D'Amato: Dagger through the heart of Texas
Arlington, Texas – Seconds before Mason Crosby made the 51-yard field goal to end one of the best, wildest, craziest games in Green Bay Packers history, teammate Datone Jones looked the kicker in the eye, grinned and said, “Right down the middle, man.”
It’s a running joke between the two, a teasing reference to a television commercial Crosby made for Cellcom.
Crosby’s kick didn’t go down the middle, sneaking inside the left upright, but it went straight through the heart of Texas, instantly turning Jerry Jones’ spaceship of a stadium into the biggest funeral parlor on Earth.
His kick on the final play Sunday gave the fourth-seeded Packers a 34-31 victory over the top-seeded Dallas Cowboys in an NFC divisional playoff game.
“I didn’t know how to react,” Crosby said as the Texas native left the locker room to greet a large group of family members and friends. “I just bent down. I was so thankful for that opportunity to win the game. There’s nothing better than that.”
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Green Bay, 12-6 and on an eight-game winning streak, now heads to Atlanta for the NFC championship game at 2:05 p.m. Sunday.
The Packers, given up for dead after a midseason swoon left them 4-6, and with a roster shredded by injuries, keep finding ways to win. Sometimes with smoke, sometimes with mirrors, sometimes with undrafted who-dats and rookie third-stringers.
“The Green Bay Packers, our backs have been against the wall for, what, the last nine weeks?” said safety Micah Hyde. “This game kind of symbolized our season. Ups and downs, but in the end the Packers pull through.”
File this one in the hang-on-for-dear-life category. Green Bay led 21-3 midway through the second quarter and 28-13 early in the third before its patched-together defense ran out of gas, and the Cowboys went up and down the field against token resistance.
Shades of Seattle and the 2014 NFC championship game. Another meltdown like that would have sent Packer Nation into mass apoplexy.
“We felt good,” said linebacker Julius Peppers. “I know that’s hard to believe with everything that was going on around us.”
In the end, another in a long line of sublime performances by quarterback Aaron Rodgers and two long field goals by Crosby — a 56-yarder with 1:33 left and the game-winner after Dallas tried to ice him with a timeout — was the difference.
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Rodgers carved up the Cowboys’ defense for 356 yards and two touchdowns without injured No. 1 receiver Jordy Nelson. Is it possible for a guy making an average of $22 million a year to be underpaid?
“It is incredible watching him,” said Cowboys rookie Dak Prescott. “I hate it in this circumstance, but he’s an incredible quarterback.”
Rodgers’ final throw, while rolling left and under duress on third and 20, was gathered in 36 yards downfield by tight end Jared Cook, who dragged his toes before going out of bounds with three seconds left to set the stage for Crosby’s heroics.
If it wasn’t the best pass of Rodgers’ career, it’s on the short list.
“On an individual basis, I don’t think that I’ve seen more of an individual dictate how the game came out,” said Jones, the billionaire owner whose team has won exactly two playoff games since 1996. “I give him all his dues. He made the great plays and responded to what we did. I thought he was outstanding.”
Prescott and fellow rookie Ezekiel Elliott were almost equally sensational, with the former throwing for 302 yards and three touchdowns and the latter rushing for 125. Receiver Dez Bryant caught nine passes for 132 yards.
“That team was 13-3 for a reason,” Peppers said. “They’re very good. They’re pretty basic in the plays that they run, but they do that stuff extremely well and it is hard to stop.”
The Packers will play in the NFC championship game for the fourth time under coach Mike McCarthy, who won his 10th playoff game, one more than Vince Lombardi and Mike Holmgren. McCarthy is 10-7 in the postseason.
There’s a saying that Destiny and Mystique are just dancers in a nightclub. But maybe there is something to this “team of fate” thing. The parallels between these Packers and the 2010 team that won the Super Bowl are too numerous to ignore.
“We went into camp at the end of July and we felt like it was our season,” Hyde said. “We were 4-6, we had that same mindset. We were 10-6, we had that same mindset. We got in the playoffs, we still had that same mindset.
“We feel like it’s our year.”
Soon enough, we’ll find out.
PREVIEW: Packers (12-6) at Falcons (12-5)