Insider: Thumbs up to clutch Cook catches
It seemed unthinkable after Green Bay lost four consecutive games to fall to 4-6, but the Packers are one step away from their sixth Super Bowl appearance after upsetting the top-seeded Dallas Cowboys 34-31 in the NFC divisional playoffs Sunday. Since Aaron Rodgers’ declaration that the Packers could “run the table,” they have won six straight regular-season games and two in the postseason to put themselves on the threshold of a conference title. All that stands between the Packers and a berth in Super Bowl LI is another road trip next Sunday to face the Atlanta Falcons, who won a 33-32 shootout between the two teams Oct. 30. After beating the Cowboys despite the absence of top receiver Jordy Nelson, Rodgers and the Packers just might be unstoppable.
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D'AMATO: Dagger through the heart of Texas
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In this see-saw battle that went down to the final play, the game didn’t turn for good until Rodgers somehow found tight end Jared Cook open down the sideline for a 36-yard gain on a third-and-20 play with three seconds left. Cook did an outstanding job keeping both feet in bounds and setting up kicker Mason Crosby for the winning 51-yard field goal as time expired.
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Cook stepped up in the absence of Nelson and always seemed to be there when Rodgers needed him. Targeted a team-high 11 times, Cook made six catches for 104 yards (including the decisive play that enabled Crosby to win the game). Cook also scored what turned out to be the Packers’ final touchdown, a three-yard grab early in the third quarter that put Green Bay up 28-13. At 6-foot-5, Cook combines size and speed and is a perfect fit for coach Mike McCarthy’s offense.
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The Packers’ already-depleted secondary took another serious hit when safety Morgan Burnett suffered a quad injury in the first quarter and didn’t return. Burnett was expected to play a big role in the Packers’ efforts to contain Cowboys star running back Ezekiel Elliott and his services have been vital in providing cover for the team’s young cornerbacks. Burnett’s absence meant extended playing time for rookie Kentrell Brice, and fellow rookie Josh Hawkins was pressed into service in the dime defense. No one in the secondary could handle Dez Bryant, who had nine catches for 132 yards and two touchdowns. The Packers desperately will need Burnett back for next week’s shootout against the Falcons.
RANTS AND RAVES
RAVE: Rodgers rode into Texas on an amazing hot streak, having thrown 285 consecutive passes without an interception. When he found Cook in the end zone early in the third quarter, it gave him a staggering 24 TD passes since his last pick. All good things must come to an end, and it finally did for Rodgers when he was intercepted by Cowboys safety Jeff Heath late in the third quarter (ending his consecutive-pass streak at 318). For most of the game, Rodgers was masterful, never more so than when he took advantage of a free play (catching the Cowboys offside) and hit tight end Richard Rodgers from 34 yards out for the Packers’ first touchdown. It was the fifth TD pass in the last two seasons that he has tossed after catching the defense offside; according to ESPN, the rest of the NFL has only five total during that time. Rodgers’ final line: 28-for-43, 356 yards, two touchdowns and a passer rating of 96.7.
RAVE: Dallas native Ty Montgomery enjoyed a nice homecoming: two touchdowns to go with 47 yards on 11 carries and 34 yards on six receptions. Fullback Aaron Ripkowski bulled his way to 24 yards on four carries as the Green Bay ground game did just enough to keep the Cowboys’ defense honest.
RAVE: How clutch is Crosby? He came into the game having made an NFL-record 21 consecutive postseason field goals. He extended that streak to 23 in the most difficult way imaginable: a 56-yard kick that put Green Bay back on top 31-28 with 1:33 left, and then the game-winner from 51 yards out as time expired — both amid the din of 93,396 full-throated fans. Also significant: All six of Crosby’s kickoffs were downed for touchbacks, neutralizing the Cowboys' return game.
RANT: The Packers’ run defense faced a major challenge with Elliott running behind a huge and talented offensive line. And like most teams, the unit eventually got steamrolled by the rookie sensation to the tune of 125 yards on 22 carries. On the plus side, rookie Kenny Clark distinguished himself in extended time at nose tackle. Another stiff test awaits next week against the Falcons' running back tandem of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.
DID YOU NOTICE?
» With their win Sunday, the Packers are 5-4 in road playoff games under McCarthy. That ties them with the New York Giants (5-2) for second-most wins since 2006 behind the Baltimore Ravens (7-5).
» When the Packers extended their lead to 21-3 midway through the second quarter, it gave them points on seven straight playoff possessions (excluding a kneel-down that ended the win over the Giants).
» Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott became the first rookie starting quarterback to toss three touchdown passes in a postseason game in the Super Bowl era (since 1966), according to ESPN.
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