Green Bay Packers  

 

Aaron Rodgers' magic makes believers of all in victory

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DALLAS -- It had to end with a pass on the run into a window that only Aaron Rodgers could see.

Tight end Jared Cook, who caught the final throw only Rodgers could make in Green Bay's 34-31 epic Divisional Round victory over the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, was just as floored as the rest of us.

"I don't think you ever get used to the things that Aaron does. He always does things that just leaves you with your jaw dropped," Cook said after the game. "Guys on this team, when he makes throws like that in practice, they think it's not a big deal. Me seeing it for the first time after being other places in the league, it's like ... wow."

Cook's athletic 36-yard grab on third-and-20 with three seconds to go, which set up kicker Mason Crosby's second clutch field goal in the final two minutes, was a very big deal. It capped a back-and-forth affair that receiver Randall Cobb called the top win "by far" of his career and an "instant classic." It's also a play that says so much about this Green Bay offense and how they've made it this far.

The Packers don't just hope for Rodgers to buy time and create magic on the move late in the down. They've built their entire offense around it. They practice it and depend on it. Practicing all those scramble drills, seemingly improvised chaos, helped Cook get his feet inbounds on the catch for which he'll forever be known.

"He had a similar play like that in practice this week but his foot was too big so he stepped out of bounds," teammate Richard Rodgers said with a laugh. "We were making fun of him, so I think that's why he kept his feet in this time."

"[Cook] learned from it!" wideout Davante Adams exclaimed of the practice play. "He converted that size 16 to about a 10 and a half!"

Cook's fine footwork notwithstanding, the craziest part of Rodgers' final throw was that he made at least five more on Sunday that were just as impressive. The Packers' front office deserves credit for constructing perhaps the best pass-blocking offensive line in football to give Rodgers time to make these throws. Green Bay's receivers deserve credit for going with Rodgers' flow and always staying alive.

Cook, who accounted for 104 of Rodgers' 356 passing yards, has become the secret weapon in the Packers' offense down the stretch partly because he's tuned into Rodgers' frequency.

"It's just about being there when he needs you. Being in the right spot," Cook said. "It's just knowing what he's thinking."

That is the sort of chemistry that can takes years to develop, but it also doesn't need to be more complicated than backyard football. Packers receiver Randall Cobb told one reporter that the final play was essentially written up in the dirt by Rodgers before the snap, with the quarterback telling each receiver where to go.

Cook's account after the game supports that insane notion, further cementing the catch as one that will be remembered as long as football is played in Green Bay and Dallas. Asked if he was the primary receiver on the play, Cook was flummoxed.

"Nah, I don't think so," Cook said before catching himself. "You never know, though."

This is life as a Packers pass catcher. From Randall Cobb to Davante Adams to Cook, they are trying to keep up with greatness.

"You don't need to be open at all. You can be covered perfectly and Aaron puts it wherever he needs it to be for us to have a chance," tight end Richard Rodgers said. "We see that all the time. That's how it works all the time."

That's how it worked on the first touchdown of the game, Rodgers to Rodgers for a 34-yard strike that went over Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee's shoulder and through his outstretched arms raised like a goal post. Early in Sunday's game, it felt like there was no possible defense for Rodgers as he built a 21-3 lead. But Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli began to send more pressure midway through the second quarter. The blitzes forced Rodgers to get the ball out of his hand's more quickly, leading to stops. An ill-advised third-quarter throw by Rodgers led to an interception that gave the Cowboys an opening to create a thriller.

Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott led the Cowboys to 18 fourth-quarter points in a comeback bid that bodes well for the rookie duo's future January adventures. But the best story of the 2016 regular season went one-and-done just like the 2007 Cowboys in part because of poor late-game management. The Cowboys' decision to spike the ball with 49 seconds left and a huge third-down pass breakup by Packers linebacker Nick Perry resulted in Rodgers having 35 seconds to move the Packers into position for a game-winning field-goal attempt. He needed them all.

"I've made better [throws]," Rodgers said of his toss to Cook. "And I think I've made more athletic plays, but that was a combination of just good protection, being patient outside the pocket and putting the ball where I wanted to -- and Cookie made a phenomenal catch."

This sort of modesty must drive other teams crazy. Rodgers is right that he's made better throws, yet this one was still so rare, so unlike what other quarterbacks can do.

"Think about it. Dude was rolling to his left and threw it on a dime to his right," Cook said. (He forgot to mention that ball traveled more than 35 yards on a line.)

While some teammates said that nothing Rodgers does surprises them anymore, Cook remains like the rest of us. He's in awe. Asked if he's ever played with anyone like Rodgers, Cook was short: "Nah, Bro."

The late-game heroics avoided what could have been another painful playoff defeat for coach Mike McCarthy's crew. After the back-breaking NFC Championship loss in Seattle two seasons ago and last season's Divisional Round loss to Arizona in overtime, Rodgers was savoring the moment Sunday, however briefly.

"We're going to enjoy this one and then we'll get on to Atlanta tomorrow, but this one's special. More special than we've had around here in a while," he said.

Rodgers is playing the position at a level I've never seen. There is no blueprint to copy Green Bay's success because there is no other Rodgers, no other quarterback who waits five seconds on each play to pick out the receiver who will inflict maximum pain on the opponent and the opposing crowd.

"At the end of the day, they're gonna talk about [Rodgers] as one of the top-three quarterbacks who ever laced them up," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said.

His final act of heroism was to make 93,396 paid attendees audibly gasp as one, sounding like they'd been punched in the stomach, their breath taken away.

"It's awesome to hear a place go quiet, man," Cook said. "There's no better feeling."

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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