Dougherty: Aaron Rodgers, Packers setting early-season tone with comeback wins
ARLINGTON, Texas – Are you old enough to remember when the rap on Aaron Rodgers was that he didn’t win close games?
Guess that one didn’t stand up very well. Just ask Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, who saw Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers make a late comeback to beat his team two weeks ago at Lambeau Field.
Better yet, ask Jerry Jones. On Sunday, for the second time in nine months, Rodgers and the Packers tore out the Dallas Cowboys owner’s heart with a spectacular game-winning drive in the final minutes.
Last January in this same stadium in a divisional-round playoff game, Rodgers led the game-winning field goal drive in the final 35 seconds. This time he did it with a 75-yard yard touchdown drive in the final 1:13.
“You give Rodgers a minute, and you’re more than likely going to get a score in a critical moment,” Jones said after what had to be a devastating 35-31 loss.
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Games this early in the season don’t make or break teams unless a key player gets hurt, and that didn’t happen to either the Packers or Cowboys on Sunday. But with another comeback win, this time on the road against what still figures to be a strong playoff contender, the Packers have started setting a tone for their 2017 season.
In a tough setting the Packers fell behind early (21-6), weathered two missed extra points and saw their defense struggle all game to get a handle on Dallas running back Ezekiel Elliott and scrambling quarterback Dak Prescott. Yet they still found a way to win and get to 4-1, which ties them with Philadelphia and Carolina for the best record in the NFC a little less than a third of the way through the ’17 schedule.
The Packers’ identity still is in early season formation, especially because of injuries on the offensive line — right tackle Bryan Bulaga (ankle) returned, but left tackle David Bakhtiari (hamstring) missed his fourth straight game. But they found out Sunday that Aaron Jones can give them some juice they hadn’t had at running back, and they showed mettle with their second come-from-behind win in three weeks.
“Our identity is, when we have to have it there’s zero excuses,” Rodgers said. “That’s just the case. So we had the drive there to (either) tie the game or send it to overtime and beat them, and we put it together.”
Aside from the win, which is what matters most, the emergence of Jones could prove important as the season goes on. With starting running back Ty Montgomery sidelined because of broken ribs, coach Mike McCarthy started the fifth-round pick Jones ahead of fourth-rounder Jamaal Williams. And Jones showed he’s the best ball carrier on this team.
When Montgomery returns, he’ll still offer what he has over the last 1½ seasons — a tough matchup for defenses because he can do real running back stuff but also is a true receiver coming out of the backfield. Defensive coordinators will have to plan for that, and some will have trouble stopping it.
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But Jones is clearly the quicker, more explosive and decisive ball carrier. He gave the Cowboys’ embattled defense real problems (19 carries for 125 yards) and earned the trust of McCarthy, who gave him the ball on a toss on a huge fourth-and-1 in the third quarter, and Rodgers, who called Jones’ number with only 45 seconds left and the Packers barely past midfield on the game-winning drive. Jones picked up 15 yards and got out of bounds on that one.
The threat he posed running also opened the way for one of the easiest touchdowns you’ll ever see, a 10-yard pass to wide-open Jordy Nelson, when safety Byron Jones bit hard on a play fake, leaving Nelson uncovered. Jones also held up fine as a pass protector, which is huge if he’s going to remain a regular.
“I have zero worries about him back there (in protection),” Rodgers said. “… His vision was fantastic. He gives you confidence when you give him the ball on that last drive. Not only does he get through the line to make a nice run, but the kid runs out of bounds (to stop the clock). That’s stuff you can’t coach. I love his instincts there.”
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers never did solve the Cowboys, who dominated the time of possession (35:06 to 24:54) and put up 408 yards. He played his base defense a lot, but also liberally mixed in the standard nickel (with Damarious Randall as the third cornerback) and nitro (with Josh Jones at linebacker and Randall at slot corner), and nothing worked very well.
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Elliott still had a pretty good day (116 yards on 29 carries) even against the base, and Prescott made plays outside the pocket both with his legs (four runs for 37 yards) and throwing on the run (105.2 passer rating). If receiver Terrance Williams hadn’t had a bad drop carom off his hands to Randall, who returned it for a 21-yard touchdown with 9:56 left in the game, Prescott might have been the hero of this game.
But instead that was Rodgers.
“We’ve seen it a few times that we’ve played him,” Elliott said. “He ends up doing what he does best, going and finishing out the game, and winning the ballgame.”