Clutch Rodgers carries Packers to NFC championship game
Arlington, Texas — This time it was a catch, and another win for the Packers.
Call it a “Half Mary” from Aaron Rodgers.
Rodgers threw a 36-yard pass to a toe-dragging Jared Cook on the sideline, and Mason Crosby kicked a 51-yard field goal as time expired, sending the Packers to the NFC championship game with their eighth straight win while thwarting a huge Dallas rally in a 34-31 victory in the divisional round of the playoffs Sunday.
The throw on the run from Rodgers to Cook on third-and-20 with 12 seconds left — confirmed on review — wasn’t nearly as debatable as Dez Bryant’s famous catch that wasn’t in the Cowboys’ divisional round loss to Green Bay (12-6) two years ago.
Cook, who led Green Bay with 104 yards receiving, kept both feet inbounds with a knee just above the ground out of bounds.
“I tried to put it in a good spot,” said Rodgers. “He made a hell of a catch.”
And it came after the Cowboys tied the game twice in the final five minutes behind rookie sensations Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott in their playoff debut.
It was the third field goal of more than 50 yards in the final 1:33 — two from Crosby and one from Dallas’ Dan Bailey. And Crosby had to make the winner twice after Dallas coach Jason Garrett called timeout before the first attempt.
Rodgers, who sparked last week’s wild-card win over the Giants with another Hail Mary before halftime, is headed to an MVP showdown with Atlanta’s Matt Ryan next Sunday.
It will be his third NFC title game — all on the road.
“Unbelievable effort. I mean, what a game, what a game,” said Rodgers, who threw for 356 yards with two touchdowns. “We’re going to celebrate this and move on to Atlanta. We’re just going to enjoy this right now.
“ Matt (Ryan’s) had a hell of a season, they have a good defense, we’re just going to enjoy this right now.”
Green Bay’s win was the first by a road team after 12 straight home victories in the playoffs dating to last season.
The Packers were the previous road team to win — over Washington in last season’s wild-card round.
“It’s just kind of schoolyard at times late in the game like that,” Rodgers said during his on-field postgame interview on Fox. “Lane [Taylor] did a great job, he was out there protecting me, Jared just kept on coming. I tried to put it in a good spot, he made a hell of a catch.”
Crosby’s winner at the gun just narrowly passed inside the left upright.
“That was one heck of a football game to be a part of,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “I just can’t say enough about my football team’s resiliency.”
The Cowboys (13-4) almost became the third team in the Super Bowl era to win in the playoffs after trailing by 15 points in the fourth quarter.
The first was Dallas in 1972, when “Captain Comeback”, Roger Staubach, rallied the Cowboys for a 30-28 win over San Francisco.
Instead, top-seeded Dallas ended up with its fifth straight loss in the divisional round and a 21-year drought in trips to the NFC championship game.
“There’s no moral victory here,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones told reporters. “There might have been a moral victory if we had continued to play the way it was looking earlier. But for this bunch to come back, get it together ... to see those guys come back and compete like that, then I know if we won this game we were capable of doing a good job against in this case Atlanta and probably a good job in the Super Bowl.
“In other words, I don’t want to say in any way it’s any consolation but I know this: They are capable of playing at this level, the kind of level we would have expected.”
Prescott, whose 11-game winning streak during the regular season sent Tony Romo to the bench when he was ready to return from a back injury, rallied the Cowboys in a way that probably made Dallas’ 10-year starter proud.
Prescott, a fourth-round pick who was supposed to be the No. 3 quarterback before injuries changed everything, got Dallas’ rally going with a 40-yard touchdown toss in the first half to Bryant, the first playoff TD for the star receiver.
Then he set the stage for the first tying score on a 6-yarder to Jason Witten, also the first postseason touchdown for the 14th-year tight end.
Rodgers led the Packers to a go-ahead 56-yard field goal from Crosby with a big boost on a pass interference penalty against rookie Anthony Brown that wiped out an interception from Jeff Heath, whose pick earlier in the game helped Dallas rally.
The Cowboys answered with a 52-yarder from Bailey.
Prescott threw for 302 yards and three touchdowns with an interception, and Elliott had 125 yards rushing.
Rodgers didn’t seem to miss receiver Jordy Nelson, out with a rib injury sustained in the win over the Giants.
Rodgers found six different receivers, including a 34-yard touchdown to Richard Rodgers that was his longest since catching one of three successful Hail Mary passes from Aaron Rodgers in the past 13 months.