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Packers-Cowboys analysis: A win for the ages
Packers-Cowboys analysis: A win for the ages: Pete Dougherty calls it "mind blowing." Mike Vandermause lists it among the greatest regular-season victories in team history. Pete, Mike and Wes Hodkiewicz discuss the Packers' 37-36 comeback win over the Dallas Cowboys. (Sunday, Dec. 15, 2013)
Green Bay Packers running back Eddie Lacy leaps for the go-ahead touchdown in fourth quarter of Sunday's game against the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette Media

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ARLINGTON, TEXAS — The entire Green Bay Packers’ sideline was riveted on the mammoth, 160-foot wide video screen that hangs in the middle of AT&T Stadium to see the replay.

And there it was. The ball had never touched the ground, and cornerback Tramon Williams actually had intercepted Tony Romo’s pass, which sealed one of the most momentous regular-season wins in recent Packers’ history.

So even before referee Walt Coleman announced the interception to the crowd, the Packers players, coaches, trainers, equipment guys, everyone erupted in the kind of celebration usually reserved for the postseason. Somehow, the Packers’ previously struggling backup quarterback had, on the road, led a franchise-record tying comeback from a 23-point deficit with their playoff hopes at stake.

“I haven’t felt this way in a long time,” outside linebacker Clay Matthews said afterward in the giddy Packers’ locker room. “I feel like we won the Super Bowl. I know it might be a little premature saying it. I feel like I was in college again, the way we were celebrating on the sideline.”

Whether the Packers go on to make the playoffs — they still need help — this is the kind of a game that can make a team’s season. And break another’s.

“It took me everything not to cry,” said coach Mike McCarthy, though others said he actually did cry during his postgame speech to his team.

Then there are the Cowboys, who at 7-7 are desperately fighting for the NFC East Division title, a game behind the Philadelphia Eagles. In the kind of loss that costs jobs, the Cowboys’ last-ranked defense suffered an epic second-half meltdown in which it allowed Flynn five straight touchdown possessions, and their embattled quarterback, Tony Romo, added to his history of December failures by throwing passes that were intercepted by Sam Shields and Williams, respectively, in the final minutes.

“This is one of the hardest losses I’ve experienced,” owner Jerry Jones lamented.

The improbable comeback victory — the other time the team came back to win from 23 points down was against the Los Angeles Rams in 1982 — leaves the Packers, 7-6-1, in the thick of the playoff race. They kept pace with Chicago Bears (8-6) in the NFC North Division race, and if the Packers win their last two games, including over Chicago in the finale, they’ll finish ahead of the Bears.

But the Detroit Lions, also 7-6, still are in control of the division race. They don’t play until Monday night at home against the Baltimore Ravens (7-6), and then finish out at home against the New York Giants (5-9) and at Minnesota (4-9-1).

The win also allowed the Packers to survive another week without quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Though his broken collarbone appeared to get through practice last week pain free, it’s still not a given it has mended enough that he’ll return this week against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Packers again will have to weigh the risk of Rodgers’ re-breaking his collarbone against the reward of him playing Sunday.

“You have to hope (Rodgers will be back this week), this guy’s a big part of this team,” said Williams, who was one of Sunday’s heroes. “Obviously we feel if we’re going to go where we want to go, we’re going to need him. We definitely need him out there. But Matt’s been doing an excellent job for us. He got us two wins and a tie. For a guy to be thrown in like that shows a lot about him.”

Regardless, the Packers went into halftime knowing their playoff chances were on life support. They trailed 26-3, had hemorrhaged 332 yards and by all appearances had no chance of winning with Flynn at quarterback.

McCarthy told the team: “‘Hey, this is the biggest adversity situation that we’ve been in in our time together.’ I said, ‘Team 93 (in Packers history), our season’s on the line. We’re not going to panic.’”

Some players might have bought in but most surely had doubts.

“I’d be lying if I said (doubt) didn’t cross my mind,” defensive lineman B.J. Raji said. “But my job is to keep playing and encourage everybody else to keep playing.”

In fact, professional pride probably mattered more than anything, at least as the team crawled back into the game in the third quarter.

“As a man you have to finish this game off the right way and prove the fortitude you have finishing this game, finishing this season,” Matthew said of his attitude to start the second half.

The third quarter started promisingly, with halfback Eddie Lacy’s 60-yard run on the first play of the second half setting up the Packers at Dallas’ 20 for their first touchdown of the day. Then Flynn started hitting on rhythm throws, put up 182 yards passing in the second half against the Cowboys’ deservedly maligned defense, and somehow or other got the ball in the end zone the next four times. The drives were of 80 yards, 22 yards, 80 yards and 42 yards .

“It really goes back to professionalism,” Matthews said. “And (as) you get closer and closer, belief is a powerful thing. Once we got there it seemed like we were destined to win this ballgame.”

Though overall this was a bad day for the Packers’ defense — it gave up 466 yards and 36 points — it also came through with the game on the line.

After Flynn’s three-yard touchdown pass to James Jones cut the Cowboys’ lead to 36-31 with 4:17 to play, the Packers had to have a stop. On a second-and-six from Dallas’ 35, Matthews nearly sacked Romo, who spun away and tried to hit receiver Miles Austin on a post pattern. But Shields was tight on Austin’s hip and made the outstretched interception, which set up Flynn at the 50 for the game-winning drive.

Cowboys coach Jason Garrett confirmed after the game that once the Packers had first-and-goal at the 1 with 1:34 to play, he let them score to give his team as much time as possible to drive for game-winning field goal.

But on the Cowboys’ second play, from their own 29 with 1:24 left, they used a route combination that they’d shown on videotape and run several times earlier in the game.

“(Romo) throws that route blind sometimes,” Williams said. “(He) comes out, takes a step, may try to look you off and turn to the other side and just throws it. He thinks his man is going to be open, he read the coverage and thinks he’s got the right matchup and we’re in the right coverage.”

Williams wasn’t covering the intended receiver, Cole Beasley, but took a chance and came off his own man early hoping he’d get to make the play. Romo over-led Bealey, and Williams made the diving catch.

“Usually I wouldn’t make the play, I’d make the tackle,” Williams said. “I came off my guy a little quick. Kind of overthrew the out route a little bit. I was in the vicinity and I was like, ‘I can get to this ball.’ Just dove and I caught it. I never was more sure about a catch all season long. I caught that, rolled over, kept it off the ground.”

The official initially ruled an incompletion, but replays showed Williams in fact picked it cleanly just an inch or two off the ground. The Cowboys tried to run another play before a booth replay was initiated, but just before McCarthy called timeout, the booth officials buzzed referee Walt Coleman to review the play.

When the Packers saw the replay on the scoreboard, they erupted.

“The sideline was jumping like we did win the Super Bowl,” receiver James Jones said. “We ain’t done. Enjoy this one, but we have to go get another one.”

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