell him that. (Rodgers) won't be thrilled by the comparison."

For all Rodgers has done to help smooth over the scars stemming from Favre's messy departure from Green Bay, old scabs apparently remain. So, in deference to Nelson, let's call this performance Rodgers-eque.

Whatever it was, his Packers teammates surely appreciated it.

"Yeah, it reminds me a lot of (Favre)," said rookie wideout Davante Adams, whose 46-yard touchdown catch brought the Packers to within 21-20 late in the third quarter. "Aaron's doing a lot of the same things I used to watch (Favre do on television), and he's trying to take it up an extra notch. That's what we need to go where we want to go."

Said Williams: "No doubt about it -- the guy's amazing. It does (remind me of Favre). You've gotta understand, this guy we've got behind center has learned all the great things from Brett, and learned the mistakes he shouldn't make. You don't get great quarterbacks like that often, let alone back to back. He's a success story, and it was destined."

More on destiny in a moment; first, let's appreciate the empirical majesty: Rodgers completed his final 10 passes -- a streak that began with his 46-yard hookup with Adams (seven receptions, 117 yards) late in the third quarter and concluded with a game-clinching third-and-11 pass to Randall Cobb that appeared touched by a football angel (not to mention a Cowboys defensive lineman) -- en route to a 24-for-35, 316-yard, three-touchdown, no-interception gem.

It was even better in person.

"It reminded me of that time Byron Leftwich was at Marshall, playing with a broken leg, and his teammates were carrying him up to the line," said Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk, one of Rodgers' closest friends on the team. "Aaron wasn't being carried, but he wasn't getting around very well on that leg."

Early on, even as the Packers were driving 60 yards on their first possession to take a 7-0 lead, it was clear that Rodgers' mobility would be restricted. Bruising halfback Eddie Lacy (19 carries, 101 yards) was the focal point of the Pack's first drive, and Rodgers' four-yard touchdown pass to tight end Andrew Quarless, a sidearm flip to the back of the end zone, came after he slithered forward and had a clear path to the end zone.

"Normally," Rodgers said, "I run that one in."

To the Cowboys' credit, they responded with touchdown drives on their next two possessions, taking a 14-7 lead on a pair of scoring throws by Tony Romo, who was brilliantly efficient (15-of-19, 191 yards, no interceptions) in his return to his home state. And when Pro Bowl running back DeMarco Murray (25 carries, 123 yards) scored on a 1-yard run to push the lead to 21-13 with 4:12 left in the third quarter, the Cowboys seemed to have control of the game.

And then, as he is prone to doing, Rodgers repossessed it.

Credit McCarthy for switching things up, installing receiver-heavy, empty-backfield shotgun sets that allowed Rodgers to scan the field and do his thing.

"That was the plan, to go to that," Rodgers said. "And I'm glad we did, 'cause it worked."

Yet in the end, Rodgers and the Packers needed some unplanned good fortune on their side -- and they received it, in a major way.

Following the Rodgers-to-Rodgers touchdown -- "As usual," said Richard Rodgers, "he put it exactly where he wanted to" -- the Cowboys took over at their own 18, and Murray immediately ripped off a 30-yard run. Dallas drove to the Green Bay 32 where, on fourth-and-2 with 4:42 remaining, Romo showed his chutzpah -- and almost came up with a signature moment to level off a postseason career replete with high-profile disappointments.

With Pro Bowl wideout Dez Bryant singled up on the left side against Packers cornerback Sam Shields, Romo went for it all, lofting a glorious spiral toward the man who caught 16 touchdowns during the 2014 regular season. Shields was draped all over him, but Bryant went up and gracefully grasped the ball at the 5, falling forward toward the end zone. He appeared to take several steps with the ball but bobbled it as he hit the ground.

Bryant was ruled down at the 1, and McCarthy -- who was 0-for-5 on replay challenges this season, including an unsuccessful one earlier in Sunday's game -- reached for the red flag.

Lambeau was suddenly as quiet as downtown Green Bay on a weeknight. The Cowboys had been the beneficiaries of a controversial officiating decision in their 24-20 wild-card-round victory over the Detroit Lions the previous Sunday, causing some fans to espouse various conspiracy theories suggesting things were somehow stacked in Dallas' favor. That was forcefully debunked when referee Gene Steratore announced that Bryant, in an interpretation that paralleled that of the infamous "Calvin Johnson Rule," had not maintained possession of the ball after going to the ground, thus overturning the call.

"Somebody asked me on the sidelines how confident I was that they'd overturn it," Williams said. "I was about a 7 -- I thought it was clear that he bobbled it."

Williams was then jokingly asked, "What if it had been a team other than the Cowboys?"

"You might be right," he said, laughing. "It might have been a 10 in that case."

The overturn put the ball in the hands of No. 12 with 4:06 remaining, and he had no intention of giving it back. First, on third-and-3 from the Green Bay 40, Rodgers zipped a short pass to Adams, who broke free for a 26-yard gain.

A Lacy run forced the Cowboys to burn their final timeout, and another carry by Lacy took the clock down to the two-minute warning. Facing a third-and-11 from the Dallas 35, McCarthy could have burned another 45 seconds or so by calling another running play. Instead, he trusted the best player on the field to seal the deal with his arm. Rodgers did -- with a major assist from the Hand of Fate.

Sliding a couple of steps to his right, Rodgers planted and tried to zip a ball deep downfield to wideout Jarrett Boykin, but onrushing Cowboys defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford leaped up and deflected it with his left hand. There was enough mustard on the pass for it to travel a yard past the first-down marker, where Cobb was slipping toward the right sideline behind cornerback Orlando Scandrick.

"I was throwing it to Boyk," Rodgers said. "And somehow, Randall made a play."

Cobb (eight receptions, 116 yards), the other half of the Packersdynamic receiving duo, made a diving catch to send the Lambeau fans into hysterics and send the Packers to Seattle, where they have a bit of history they'd like to avenge.

"You can't tell me there's not a God," Cobb said afterward. "For the ball to bounce like that, right to me ... I just saw it coming in the air and tried to make a play."

That Cobb seemed to appear out of nowhere made for a surreal sight on the Green Bay sideline. "I thought he was throwing it away," Hawk said. "I couldn't see Randall, and then all of a sudden, there he was with the ball. I was like, 'Are you kidding me?' It was an awesome ending to an awesome day."

And for an awesome quarterback with a growing legend, it was a game for the Hall of Fame induction highlight reel. Not that Rodgers could necessarily appreciate that in the victory's immediate aftermath. The man may be able to throw touchdown passes to his fifth read under duress, but comprehending the larger overtones of his epic effort eluded him as he prepared to exit the locker room.

"Not right now, I can't," Rodgers said. "Ask me tonight after I've had a glass of scotch."

After Sunday, all of Titletown will toast to that.

Follow Mike Silver on Twitter @MikeSilver.

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