Unscripted comeback caps Packers victory
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- Andrew Quarless wasn't scripted to be the hero. At least, not originally.
But the Green Bay Packers' fifth-year tight end had Aaron Rodgers' ear. Feeling good about his matchup with Philip Wheeler, Quarless had been tugging on his quarterback's coattail for an opportunity should a one-on-one situation with the Miami Dolphins linebacker present itself.
The stage couldn't have been any brighter when Rodgers obliged.
With 6 seconds remaining and the game hanging in the balance from the Miami 4-yard line, Rodgers fired a back-shoulder throw into Quarless' hands to squeeze out a 27-24 comeback victory over the Dolphins in front of 70,875 at Sun Life Stadium.
As Rodgers fell to his back with fingers pointing up in the humid Florida air, Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake lay face down in the grass in total disbelief at the series of events that unfolded on the 11-play, 60-yard game-winning drive.
It took a fumble recovery, a fourth-and-10 conversion and fake spike to make it all happen. More importantly, there was Rodgers' confidence in Quarless to get the job done.
"I was probably the second option if he doesn't audible it, but it definitely was an audible and I took advantage of it," Quarless said. "I was trying to tell him the whole game to take advantage of these linebackers because I found myself open all day. Once we saw we had a linebacker on us, the rest was history."
It didn't always look like the Packers would need a two-minute drive to win Sunday. The team's economical nine-play, 80-yard series to start the game made it appear they'd roll over the Dolphins, who managed only 87 yards of total offense in the first half.
Miami and quarterback Ryan Tannehill came to life in the second half with touchdowns on three consecutive series to take a 24-17 lead with 9:13 left in the game. The Packers' only counter during that stretch was Rodgers brilliantly extending a third-and-goal play with his feet and finding Randall Cobb for a 5-yard touchdown late in the third quarter.
Outside of that, the momentum meter didn't favor Green Bay. On its first chance to answer, the offense drove 68 yards before settling for a Mason Crosby 30-yard field goal with 4:09 left to cut the deficit to 24-20.
Coach Mike McCarthy's decision not to go for it on fourth-and-6 from the Miami 12 was a risky move, but proved to be the right call. The defense was out of timeouts when the Dolphins gave Tannehill the green light to throw the ball on second down.
The Packers' defense forced an incompletion and Miami cost itself a chance to shave more time off the clock. On the following play, the Dolphins predictably called a run on third-and-9.
"That was surprising," defensive back Micah Hyde said. "They tried catching us off-guard and I think he ended up throwing it away. That was huge. That was an additional 30 seconds because we didn't have any timeouts."
It allowed Green Bay to take over at its 40-yard line with 2:04 left, but the game-winning drive nearly didn't happen. On third-and-9, Dolphins defensive end Olivier Vernon stripped Rodgers of the ball on a combo sack, which right guard T.J. Lang quickly pounced on.
Lang said the team has scaled back its fumble recovery drills for offensive linemen after center JC Tretter broke his ankle during the first day of organized team activities last year, but his quick reaction gave the offense a second chance.
Receiver Jordy Nelson even joked with Lang that it was "the biggest fumble recovery of his life."
"I mean it's instincts. You're a football player," Lang said. "You see a ball on the ground, you've got to do everything you've got to do to go grab it. It's something that, I saw the ball coming and saw a guy coming straight me and I just dove and hoped for the best."
The Packers still needed a fourth-and-10 conversion to keep the drive moving. That's when Rodgers turned to his favorite target in Nelson. Facing heavy pressure, Rodgers fired a ball off his back foot for an 18-yard completion.
However, Rodgers needed to diversify when Nelson dropped another pass two plays later. He hit James Starks for a 10-yard catch and then Cobb for another 4 as the clock continued to click.
Everyone, including some of his teammates, thought Rodgers was setting up for a clock-stopping spike with less than 15 seconds left when he quickly threw a screen to rookie receiver Davante Adams, who got out of bounds after the 12-yard catch with 6 seconds remaining.
That's when Rodgers looked to Quarless, who was hoping to avenge a first-half drop. Although the tight end position has taken a backseat in the Jermichael Finley-less offense, its presence never has been more important than in Sunday's waning moments.
"We got out there and they were in man coverage with (52) out on Q," said Rodgers, who completed 24 of 42 passes for 264 yards and three touchdowns. "He's had a catch like that late in the game to win a game before. He ran a good route, and I put it in the right spot."
From the sideline, Hyde joked that he should have had to pay admission to watch the offense's brilliance. There was some inconsistency, but the offense met its 75-play quota with 34 rushing plays and with only one three-and-out series.
The Packers nearly doubled the Dolphins' time of possession (37:12 to 22:48) and didn't commit a turnover, compared to Tannehill's two.
"We know they're going to find a way," Hyde said. "That's how much respect we have for our offense. We go against them every day. We know what they're capable of doing. Getting the ball in their hands at the end, we had no doubt they were going to go down and score."
The offense pulled off the comeback despite playing in the hottest environment during McCarthy's coaching tenure. The game-time temperature of 86 degrees tied the team's 34-24 win over the Dolphins on Oct. 22, 2006.
Dehydration didn't collect any casualties, but three defensive starters were lost in the win — cornerbacks Sam Shields (knee) and Tramon Williams (ankle), and inside linebacker Jamari Lattimore (neck).
Still, the Packers maintained their first-place tie with Detroit for the NFC North lead and feel they have plenty to build off going into Sunday's game against the Carolina Panthers at Lambeau Field.
"Any time you overcome adversity, you've got this experience to build off," McCarthy said. "A couple guys go down in the second half and our defensive backs stepped up. This is an excellent character win. Adversity's a great thing to overcome, and we're going to see more of it at home against Carolina."