Green Bay Packers kicker Mason Crosby (2) is mobbed by teammates after kicking the game-winning field goal against the New York Giants on Sunday at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. / Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette
NFC playoff picture
With their victory over the New York Giants and the Detroit Lions’ loss to New Orleans on Sunday, the Packers clinched the NFC North championship with four games remaining on the schedule.
Earlier in the day the Packers officially clinched a playoff berth when the Chicago Bears lost to the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Packers own a two-game lead over San Francisco in the race for home-field advantage in the playoffs.
Of the eight playoff contenders in the NFC, the Packers and Bears share the most difficult remaining schedule. Their opponents have a combined record of 26-22.
Here are the NFC playoff contenders, listed in order of their seeding, and their remaining schedules:
1. PACKERS 12-0
At Chiefs (5-7)
Opponent record: 26-22
2. 49ERS 10-2
At Cardinals (5-7)
At Seahawks (5-7)
At Rams (2-10)
Opp. record: 21-27
3. SAINTS 9-3
At Titans (7-5)
At Vikings (2-10)
Opp. record: 20-28
4. COWBOYS 7-5
At Bucs (4-8)
At Giants (6-6)
Opp. record: 20-28
5. FALCONS 7-5
At Panthers (4-8)
At Saints (9-3)
Opp. record: 20-27
6. LIONS 7-5
At Oakland (7-5)
At Packers (12-0)
Opp. record: 25-22
7. BEARS 7-5
At Broncos (7-5)
At Packers (12-0)
At Vikings (2-10)
Opp. record: 26-22
8. GIANTS 6-6
At Cowboys (7-5)
At Jets (7-5)
Opp. record: 25-23
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Aaron Rodgers and his slew of receivers have made scoring and winning look effortless at times this season.
So why would it be any different when for the first time in this unbeaten season they had to do it at the very end, with the ball their 20 in a tie game with 58 seconds remaining against the tough New York Giants?
Bing, bing, bing, and there was Mason Crosby punching through the game-winning 31-yard chip-shot field goal as time ran out that keeps the Green Bay Packers undefeated through 12 games with a 38-35 win at MetLife Stadium.
“It was a perfect scenario with the type of players we have on offense and the type of leader we have at quarterback,” defensive lineman B.J. Raji said. “I was fully confident Aaron would do the job. He quite frankly made it look pretty easy. He just continued to prove why he’s the best quarterback on this league and is on his way to an MVP season.”
The win and Detroit’s loss to New Orleans clinched the NFC North title for the 12-0 Packers. What remains is the battle with 10-2 San Francisco for home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs, and a shot at NFL history to become only the third team to go unbeaten and untied in the regular season.
The talented Giants loomed as one of the most difficult games on the Packers’ schedule since the season started. After pulling out this game in a hostile setting, the Packers are close to an unbeaten regular season with three home games (Oakland, Chicago and Detroit) and only one road game (Kansas City) remaining.
“I clearly understand the 16-0 gig and the importance of it,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said, “(but) 38-35, that’s why you stay focused on what’s at hand, because every week it’s going to be a challenge. We’re 12-0 and we need to get to 13-0. We have other goals that are in front of us before we can even attain (16-0). I hope we’re in position to talk about it, but right now we really aren’t.”
For all that Rodgers has done in blossoming into an elite player over the last couple of seasons, the one thing he hasn’t done much in his career is pull out late victories. This year, there simply hasn’t been the need, because he and the Packers have been so good they hadn’t been tied, let alone trailed, in the fourth quarter of any game this season going into Sunday.
Numbers don’t tell the whole story, but going into this season, Rodgers’ record was 2-12 in games he finished that were decided by four points or less. That said, it bears noting that six of those defeats were in 2008, Rodgers' first season as a starter. The more recent issue was that early in 2010, the Packers lost back-to-back games to Washington and Miami after they had the ball and failed to score in overtime.
But that was 14 months ago. Since then, the Packers are an astounding 23-1 in games Rodgers has finished, playoffs included, and it’s already a given that their quarterback will be the league’s 2011 MVP.
As for pulling out games in the fourth quarter, going into Sunday, Rodgers had taken the Packers on five game-winning drives — that is, he put up points when they were tied or behind in the fourth quarter of wins: against Chicago twice in 2009 and again in the regular-season finale last year, and in two wins over Detroit in 2008.
But this one couldn’t have been more clear cut.
Quarterback Eli Manning had just taken the Giants 69 yards for the game-tying two-yard touchdown pass to receiver Hakeem Nicks on a fade over cornerback Sam Shields, followed by running back D.J. Ware’s run for the two-point conversion to tie the game at 35.
With 58 seconds left, return man Randall Cobb then followed orders to conserve time and downed the kickoff 1 yard deep in the end zone. So the Packers had the ball at their 20 with just less than a minute to play.
“That's what you train for,” McCarthy said. “I can't tell you how many times we’ve done the drill — 58 seconds, 53 seconds, 49 seconds, one timeout — and Aaron just went right down the script. That’s what you're looking for, because you’re going to have to complete two-minute drives to win championships. Hey, trust me, I would have taken the win a little easier, but it's a great investment in your football team to win a game like that.”
Rodgers needed only four snaps to set up the chip-shot kick.
On the first play, he hit Jermichael Finley on an out pattern that the tight end turned into a 24-yard gain. Finley also got out of bounds, so in only 7 seconds, the Packers were at their 44 with the clock stopped at 51 seconds.
“The first play was the most important play, obviously,” Rodgers said. “That kind of determines the drive. If we had an incomplete pass or maybe a five-yard gain, you’re probably on the ball and by the time you get another play off, you’re looking at under 45 seconds and it’s probably less likely that you’re going to get a chance to get in range. We talked about on the sideline, about the 40-yard line being kind of the cutoff. To be honest, you’re thinking, unless we get some yards on the first couple of plays, you’re probably going to look to overtime.”
On the next play, Rodgers hit receiver Jordy Nelson on a back-shoulder fade for a 27-yard gain, with Nelson making a spectacular leaping, turning catch over a former teammate, cornerback Will Blackmon. Nelson tapped both feet just in bounds, and the Packers already were in field-goal range at the Giants’ 29 without having spent their lone remaining timeout.
After a swing pass to halfback Brandon Saine lost a yard, Rodgers went no-huddle and hit receiver Greg Jennings on a short stick route that Jennings turned into an 18-yard catch and run. The Packers took time out with 3 seconds left, and then Crosby knocked home the second last-second game-winner of his NFL career.
And just like that, the Packers were 12-0 on a day when they weren’t as sharp as they’ve been most weeks.
Rodgers made perhaps only his second especially bad decision of the season and threw an interception right to linebacker Chase Blackburn that set up a short Giants touchdown drive in the second quarter. His teammates dropped at least six passes, including two by Finley.
The Packers' defense also played much as it has for much of the season by giving up big yards and making big plays. It gave up 447 yards but also got linebacker Clay Matthews’ 38-yard interception return for a touchdown that put them up 14-10.
The difference between this game and most others, though, was that the Packers failed to get the late stop that would have sealed the game.
“I definitely thinks it helps us in the long run,” Packers receiver Greg Jennings said. “We haven’t had a game like this all year, down to the wire, last drive, it’s pretty much on us, kind of do or die, because you never want to go to overtime and give them a chance, they had momentum, give them a chance to get the ball back and see what happens. It was a great overall win, tested our poise and resiliency.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.