A detailed lookback at the final five minutes of the Packers’ win over the Cowboys, including The Throw and a trio of clutch kicks. Plus reader mail on championship week quarterbacks, the L.A. Chargers and much more
“It’s rare I simply go ‘Wow.’ But, ‘wow.’”
—2002 NFL MVP Rich Gannon, on the Green Bay-Dallas playoff game, and the late throw by Aaron Rodgers in it.
I took a few breaths Tuesday after a jam-packed few days personally and footbally, and after taking stock of the weekend’s games, I realized: I blew it. My Monday column this week should have been an appreciation/analysis of the greatness of a football game (Green Bay 34, Dallas 31) and a throw (Rodgers’ 36-yard game-saver to Jared Cook) and a ton of little moments in the last five minutes that made the game an everlasting one.
When you’ve done this job for a long time, you get this question a lot: What’s the best game you’ve ever covered? Or, what’s the best game you’ve ever seen? This game will reside somewhere in the top 10. Now, I’ve got some weird ones in there—one of them happened in 1985, in New Jersey: Cleveland 35, Giants 33, on a miracle performance by the one and only beaten-up Gary Danielson—and Sunday’s game joins the list. It’s three days after the fact, but I wanted to write about it because: A) I blew it Monday by not doing so; B) I’ve talked to a few football people about it, to see if I was frothing at the mouth stupidly (as I sometimes do), and I was assured that I was not; and C) I believe we don’t appreciate the great moments we see nearly enough. Thus, three-day-old bread, which I’m proud to deliver.
The setup: Dallas, top seed in the NFC, 13-2 in games that mattered, came in with Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott as two of the most impactful rookies in recent history. Green Bay, fourth seed, came in victorious in seven straight must-have games, with a quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, playing the position as well as it’s ever been played. No hyperbole there. Nineteen touchdown passes, no interceptions, five of seven games with a rating over 115. The game looked like it could be a great one. And it was better than that. After 55 minutes, Green Bay led 28-20. But here came the irrepressible Prescott, and the drama.
This happened in the last five minutes:
5:00 left, fourth quarter: Green Bay 28, Dallas 20. Cowboys driving, but even if the kid quarterback, Dak Prescott, can score here, he’ll still need a two-point conversion to tie, and have a prayer of extending the game.
4:17 left: The kid squeezes a seven-yard TD pass into Dez Bryant on a short post route. The kid executes a quarterback draw well, but Packers linebacker Jake Ryan corrals him around the 1. Prescott’s will, and his body, barrel across the goal line. Prescott has brought Dallas all the way back from a 21-3 deficit against the great Aaron Rodgers. Two facts here. One: No rookie quarterback has thrown three touchdown passes in a playoff game in the past 50 years, and now Prescott has. Two: Prescott’s ridiculously good. Tie, 28-28.
2:00 left: Rodgers throws an ill-advised pick (that is the last time in this column you will read “Ill-advised” and “Rodgers” in the same sentence) to Dallas safety Jeff Heath … but wait. Rookie corner Anthony Brown gets called for pass interference for hooking Ty Montgomery early in his route. Iffy call, but watching it six more times Tuesday, it’s the right one. Brown hooked him and interfered with his route. Jason Garrett doesn’t like the call. Why would he?
1:33 left: Mason Crosby ambles onto the field to try the longest playoff field goal of his career--56 yards. He’s made 21 straight playoff field goal. His last miss: a 50-yarder he shtoinked off the left upright six years ago to the day in Atlanta. He boots a low, half-knuckleball liner that’s eight feet above the crossbar, just inside the right upright. Rodgers shows more glee on the sidelines than he ever shows after a TD pass, punching the air violently. Green Bay, 31-28.
0:49 left: Who exactly is the rookie here? Prescott to Terrence Williams for 24 up the gut. Prescott on a cross to Jason Witten for 11. First down, Packer 40. And then Prescott does something that looks stupid in the moments after the game. He spikes the ball. Odd, because the Cowboys have one timeout left, an incredibly reliable kicker (Dan Bailey), and they’re five to seven yards from a low-risk field goal in the weatherless stadium. If they’re playing for the tie and overtime, they should let the clock run. If they’re playing to win it right here, they’ll need that down they just gave away. Sure enough, Prescott throws a seven-yard out to Cole Beasley … clock stops … and Nick Perry bats down a pass at the line … clock stops … and it’s fourth down. What have the Cowboys done? Have they left enough time for Rodgers to score?
0:35 left: Bailey, with the easiest-looking 52-yard field goal in world history. Rodgers confers with Randall Cobb on the Green Bay sideline. I am guessing he might have said, “Can you believe they spiked it and left us enough time to win?” Tie, 31-31.
0:21 left: There’s going to be parade down the center of the Saganaw Valley (Mich.) State campus for Jeff Heath after the season. The feisty safety bursts around left tackle on a blitz and nails Rodgers for a 10-yard loss, back to the Green Bay 32. Watching at home in Columbus, Ohio, a good pal of Rodgers’, A.J. Hawk, is shocked, like the rest of America, that Rodgers has the ball in his right hand, ready to throw, and doesn’t feel the rush at all. You can see it in his eyes on the replay. He had no idea anyone was coming. And boom! Heath levels him. “Man, how’d he hold onto that ball?” Hawk wondered Tuesday, when I interviewed him for The MMQB Podcast With Peter King. “When that happened and he held onto the ball, I said to my wife, ‘He’s going to make a deep throw to win it, right now.’” On replay, it’s more amazing. Heath’s sacking arm is within eight or 10 inches of the ball but never could find the target to punch out. But it’s moot anyway. Rodgers needs 33 yards to get into field position and has maybe two plays to do it. But ...
0:18 left: The act of the sack isn’t even done, but Rodgers, after a total clock-cleaning and his head bouncing back and forth like a crash-test dummy’s, pirouettes up quickly and signals for Green Bay’s second timeout. There’s some presence of mind.
0:12 left: Sideline route to Cook. Excellent coverage by Dallas’ Byron Jones, who sticks his arm in to bat a perfect pass away. Incomplete.
Third-and-20, Green Bay 32. How many 35-yard completions against seven DBs you got on that playsheet, Mike McCarthy? Shotgun snap. Ty Montgomery as a sidecar. Three Cowboys rush.
0:11 left: Rodgers spins completely around to face the left sideline and begins a loop.
0:10 left: Rodgers takes his first look downfield. Guard Lane Taylor breaks away from the mosh pit at the lane to protect Rodgers, and here comes the only rusher with a chance, linebacker Justin Durant.
0:09 left: Taylor engages Durant, who tries to use his quickness to get around the guard. Nothing doing. Rodgers stops. He bounces once, looking downfield.
0:08 left: Cobb’s open, slightly, just past midfield, but not deep enough. Useless throw. Rodgers pumps and recoils, and then jogs three more steps to his left. At home watching in Minnesota is Rich Gannon, who knows Rodgers well. “This is the most difficult throw for a right-handed quarterback,” Gannon told me on the podcast Tuesday. “Going to his left, throwing right-handed.”
0:07 left: Rodgers, three yards from the left sideline, now has Durant coming into his vision. But here’s the important thing: Taylor did a terrific job slowing Durant long enough for Rodgers to release it. Rodgers reaches back while still moving left slightly, never stopping to set up, and he rears back to throw, and the ball leaves his hand. He’s got a prayer to hit Jared Cook 38 yards away. Hey, it’s probably overtime. Take a shot.
0:06 left: “I can make that throw 15, 18 yards,” Gannon said. This Rodgers throw passes midfield with juice on it. A line drive.
0:05 left: Cook, who took a long, looping route to the left sideline from the right tight end spot, sees the ball coming toward him. “I used to watch him on the flights back home when I was on the Rams,” Cook said, “and I’d think, ‘He’s a beast.’ Now I see him make these passes every day.” Like this one. Here it comes, and Cook knows he has to be mindful of his feet. Stay inbounds, feet.
0:04 left: Ball hits hands. Cook falling out of bounds. Feet close to stripe. Ball secured. Cook on ground. Gannon is wowed at home in Minnesota. “He put it in a 12-inch box!” Gannon says, awestruck.
0:03 left: Cook on ground. Out at the 33. Head linesman Jeff Bergman, 15 yards behind the play, immediately signals no catch. “Pass is incomplete, out of bounds,” Joe Buck says on TV. Side judge Rob Vernatchi, 11 yards in front of the play, staring at Cook’s feet, sprints toward the play, signaling it was a catch. Bergman and Vernatchi converge at the 32. Bergman slaps Vernatchi on the rear end, as if to say, “You had it. Good call.” Which it was. Perfect, decisive call by Vernatchi.
Troy Aikman in the booth: “Unbelieva--
Two minutes and 40 seconds later, ref Tony Corrente has the ruling.
Corrente: “After review, the ruling on the field of a completed pass is confirmed.”
0:00 left: Crosby, from 51 yards for the win, good! But wait, Dallas timeout. He has to do it again.
0:00 left: Crosby, from 51 yards for the win … jussssst inside the left upright. Good. Green Bay, 34-31.
Three 50-yard field goals in the last two minutes of a game has never happened. “Really it was four,” radio host Chris Russo said Tuesday. “He made the other one and Garrett called time.” Never mind Rodgers: How about the icy kickers?
But that throw.
“To fit that ball in there,” Gannon said. “Incredible.”
Rodgers is breathless, seemingly, when Erin Andrews gets him on the field. “I mean, it’s just kind of schoolyard at the time,” Rodgers tells him. And as our Robert Klemko tweeted after the game, Cobb told him that Rodgers made up each receiver’s pattern in the huddle before the play. That really makes the whole story better.
The world moves so fast. Slow it down this morning, and appreciate one of the best games we’ll ever see.
And now for your email...
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COACH X’S RECENCY BIAS
Coach X's key takeaway that you "have to have a very good quarterback to be playing deep into January" would have been more insightful if it hadn't been disproven just last year. If he could recall back that far, Coach X would remember that three of the four quarterbacks were a broken-down Peyton Manning, a possible one-year wonder with Cam Newton, and a decent-but-not-HOF-bound Carson Palmer. In fact, the best QB of the group, Tom Brady, didn't advance to the Super Bowl. Maybe it was an exception that proves the rule, but I think it's more indicative of a coach (and people in general) trapped in recency bias.
—Hugh, Orange County, Calif.
Fervently disagree. Who cares if Newton was a one-year wonder in 2015? He was the MVP of the league. He accounted for 46 touchdowns. Easily he was the most dangerous player at the position one year ago. “Decent” Carson Palmer was the best deep thrower in football last year (per Pro Football Focus) and had a 35-to-11 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Manning was broken down. I’ll give you one. But that broken-down quarterback is also one of the best of all time. Denver won a Super Bowl with him. Let’s look at the championship week quarterbacks in the previous years: Brady, Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers in 2014 … Brady, a non-broken-down Manning, Wilson and Colin Kaepernick (dangerous then) in 2013 … Joe Flacco, Brady, Matt Ryan and Kaepernick in 2012. I suppose we can be picky about how good guys like Kaepernick are, but you have to be a prisoner of the moment when considering how good quarterbacks were in the season they went to the title game. A guy who runs for 181 yards and throws for 263 in a playoff game (what Kaepernick did against Green Bay in the 2012 playoffs) is the stuff a major quarterback talent does, no matter what becomes of him in subsequent years.
NO MENTION OF DAK’S ACCOMPLISHMENT?
The Packers-Cowboys game was an all-around great game and you rightly gave ample coverage to Aaron Rodgers’s remarkable play. It feels like we may be talking about this run as one of the historically great performances by a quarterback. I was surprised that there was virtually no positive mention of the Cowboys in general or Dak Prescott specifically. A fourth-round rookie in his first playoff game just went toe-to-toe with one of the (maybe) three best ever QBs and stood his ground. Rodgers came out on top, but Prescott leading the Cowboys’ comeback was impressive.
—Rev. Clay Andrew, Hillsboro, Ore.
You are 100 percent right. I write a little about Prescott above, but I certainly should have given him more due on Monday. My fault.
FORCE THE SALE OF THE CHARGERS
After reading Marty Caswell's remarks about Dean Spanos in your column, I'm curious if there is not something the NFL and the league office can do to remedy the situation. Caswell writes,"At best, Dean was incompetent as an owner. At the worst, he was a calculated fraud." Can the NFL take steps to remove him as an owner, considering he's done such a poor job with the team?
—Christopher H., Palouse, Wash.
No way the NFL can force the owner of a private entity, without grave cause, to sell his team. Spanos can do what he want. I understand the emotion of it, but we wouldn’t be America if we forced a person in a private business to sell that business against his will.
A CHARGERS REALIST
I have been a loyal Chargers fan since 1979, when I was 11 years old. I didn’t switch my allegiance to the Patriots when I married a Boston girl. Nor did I become a Redskins fan during the seven years I lived in the D.C. suburbs. I have suffered through terrible teams, and worse ownership, and I have no intention of changing teams now. What Dean Spanos did was classless, but is anybody really surprised that he went for the money-grab? I listened for months to San Diego local sports radio, and every time a Chargers representative was presented with the question of what their Plan B was if the ballot measure didn’t pass, the answer was always that Plan B was moving to Los Angeles. Every time. So while I am deeply saddened for the people of San Diego, I cannot completely absolve them of blame for this whole mess either.
I don’t wake up on game day hoping Dean Spanos makes a lot of money that day. I root for the names on the backs of the jerseys, and the lightning bolts on the helmets. That doesn’t change based on where they play. If Dean Spanos makes a ton of money from a winning Chargers team, I’ll still be happier than he will. He may have the money, but I’ve invested a lot more time and energy in the Bolts than he has.
Every time a franchise moves, I get a lot of reaction from angry fans—all of it justified. They have spent years loving this team and living and dying with the team through the fall. I empathize very much with you. Your letter, Mark, was especially touching, I thought, because you’re going to continue to love the team, wherever it is because you’re not going to allow the owner to determine what team you love. I admire that. Thanks for writing.
EQUAL REST TIME
I had a thought over this weekend after watching the divisional round. This time of year, overall team health is so critical. Every day of rest is really important. Instead of mixing the NFC and AFC games, why not have all the AFC play on the same day and all the NFC play on the same day? This would reduce the rest period to a few hours rather than a day and a half. The NFL could even flip-flop which conference plays on Saturday and which on Sunday.
—Mike, Kalamazoo, Mich.
Mike, you’re a lucky man, living in the land of Bell’s Oberon Ale. To your question: One of the unintended consequences of Mike Tomlin’s post-game locker-room speech being outed by Antonio Brown is that it caused people to look at the unfairness of a home team playing at home on a Saturday night, and the road team playing a day later. So Pittsburgh will travel to Foxboro with a major disadvantage in prep and rest time. I think the NFL should play the two divisional games in one conference on a Saturday, with that conference title game the following Saturday. Similarly, the other conference should play both semis on Sunday, and the title game the following Sunday. Fair for all.
I have never enjoyed reading a section of the MMQB as much as I did the section on the birth of your grandson. Thank you for writing about that special moment in your life. The world needs to hear more stories like that, of love, happiness, and joy.
—Dan, Tulsa, Okla.
I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to think about this yet, but given your proximity to all things football, and especially your connection with Steve Gleason, what will you say 10 years from now when Freddy asks you about whether he should play football?
—Ed J., Aliquippa, Pa.
Congratulations, Grandpa. Great family story, and Freddy is a cute rascal. Personal stories like this have been a major factor in the dramatic turnaround in American attitudes about the LBGT community and the inherent worth and dignity of all people; and I don't think even President Tweet will change that.
To all: Thanks for the scores of letters and tweets and emails congratulating Laura and Kim (and to a lesser degree the grandparents) for Freddy. I loved writing about it, and I’m glad you loved reading about it. A couple of points: It will not be my decision about football, but asked for advice, I would probably say (and of course we have no idea what future studies of the youth game will show us) I would not recommend anyone playing tackle football before high school—and maybe never at all. I would strongly encourage the flag version of the game. But there are so many sports, and I hope whatever Freddy plays (and maybe he’ll want to play three instruments instead of three sports), it’ll be something that he loves.
Regarding the LGBT aspect and the idea of a gay couple having a child: The world is changing, and I’m glad it is. Kim and Laura will devote their lives to making sure Freddy is raised in a loving home with every chance to live a happy life. There will be moments, I’m sure, that will be awkward, when he introduces his two moms … but maybe 15 years from now when he does that at school or to friends, it’ll be overwhelmingly normal. I think of all the kids who are being raised by single parents, and I think how hard that must be for the parent and the child as well at times, and I also think what a tremendous advantage Freddy will have with a pair of parents there to love and support him every day of their lives. Thanks, everyone, for your kind thoughts.
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