Clutch catches, Hail Mary hookup ignite Packers
GREEN BAY - Maybe the Green Bay Packers don’t have a Bryant (Antonio or Dez) and maybe they won’t have a full Nelson (Jordy) the rest of the season, but they do have something a lot of other teams in the NFL playoffs wish they had.
They have options.
The same day Nelson took a brutal shot to his ribs that knocked him out of the game with 11 minutes, 14 seconds left in the first half, quarterback Aaron Rodgers threw for 362 yards and four touchdowns in a 38-13 wild-card playoff victory over the New York Giants.
Nelson was the Packers’ leading receiver and the NFL’s leader in receiving touchdowns during the regular season, but you wouldn’t have thought as much watching Davante Adams and Randall Cobb carve up the Giants' secondary for 13 receptions for 241 yards and four touchdowns.
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“Any person can get hot at a certain time and anybody can get open and we all create matchup problems,” tight end Jared Cook said. “So, whenever you have complementary routes for each other and off of different people, it just gives Aaron options.
“Whenever you can beat your man, that’s what you’re supposed to do.”
The Giants came into the game holding opposing quarterbacks to a 75.8 passer rating, but Rodgers posted a 125.2 mark because time after time his receivers won their matchups.
During the Packers’ seven-game winning streak, Rodgers has thrown 19 touchdown passes with no interceptions. But before Sunday, only one of those had been to Cobb, who injured his ankle against Seattle on Dec. 11 and hadn’t had a reception since, sitting out the last two games to allow him to get better.
Cobb wasn’t even certain he was going to be able to play this week because until late in the week, he still wasn’t feeling like he was all the way back. He showed progress in a Thursday practice and was listed as questionable going into Sunday.
“I still today didn’t know for sure if they were going to activate me or not,” Cobb said. “I was hoping so, but I thought I was going to be activated last week and I wasn’t. I definitely think that extra week helped out.”
That might be the understatement of the year.
Cobb was only slated to play in a few personnel packages, but when Nelson took his rib shot from safety Leon Hall along the Packers sideline, Cobb assumed a slightly larger role. When he started producing, he stayed on the field and became one of Rodgers’ top targets.
“I said it this week in my press conference — we’re better with 18 on the field, and he showed it tonight," Rodgers said. "He made a ton of plays for us. He was excellent and having him out there is going to help.”
It was Adams who got the Packers' offense started late in the first half after five straight punts to start the game. Rodgers was hesitating to throw the ball into tight spots and kept missing on shots down the field.
But on first-and-10 at the Giants 38 with 3:45 to go, he and Adams hooked up on a play that seemed to turn everything around for the offense. The Giants were in a Cover-2 look, but Adams recognized it and anticipated a shift to a single-high coverage, so he took his route down the field.
“That’s just film study,” Adams said. “We anticipated that.”
Rodgers saw it, too, and hit Adams down the right sideline for a 31-yard gain. A play later, Rodgers scrambled around for eight seconds before Adams created just enough separation to snare a rocket throw in the end zone for a 5-yard touchdown.
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A minute later, the Packers had the ball back and after driving from their own 20 to the Giants 42, Rodgers had only one option with six seconds left — a Hail Mary. Heading for the north end zone, Rodgers’ throw hung up for what seemed like a lifetime before it fell untouched into Cobb’s arms.
“It’s normally tipped and you’re trying to make a play off the tip, but I was able to get a clean look at it,” Cobb said. “It’s unbelievable.”
It was the third Hail Mary TD pass thrown by Rodgers in the last two seasons (at Detroit during the 2015 regular season and at Arizona in the 2015 playoffs).
"The high arc is definitely by design," Rodgers said when asked to describe the throws. "I want to make sure those guys have a chance to get down there and jump. But the key is the offensive line giving me a little bit of time. So we did a little roll to the right, and obviously back side was firm in the protection. By the time I hit my spot on the field where I wanted to throw it, I’m 100 percent confident that the ball is going to be catchable in a catchable spot. It’s just a matter of those guys getting the right situation, and that’s how you draw it up. You have the jumper, you have the guy behind him and a guy in front. Obviously you don’t catch it every time, but we’ve been fairly successful."
The two touchdown drives turned the momentum in the Packers’ favor, but they were back at it after the Giants closed within 14-13 with 5:09 to go.
This time, with the Giants missing cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who was in and out of the game with a thigh bruise, coach Mike McCarthy was able to isolate Adams and then Cobb on substitute cornerback Trevin Wade.
First, Adams turned him around with a hard fake and caught a slant for 20 yards. Then, Cobb beat him off the line and caught a pass over the middle, running past every Giants defender into the end zone for a 30-yard touchdown.
“You saw Davante wide left, wide right, in the slot right, slot left,” Rodgers said. “That makes it difficult. We also moved Randall outside and inside. We tried to get some match-ups with Jared. He had some catches for us early.
“We just did a good job of changing the face of some stuff we like to do.”
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Cobb added his third touchdown in the fourth quarter with the Packers ahead, 24-13, and facing a third-and-3 at the 16-yard line. Cobb ran over the middle again and with Rodgers waiting the extra half-second to let him get into the clear, he ran through zone coverage for the catch.
Cobb tied the single-game NFL postseason record of three touchdown receptions and joined Sterling Sharpe (at Detroit, Jan. 8, 1994) as the only two in Packers history to do so. His final numbers: five catches for 116 yards.
“It was great,” Cobb said. “Just to be back on the field, to be able to suit up and go play, be back fighting with my brothers. It was a great feeling to be back out there."
The Packers still have hurdles to clear before they face the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday at AT&T Stadium. Nelson’s return definitely is in doubt and running back Ty Montgomery, who added three catches for 41 yards, including a 34-yarder in which he was lined up as a receiver, sprained his ankle.
Plus, Cobb isn’t completely out of the woods.
“I’m still in pain,” Cobb said. “I’m playing through some pain and I’m going to have to. That’s part of it. I’m sure there’s a lot of guys that’s in pain right now, but I’m glad that coach was able to activate me tonight and give me the opportunity.”