ARLINGTON, Texas - In practice last week, Jared Cook’s teammates got a sneak preview inside the Don Hutson Center of what would be the big Green Bay Packers tight end’s most important play of his eight-year career.
Cook was running to the sideline and waiting for quarterback Aaron Rodgers to spot him. When Rodgers did, he threw a strike right into Cook’s hands, allowing the 6-5, 254-pound tight end to drag his feet on the field of play before going out of bounds.
Completion. First down. Great catch.
“It looked like it was good on the field,” receiver Davante Adams said. “Then we watched the film and saw it was a little bit out when we watched it together. But he did it right this time.”
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Rodgers to Cook has become the Packers’ connection to a Super Bowl appearance and there was no better evidence than at the end of the Packers’ thrilling 34-31 victory over the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday at AT&T Stadium.
The two kept the Packers from another Seattle-like capsizing with their astounding 36-yard connection that set up kicker Mason Crosby’s game-winning 51-yard field goal. Rodgers scrambled to his left on third-and-20 at the Packers' 32 and caught a streaking Cook in his sights.
He threw the ball where it couldn’t be intercepted and Cook reached two hands out and caught it just as it passed through the boundary. All that was left was to get his two feet down to make it a catch.
Cook dragged the toes of his size 16 cleats on the turf just before his knees touched the ground. It took instant replay to confirm the catch, but the giant video board inside Jerry Jones’ stadium showed the legitimacy of the catch in 1080p.
“I was just trying to secure the catch, just making sure that I did what I could to stay in bounds and secure it because anything could have happened if I bobbled it,” Cook said. “They probably would have called it back.
“So, securing it was the most important thing.”
Then came the toes. This time he got them in.
“He learned from it,” Adams said of the play in practice. “He converted that size 16 to a 10½.”
Rodgers and Cook connected on only 6 of 11 passes against the Cowboys, but with receiver Jordy Nelson sidelined with broken ribs, someone needed to be the big-play guy.
Since Cook returned from a high ankle sprain in Week 11, the offense has been on a tear. Rodgers has thrown for 24 touchdowns and one interception and in each of their last six games they have scored 30 or more points.
The Packers were 4-6 after the Washington loss and now have won eight straight. The turnaround of an offense that couldn’t function against the Indianapolis Colts at home but now is playing for the right to go to Super Bowl LI.
“He’s been great,” said Nelson, who missed his first game this season. “This is what we brought him in here for. That’s why he came here because he knew the opportunity would be there for him to make the most of it.
“He’s made some great plays. To make plays down the stretch like this is important.”
The Packers knew what kind of athlete they were getting and the potential he had to unlock the untapped parts of their offense, but Cook had never played with a stud quarterback like Rodgers and never played in a playoff game.
Richard Rodgers, in his third season, had played in five more playoff games than Cook coming into this season.
“He hasn’t played in any playoff games (before this season) in his career before, but this is what he’s here for,” Rodgers said. “This is what he’s here for. He’s done a great job. It’s exciting.
“It’s a whole different game in the playoffs. I have a little bit of experience and I shared that with him, but you really have to play to see. Jared’s a great player and great players make great plays.”
Cook, who caught six passes for 104 yards and a touchdown against the Cowboys and five catches for 48 yards against the New York Giants in the wild-card round, not only helped the Packers with his great plays, he helped them with his sheer presence.
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Rodgers has been able to spread the ball all around with Cook in the lineup.
“It was great to see so many guys make a play out there,” Rodgers said. “Those guys did some great things.”
Early in the game, McCarthy went to some two-tight end formations to see how the Cowboys would cover it. Because running back Ty Montgomery was on the field, they had to keep two linebackers on the field in case it was a running play.
On the Packers’ very first drive, McCarthy split Cook and Rodgers to see how they would be covered. The Cowboys put a safety on Cook and linebacker Sean Lee on Rodgers.
Aaron Rodgers went right after Lee and connected on a 34-yard touchdown.
“We were able to cause some problems with that,” Richard Rodgers said. “They had to make choice what they were going to do.”
At the start of the third quarter, Cook struck again, this time with a 26-yard reception down the seam to the Cowboys 3-yard line and then an easy 3-yard touchdown pass from Rodgers that stretched Green Bay’s lead to 28-13.
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Dallas rallied and kept the pressure on the entire second half. It finally came down to a 28-28 game with 4:08 left.
Crosby put the Packers ahead with a 56-yard field goal with 1:38 left. Then came the final drive. Cook looked like he could have had a pass deep down the middle on first down, but he dropped it.
After a sack and another incomplete pass to Cook, Rodgers loaded up and gave his big tight end one more chance.
“Obviously, a fantastic finish,” McCarthy said. “That’s what these games come down to. The execution there on the third down with the protection, the throw by Aaron and the catch by Jared Cook. And Mason Crosby knocking it through twice.
“I think that in and of itself tells a lot about the character, just the way that we’ve been able to fight through. I think it’s a pretty big insight into who we are as a football team.”
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