Bob McGinn and Pete Dougherty take a look at the Packers clutch drives at the end of the game in Dallas and look forward to next week's matchup in Atlanta against the Falcons in the NFC Championship Game. (Jan. 15, 2017) USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
ARLINGTON, Texas - Machine-like precision by the Green Bay Packers staked them to an early 18-point lead. Machine-like precision by Mason Crosby provided the margin of victory.
Crosby’s finest moments in a 10-year career – a 56-yard field goal with 1 ½ minutes left followed by a 51-yard boot as time expired – enabled the Packers to topple the Dallas Cowboys, 34-31, Sunday at AT&T Stadium.
“Mason is the best kicker in the NFL,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “I think he could have hit that 10 out of 10. I don’t think there is a doubt in anyone’s mind. He’s a machine.”
It was the biggest upset that the Packers (12-6) have posted in the postseason since the watershed divisional victory at San Francisco in 1995. They were a 10 ½-point underdog that sunny afternoon at Candlestick Park and a 5 ½-point underdog before a crowd of 93,396 in the football palace erected by owner Jerry Jones.
The reaction afterward was similarly ecstatic. The Packers became just the second No. 4 seed in the NFC to beat the No. 1 seed in 11 matchups since the present playoff system was inaugurated in 1990.
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“It was a very excited locker room, probably the best locker room we ever had,” added McCarthy. “The excitement of what we accomplished and the way we did it. I just love our resolve.”
Thus, the Packers won for the second time in one postseason for only the second time under McCarthy, whose team had lost on the final play five times in the last seven years.
This time, it was the other team, the Cowboys (13-4), who were inconsolable after a defeat that Jones found crushing.
“It was complete disappointment by every person involved here after the effort everybody put out there,” the 74-year-old owner said, labeling the Cowboys’ performance as “valiant.”
Rookie quarterback Dak Prescott (103.2 passer rating) was very good, just not great. Rookie Ezekiel Elliott rushed 22 times for 125 yards, unable to be the dominant force because the fast-starting Packers scored three touchdowns and gained 235 yards on their first three possessions.
“It took some really outstanding plays to have us sitting in the locker room like this,” said Jones. “I know now that this team was capable of taking this thing all the way.”
Instead, the Packers moved on to the NFC Championship Game at 2:05 p.m. Sunday in Atlanta against the second-seeded Falcons (12-5). It will be the final game played at the 25-year-old Georgia Dome, which will be razed shortly thereafter to make way for a new venue.
Green Bay fell in Atlanta, 33-32, on Oct. 30. They were outgained, 367-331, losing when Matt Ryan hit Mohamed Sanu for a last-minute touchdown.
The teams last met in the playoffs in 2010 post-season when the Packers, playing possibly their greatest game of the McCarthy administration, buried the Falcons, 48-21, in a divisional game that was step two of their four-game run to the NFL championship.
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“I don’t think the building itself is something that worries us,” said tackle Bryan Bulaga, one of nine Packers with a 2010 Super Bowl ring. “It is the last game in that building so we know it’s going to be crazy.
“As a team, we’re prepared for any environment. From a noise standpoint, we’ll be prepared to go in there and score some points.”
Crosby has had precious few game-winning attempts just as McCarthy and quarterback Aaron Rodgers haven’t played many close games. The Packers’ modus operandi always has been to shock and awe opponents early and win going away.
Green Bay led, 28-13, through three quarters, and it appeared as if the Cowboys weren’t going to recover.
But when the Packers’ defense began to cave in, both from fatigue and the weight of injuries, there was Dallas trailing by just 31-28 and facing third and 3 at the Green Bay 33 with 44 seconds showing.
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers ran a tackle-end twist with Nick Perry surging inside around a teammate. Clay Matthews slammed into Prescott as he released a pass down the middle toward Dez Bryant that was batted and almost intercepted by Perry, who has toiled for more than a month with a sizeable club protecting his broken hand.
“I think it hit my club because I wasn’t able to grab it,” said Perry. “I got in his throwing lane and got my hands up. Natural instinct.”
Going hell-bent for the win, the Cowboys had to accept Dan Bailey’s tying 52-yard field goal. It was an enormous stop for the beleaguered Packers.
“Dom keeps it interesting,” Matthews said. “It’s high-risk, high-reward. We needed to make a play, and we did.”
Starting from their 25, the Packers had 35 seconds and two timeouts. At that point, McCarthy’s record in games decided by four points or less was 18-24-1.
For openers, Rodgers fired a seam route to tight end Jared Cook that was just out of his reach 20 yards downfield. Then a screen pass to Ty Montgomery picked up 17.
“Great call,” guard Lane Taylor said. “They had a three-man front. We knew we had some space in-between.”
Twenty-three seconds remained when defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli sacked Rodgers for minus-10 on a safety blitz by safety Jeff Heath. It had been Heath who broke Rodgers’ streak without an interception at a remarkable 8 ½ games with a diving pick in the third quarter that ignited the Dallas comeback.
Heath lodged his helmet right in the middle of the unsuspecting Rodgers’ back. Some quarterbacks would have fumbled. Not Rodgers, and the Packers asked for time out at :18.
Rodgers threw a surgically-placed pass to Cook on another seam shot just past the 50. However, free safety Byron Jones made a terrific play, breaking it up and leaving the Packers at their 32 with 12 seconds.
Marinelli played an umbrella zone defense against a one-back, two-by-two formation from McCarthy.
“It was a designed roll to the left,” Taylor said.
After a few seconds, Rodgers under control moved wide toward the left sideline with a defender chasing. He spotted Cook, who began as the slot to the right, ran through the zone and headed toward the left sideline.
“It looked like a Cover 3 or a Cover 4 (zone),” said Cook. “They had underneath coverage on the back side.
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“I saw him rolling to his left and I knew I had to get to the other side. I just saw him rip it right on the boundary. I just had to get to the spot to get it. He hit the perfect spot.”
Cook lunged for the tight spiral and made the 36-yard reception, and replay review showed that both of his feet were barely in-bounds.
“The throw, the catch by Jared was just incredible,” said McCarthy. “Those are the type of plays we will be watching the rest of our lives, and then some.”
Said Prescott: “It’s what Aaron Rodgers does. Guy in his face and he hits the guy. Incredible play.”
Crosby crushed the 51-yard attempt just after Dallas coach Jason Garrett called his final timeout. It gave him 30 seconds to gather himself for the re-kick.
“We kind of expected it,” holder-punter Jacob Schum said. “It was just a practice kick for him. Kind of like the Chicago game. He goes backward and goes into his own little thought process.
“Straight-face. Locked-in. Knowing he’s going to make the kick. Very composed. Very humble.”
Crosby’s second 51-yard boot had plenty of distance but wasn’t quite as true. As Crosby applied some body English, the ball slipped inside the left upright by several feet.
“Maybe he doesn’t have the (game-winning) statistics,” said Bulaga. “But I know the type of guy he is and the type of head he has on him. He banged the first one through. I had no doubt.”
Crosby made five field goals, including a 48-yard boot to force overtime, and probably was the Packers’ best player in their horrific divisional-playoff loss in Seattle two years ago. At the time, he called it his greatest kick.
“This definitely replaces that,” said Crosby. “To hit a 56 and a 51 to win the game, it’s special.”
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In a game with no margin for error, the Cowboys blew it with poor coaching in the first half.
Marinelli got caught substituting on third and 5, and the 12-man penalty enabled the Packers to sustain what became an opening TD drive.
The Cowboys had to settle for a field goal on their second possession when wide receiver Brice Butler drew a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct after he ran on the field, entered the huddle and then ran off. It wiped out a 22-yard completion to the Green Bay 15.
Later, Garrett wasted two timeouts late in the first half, avoiding another 12-man penalty against his defense and a delay-of-game foul on Prescott. Thus, when the Cowboys sacked Rodgers to force a punt with 40 seconds left in the half, they had no time to mount a drive before time expired.
It was subtle factors and the obvious factors that enabled the Packers to take the lead in the all-time series, 18-17, and prevail in their 150th start with Rodgers at the helm.
“We knew going in it was going to be electric down here in this stadium,” said McCarthy. “We felt we were the better football team and we need to go out there and prove it.”
Green Bay, an overwhelmingly confident team riding an eight-game winning streak, is on track for the franchise’s 14th championship.
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