ARLINGTON, Texas - Has it ever been more obvious how much of a quarterback's league the NFL is, and how much the Green Bay Packers’ fortunes rest on theirs, than the last eight weeks?
If Aaron Rodgers plays great, like he did again Sunday in his team's 34-31 divisional-round upset of the top-seeded Dallas Cowboys, the Packers can beat anyone. If he doesn’t, their season will be over. That’s how it is.
Rodgers almost didn’t play quite well enough in this one. After getting the Packers a 15-point lead, his third-quarter interception on an errant throw in Cowboys territory opened the door for Dallas to get back in the game.
And then with the season on the line in the final four minutes, he won it. Twice, actually, because the Cowboys answered the first one.
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But one image will stand out more than all others from this epic finish. Because if these Packers go on to win the Super Bowl — and even if they don’t — Rodgers’ 36-yard pinpoint pass to Jared Cook while rolling to his left that set up the game-winning kick as time ran out will go down as one of the most spectacular clutch plays in this franchise’s rich history.
“He’s an incredible talent, and to do it when it’s all on the line like that, that’s what great players do,” coach Mike McCarthy said afterward.
For most of this game, Rodgers was as good as he has been during the Packers’ eight-game winning streak. That’s no small statement, because he's been a one-man offense over that time. And he had to be against a 13-3 Cowboys team that was at full health and had the support of a huge, raucous, success-starved crowd of 93,396 spectators at AT&T Stadium.
Rodgers actually lost the passer rating battle Sunday, 96.7 to Prescott’s 103.2. But those numbers don’t tell the story because it was Rodgers’ ability to pick apart Dallas from the pocket when the Cowboys tried to box him in, and to make spot-on throw after spot-on throw on the run when he had to escape that had the feel of his off-the-charts performance in Atlanta in this same divisional round back in January 2011. You know how that season ended.
I’m not sure I can remember a Packers game since I started covering the team in 1993 in which their quarterback hit as many tough throws on the move as Rodgers did Sunday. That’s saying something. I can only imagine how intimidating and deflating it must have been for the Cowboys and their fired-up fans to watch a quarterback make plays against them that really can’t be defended. This guy is a one-man offense.
“I don’t think that I’ve seen more of an individual dictate how a game came out,” said Cowboys owner Jerry Jones of Rodgers’ performance.
The Packers did exactly what they have to do to win games as they're currently constructed. They can score with anybody but have some serious defensive shortcomings that mean they’re going to have to win shootouts to win the Lombardi Trophy. They got up early Sunday — touchdowns on their first three drives — and then held on for dear life.
And really, it will be up to their offense, not their defense, to make leads stand up.
“We had a chance there at 28-13 to go up three scores and make it really difficult for them,” Rodgers said, “and I threw a pick on third down.”
So now the Packers head to Atlanta this week for their fourth shot at an NFC championship in McCarthy’s 11 seasons as coach. I guess this pretty much puts an end to any talk about coaching or front-office changes at 1265 Lombardi Ave.
The Falcons (12-5) were impressive in their 35-20 win over Seattle on Saturday and are the NFL’s top-scoring team. Quarterback Matt Ryan (117.1 rating for the season) probably will be the NFL’s MVP, and he has maybe the league’s best receiver in Julio Jones. He also has a run game that defenses have to honor with one of the best one-two punches in the league in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.
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But Atlanta has defensive issues of its own (No. 27 in points and No. 25 in yards), so this has the makings of an epic shootout. The last time the teams met, the Packers took the Falcons to the brink in a 33-32 loss when Rodgers couldn’t get the Packers in field-goal position in the final 31 seconds. But that game was eons ago, and Rodgers is a different player than he was late October. His team is much better, too.
On Sunday, the Packers proved that Jordy Nelson’s rib injury wasn’t a deal breaker for them to beat a really good team. So if he’s not available this week, well, that’s no reason to think they don’t have a good chance of winning.
The bigger concern has to be safety Morgan Burnett’s quad injury. With the Packers’ issues at cornerback, Burnett and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix at safety are critical to giving the secondary a fighting chance. Burnett wasn’t able to return Sunday after getting hurt in the first quarter, and it made a difference. If he can’t play next week, it will be a big loss.
But even then, so much comes down to Rodgers. Has anybody in the NFL played better over the last two months? Hard to believe.
So all he has to do is do it again this week, and the Packers will be going to the Super Bowl.
“I love that part,” Rodgers said of the responsibility. “I love the opportunity to go out there and make plays.”
PREVIEW: Packers (12-6) at Falcons (12-5)