ARLINGTON, Texas -- He lofted a tantalizing touch pass toward the left side of the end zone, envisioning a dramatic touchdown -- and then wincing as the throw sailed past its target.
The eyes of Texas were upon Aaron Rodgers as his intended receiver, Davante Adams, shrugged off his disappointment and sped back to the huddle with the Green Bay Packers trailing the Dallas Cowboys by three points and 16 seconds on the clock. Rodgers' eyes, however, were locked in on Adams. The quarterback was preparing to call a play that favored the opposite side of the field, but the resolve in Adams' expression gave him pause, and they stared at one another for a couple of seconds as 93,329 fans at AT&T Stadium took short breaths and said their prayers.
Finally, Adams broke the silence. "Let's do it again," he said. And that was all Rodgers needed to hear.
After adjusting the formation to try to conceal his intentions, Rodgers took a shotgun snap and hoisted a glorious pass destined to land in the perfect place at the perfect time. The back-shoulder throw allowed Adams, who had swept to the outside of cornerback Jourdan Lewis, to spin his body as he leapt, and he corralled the ball as safety Jeff Heath gave futile pursuit from the middle of the field. After landing in the end zone, Adams let his momentum carry him toward the back corner before chucking the ball into the stands in celebration.
Yes, Rodgers had done it again, the latest act in an already legendary career that once seemed unfathomable to all but his staunchest defenders.
That 12-yard pass to Adams with 11 seconds remaining completed a nine-play, 75-yard drive that had begun 62 seconds earlier -- and gave the Packersa 35-31 victory over the Cowboys that completed the trilogy of Big D Devastation wrought by this ruthless dream-killer. For those who only started watching football in 2017: There was his game-winning completion to his fifth read in the Packers' 2014 divisional-round playoff victory at Lambeau Field (a.k.a. the "Dez Caught It" Game) and, last January, his ridiculously clutch heroics in Green Bay's 34-31 divisional-round upset of the top-seeded Cowboys at AT&T.
Now, add Sunday's cold-hearted masterpiece to the pile. And yes, the Packersare allowed to get that excited over a regular season victory, because Rodgers himself gave permission as we walked from the visitors' locker room toward Green Bay's team buses Sunday night.
"F--- yeah we are!" Rodgers said, smiling broadly. "That was awesome."
Most awesome of all, from the Pack's perspective, was the fact that the winning pass ended up in the hands of a very resilient young man.
Ten days earlier, Adams had absorbed a brutal helmet-to-helmet shot from linebacker Danny Trevathan in a Thursday night victory over the Chicago Bears, leaving the field on a stretcher and leaving the stadium in an ambulance. He was diagnosed with a concussion at a Green Bay hospital, yet was cleared to return against the Cowboys, catching seven passes for 66 yards and two touchdowns to deliver a metaphorical gut punch to his opponents.
Ten years earlier, Rodgers summoned a gutty performance against the Cowboys in a Thursday night clash at now-demolished Texas Stadium (or, as Rodgers called it after Sunday's game, "the old building") which marked his de facto NFL debut. Then a third-year backup behind a future first-ballot Hall of Famer, Rodgers entered the game after ironman Brett Favre sustained a second quarter elbow injury and, for the first time, showed the greater football universe just how much he belonged at the pro level.
On that late November night, in a battle of 10-1 teams, the former Cal star completed 18 of 26 passes for 201 yards and a touchdown without throwing an interception while nearly pulling Green Bay out of a 17-point hole -- a poised, pinpoint performance that helped pave the way for Favre's tumultuous departure the following summer.
For many skeptics, it was a revelation. For Rodgers, a two-time MVP now headed for first-ballot Hall of Fame election himself, it remains a very pleasant memory.
The beginning, too, was a bit hairy -- literally.
"I had a hair problem back then," Rodgers recalled as we stood at his locker shortly after Sunday's game. "I couldn't see for three plays or so, because it was falling over my eyes. I made a second-series adjustment: I had to put on a Jimmy Cap to keep it contained. It was a super rookie move."
A little more than three years later, Rodgers put forth a Super Bowl MVP performance at AT&T, leading the Packers to a 31-25 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers that seemed like the potential start of a run of multiple championships. They've come close a few times since, especially in 2014, when they somehow squandered a late lead in Seattle and fell in overtime to the Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game.
Those title-game defeats and other postseason disappointments during this decade have helped convince Rodgers and his teammates that home-field advantage is worth fighting for -- and, as of Sunday night, the NFC North-leading Packers are tied with the Carolina Panthers and Philadelphia Eagles atop the conference standings, with the Falcons (3-1, including a Week 2 victory over Green Bay) in hot pursuit.
"If you want to go back and look at our history, even late in the regular season, it's tough for opposing teams to play in the elements," said veteran linebacker Clay Matthews, whose tight coverage on Cowboys receiver Terrance Williams helped cause the deflection that led to cornerback Demarius Randall's 21-yard interception return for touchdown, giving Green Bay a 28-24 lead with 9:56 remaining. "There are a lot of warm-weather teams and dome teams that, when they have to play in the elements, it messes with their psyche and requires mental toughness to overcome.
"There are big regular-season games that, perhaps, in years prior we let slip -- games like today's. We'll see if it makes a difference. But when you're talking about a team of Dallas' caliber, I feel like a win like this has got to mean something at the end of the year."
While Matthews was admittedly exhausted from trying to contain second-year Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (25 of 36, 251 yards, three touchdowns; four carries for 37 yards and a rushing TD) and friends, those 62 seconds of brilliance at game's end by Rodgers helped put a bounce in his step. For after Prescott's 11-yard touchdown run off a crafty read-option fake to Ezekiel Elliott (29 carries, 116 yards) gave Dallas a 31-28 lead with 1:13 remaining, it was time for the old master to show the young Jedi some next-level majesty.
"In those situations, I try to focus on my breathing and try to calm myself, and remind the guys about some little things," Rodgers told reporters in his postgame press conference. "The first thing coming out of that two-minute (drive) was a conversation we had going into halftime, about the leverage and the coverage style in that '55,' two-man coverage, and what kind of route we thought we could get in that situation. But the genius and the beauty in those situations is not that the moment isn't as big as you think it is. It comes down to the little things to be executed perfectly."
Rodgers (19 of 29, 221 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions) said he laid the groundwork for the game-winning pass on the drive's first play, a perfectly placed throw to his left that Adams turned into a 14-yard gain.
"The key to any good two-minute drive is the first play," Rodgers said. "You've got to get some positive yards. So we had a good concept frontside, and kind of an alert backside, which actually set up the entire final sequence -- to get Davante on the back shoulder to start the whole drive."
With star receiver Jordy Nelson sidelined during the final drive while being evaluated for an undisclosed injury, Adams' presence was that much more crucial.
"To take a hit like that 10 days ago, to be in an ambulance, and then be back out here today -- that speaks volumes about mental toughness," receiver Randall Cobb said of Adams. "Not a lot of people would have been out there. Even a lot of football players wouldn't have been out there. It takes an incredible amount of mental toughness, but that's Davante. And Aaron? What can I say? He just does what needs to be done."
And when the Packers faced their lone third down of the game-winning drive, Rodgers took matters into his own ... well, knees: On third-and-8 from the Cowboys' 30, he rolled to his left and slipped past diving Dallas defensive lineman David Irving, who had two of the team's four sacks, continuing down the sideline for an 18-yard gain.
"I was trying to pick my knees up," Rodgers said. "Sometimes when I run I don't get my knees up, so I've been focusing on getting my knees up and [extending] my legs a little bit."
On first-and-10 from the 12, Rodgers sailed that first end-zone throw past Adams' grasp -- and Cowboys fans gasped, then collectively exhaled. The sequel, for this audience, would be far more chilling.
"I came back and looked at [Rodgers]," Adams told me as he prepared to leave the stadium. "I knew I beat [Lewis] the first time, and [Rodgers] could see it in my eyes, I guess. I said, 'Let's do it again.' He threw a dime, and it was right there for me."
After extinguishing Dallas' last-gasp, lateral-laden play, the Packers spilled onto the field to celebrate, while the Cowboys were left to process the latest dagger delivered by the dankest quarterback in the land. A couple of minutes later, Rodgers and I had a moment at midfield -- what can I say? It's kind of our thing -- and I was hoping he'd provide me with some illuminating words to match the magnitude of the moment.
He smacked my hand, broke into a massive grin and bellowed: "Wooooooohoooooooo!"
No worries -- in that moment, it was all I needed to hear.