Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, right, releases the game-winning pass to receiver Randall Cobb late in the fourth quarter Sunday at Soldier Field in Chicago. Packers fullback John Kuhn, left, made a key block on Julius Peppers on the play. Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette Media
CHICAGO — Three times late in Sunday’s winner-take-all showdown with the Chicago Bears, the Green Bay Packers were one play from having their season end on Soldier Field.
But with two familiar faces back in the huddle — Aaron Rodgers and Randall Cobb — they wouldn’t be stopped on a come-from-behind game-winning drive that vaulted the Packers into the playoffs.
Trailing 28-27, Green Bay took over at its 13-yard line with 6 minutes, 24 seconds left in the game. A field goal or touchdown would extend its season.
“I think we all knew that we were going to find a way,” said Cobb, playing in his first game since sustaining a broken lower leg in October.
But on the fourth play of the series, Green Bay faced the first of its three fourth-down plays. Convert or likely go home and wait for OTAs.
There still was 4:41 left on the clock, and coach Mike McCarthy thought about punting. But he reconsidered.
“When we came to the first fourth down and Coach was calling the punt team out, we were like, ‘No, let us get this. This is our time. This is our moment,’” Cobb said.
So, on fourth-and-1, John Kuhn took a handoff and stretched off the right tackle to the first down at the 23, close enough for a measurement. Then, four plays after Rodgers scrambled 5 yards to convert on third-and-3, Green Bay faced another fourth-and-1 situation, this time at midfield at the 2-minute warning.
Rodgers and Nelson, who was targeted 16 times, connected on their 10th completion of the game, this one a quick pass to the left side good for 6 yards and the first down. But Rodgers threw incomplete deep to Andrew Quarless on first down, Eddie Lacy went 2 yards on second down and Rodgers threw behind Nelson on third down to set up the third potential final play of the season.
This time, it was fourth-and-8 at the Chicago 48, too far for a field goal attempt, too little time to do anything else but go for it. There were 48 seconds left on the clock, and Chicago was blitzing seven rushers.
“I can’t really recall what the first protection call was,” guard T.J. Lang said, “but John Kuhn was coming up and telling us to change the protection. I think only half the guys ended up getting the call.”
Rodgers took the snap and had to move to his left to escape the rush.
“But it worked out well enough where we kind of wadded up in the middle,” Lang said. “John (Kuhn), I didn’t see it, but from what it sounds like, John made a great block on the back getting something on (Julius) Peppers, allowing Aaron to get outside.”
Indeed. It was Kuhn who slid over and took out Peppers’ legs as he dove for Rodgers. “They brought a seven-up blitz,” Kuhn said, “and we made an adjustment, and the line did a good job sealing everybody off leaving one for me, and I just tried to get as much of Peppers as I could.”
That bought Rodgers enough time to find a wide-open Cobb in the middle of the field. Cobb hauled in the pass at the 10-yard line with Zackary Bowman 3 yards behind and cruised into the end zone for a 33-28 lead.
“When I came off the ball, as soon as I came off the ball, I actually had a hook route about 10-12 yards,” Cobb said, “(I) saw the safety was flat-footed, so I just threw my hand up and stayed on the move, and Aaron was able to find me.”
It was a 48-yard score in their first game together in 2½ months. Here’s how Rodgers described it:
“And on fourth down, in situations like this, it’s always good to highlight the unsung heroes on the play, and it was definitely John Kuhn, as usual,” Rodgers said. “The guy making the smart play at the right time. They brought empty pressure, checked to it late, and I was trying to hit Jordy right away, the safety rolled down quickly.
“As I looked outside, I felt Julius was coming free, was going to try to elude him, which the chances of that are pretty slim. John comes out of nowhere and cuts him. I was able to get the edge and saw Randall running wide open.
“In peripheral, I looked outside to make sure that we had a big play there from the throw that I missed Andrew Quarless on early in the drive, I knew I had to get a little bit on it just to make sure that I didn’t way underthrow him. When that ball came down in the end zone, it was just pandemonium.”
So, now the Packers will host the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday in a wild-card playoff game. Their quarterback and most dynamic receiver are back in the lineup, and they probably don’t finish off the Bears without both of them.
“It’s two guys making a great, great play that’ll be running on the highlights now for the rest of my time on this Earth,” McCarthy said. “What a great finish.”
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