ARLINGTON, Texas — The first person who strode across the locker room and paid tribute to cornerback LaDarius Gunter was Alonzo Highsmith, a senior personnel executive for the Green Bay Packers. He stuck out his arm for a half hug and said the only words that mattered in the aftermath of an instant classic.
“Gunter lives to fight another week,” Highsmith crowed. “Hoooo, Gunter lives to fight another week.”
More importantly, so does his team. The Packers, owners of an eight-game winning streak, held off the Dallas Cowboys in a game described as an “instant classic” by linebacker Joe Thomas, while rookie nose tackle Kenny Clark failed to recall a more compelling contest in the whole of his football life.
A leaky defense finally plugged, and the Packers lived to fight another week: Green Bay 34, Dallas 31.
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“We knew they were going to make plays,” Thomas said of the Cowboys, who ended the regular season fifth in total offense. “But we fought and we didn’t break. We didn’t break. We gave the ball back to 12 at the end, and Mason (Crosby) kicked it in.”
After holding the Cowboys to 13 points through three quarters, the Packers’ defense anticipated the onslaught to come. They were protectors of a two-score lead at 28-13, and in the end it was barely enough.
The meltdown started up front, where Clark said the defensive line was peeved after a week of boundless praise heaped on tailback Ezekiel Elliott and his road-grading maulers up front. Their fire pulsed through the first two quarters; they corralled Elliott for 44 yards.
“We were just playing with a lot of energy,” Clark said. “The defensive line was doing a great job. Our coverage was tight. We were just tired of hearing about them all week.”
But Elliott’s 3- and 4-yard gains ballooned in the final 18 minutes of the game. He averaged 6.7 yards per carry on a drive that ended with a touchdown pass to tight end Jason Witten, pulling the Cowboys within a single score. He averaged 6.8 yards per carry on the very next possession — which ended with another touchdown throw by rookie quarterback Dak Prescott — and finished with 125 yards on 22 attempts.
“Zeke was Zeke,” Prescott said. “The chip on his shoulder is always there, but you noticed it a little bit in some of his runs, adding a little spin move here and there. He was doing some great things, and I’m excited for a long future with him.”
That second drive, which culminated when wide receiver Dez Bryant snuck inside of Gunter for a 7-yard score, dissected a Packers’ secondary that finished yet another game undermanned. Safety Morgan Burnett injured his quadriceps in the first quarter and ultimately could not return.
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Without Burnett, whose versatility kept the secondary afloat all season, the Cowboys tested the development portion of general manager Ted Thompson’s famed philosophy. Prescott, who finished 24-of-38 for 302 yards, three touchdowns and one interception, stared at a 15-point deficit while an inexperienced secondary stared back. There was an undrafted rookie at safety (Kentrell Brice), an undrafted rookie in the dime package (cornerback Josh Hawkins) and a former undrafted rookie in Gunter shadowing Bryant wherever he went.
“We were going through adversity today,” defensive back Micah Hyde said. “We lost our leader Morgan, and nobody flinched. Young guys stepped in. We had some rookies out there making plays.
“That’s just the adversity we’ve dealt with the whole season. It’s paying off in the long run.”
For Gunter, who hardly played from scrimmage in 2015, the matchup with Dallas meant another week of traveling with the opposition’s best receiver. Seven days after Gunter shadowed Odell Beckham Jr., the Packers paired him with Bryant, who did not play the first time these teams met.
To put it simply, Bryant was tremendous: nine receptions for 132 yards and two scores. He caught back-shoulder passes along the sideline and broke free off play action. He made a 40-yard grab in the end zone and gained plenty of yards on catches in the open field. Gunter simply tried to survive.
“Gunter gave up a couple plays,” outside linebacker Julius Peppers said, “but when you’re asked to play man to man against the top receivers you’re going to give up a play here and there. But for the most part we thought he did a very solid job on Dez and whoever he was on.”
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Trailing by a field goal, the Cowboys took possession at their own 25-yard line with 1 minute, 33 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. Prescott, who led three scoring drives in the fourth quarter, had the ball and plenty of time. But what he did not have was Bryant.
As Prescott guided the Cowboys across midfield, Bryant was something of a forgotten man. He did not catch a pass, and the Packers’ defense came up with a crucial stop.
“Bend but don’t break,” Gunter said. “We did our job. We did enough to win and that’s all we can ask for.”
The defense gave the ball back to quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Kicker Mason Crosby did the rest.
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