Three Thoughts: Rodgers' stellar play, controversial call doom Cowboys
What everyone should be talking about is how the Cowboys and Packers delivered yet another thrilling game on a divisional-round weekend that's met the hype, with Aaron Rodgers shaking off his calf injury in a brilliant second half.
What most people -- or, at least Cowboys fans -- will be discussing, yet again, is the state of NFL officiating.
Dallas trailed by five in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter when, facing a 4th-and-2, Tony Romo took a shot for Dez Bryant deep. And Bryant almost came down with one of the most incredible, clutch catches in playoff history.
The play was ruled a reception on the field, thus giving Dallas a 1st-and-goal at the Green Bay 1. Packers head coach Mike McCarthy opted to challenge the play, arguing that Bryant had lost control of the football when he hit the ground. A review by referee Gene Steratore sided with McCarthy, turning possession over to Green Bay. The Cowboys never saw the football again, losing 26-21.
From the NFL rule book: "If a player goes to the ground in the act of catching a pass, he must maintain control of the ball throughout the process of contacting the ground."
The rule made famous by Calvin Johnson's touchdown-turned-incompletion against Chicago bit Bryant because, per Steratore's ruling, Bryant had not yet completed the process of his catch when he allowed the ball to touch the ground while reaching it out toward the goal line.
The Packers iced the final four minutes of the game, claiming for themselves a spot in the NFC championship next weekend at Seattle.
Three thoughts on Green Bay's win:
1. Somehow, Aaron Rodgers seemed to get healthier in the second half: Rodgers was but a shell of his usual self for the first two-plus quarters Sunday, mostly stuck in the pocket because of his ailing calf. (He did manage to step up and toss a touchdown to tight end Andrew Quarless early.)
Green Bay headed to halftime with just 10 points on the scoreboard and little evidence that the second half would be much better, offensively.
Then, almost out of nowhere, Rodgers' leg seemed to loosen up, no doubt with some help from whatever medical treatment he received during the halftime break. Facing a 3rd-and-15 late in third quarter, Rodgers stepped up and fired a dart to Adams, who took it the rest of the way for six.
The next Packers drive was the stuff of legend. Rodgers hit on all seven of his passes there, for 78 yards, capping the go-ahead touchdown march with a dazzling strike to Richard Rodgers between multiple Dallas defenders.
Rodgers' mobility next week could determine Green Bay's fate. The hobbled, static version of the MVP candidate stands little chance against the Seattle defense. The Rodgers who showed up from late in the third quarter through the end of the game, though, could propel his team to the Super Bowl.
2. Davante Adams is the Packers' new hero: The Cowboys held Jordy Nelson in check (two catches for 22 yards), while Rodgers misfired on several passes he usually hits. Facing a 21-13 deficit in the second half, the Packers needed someone to raise their game.
Adams, a rookie out of Fresno State, answered the call in a big way. He wound up leading all receivers in Sunday's game with seven catches for 117 yards -- the majority of those coming late in the game with the season on the line.
Adams' juke of J.J. Wilcox on the 46-yard touchdown from Rodgers was straight out of a video game. His next grab went for 18 yards, as Adams made a catch along the sideline and then freed himself with a nasty spin move. Finally, Adams' 26-yard grab on 3rd-and-3 with 2:24 left moved Green Bay into Dallas territory and helped the home team melt away the clock.
The Packers have seen flashes of Adams' potential all season long. This was the first time that he really took over as the No. 1 option in the passing game.
3. Did Dallas become too reliant on its passing attack?: DeMarco Murray carried the ball 25 times for 123 yards and a touchdown Sunday, just the latest outstanding showcase from the MVP candidate. However, after Green Bay pulled within 21-20 in the third quarter, Murray saw a mere three carries the rest of the way.
Not coincidentally, Dallas' next-to-last drive stalled out thanks to back-to-back Green Bay sacks. Then during what would be their final drive of the game, another Romo sack pushed the Cowboys into that fourth-down situation prior to Bryant's overturned catch.
The Cowboys were a more favorable ruling away from possibly taking the lead again and Green Bay did have the edge in time of possession in the fourth quarter, so the snaps for Murray were limited anyway. Will the Cowboys regret taking him even further out of the gameplan at that point?
Dallas' offensive line enjoyed a remarkable 2014, but both the Lions and Packers made Romo's life difficult with their pass rushes in the playoffs. Romo was sacked four times Sunday and found himself hurried on numerous other attempts.
The strength of this offense all season long started in the run game. Murray might have deserved more of a chance when it counted.