January 16, 2017

ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) After another improbable throw from Aaron Rodgers that propelled the Green Bay Packers to a playoff win, coach Mike McCarthy was asked if it was the best one yet from his star quarterback.

''It's the best one today, that's for sure,'' McCarthy said after a wild 34-31 divisional playoff win Sunday over the Dallas Cowboys that was the Packers' eighth straight and sent them to the NFC championship game.

''He's an incredible player, incredible talent. And to do it when it's all on the line like that, that's what great players do.''

Rodgers threw a 36-yard pass to a toe-dragging Jared Cook on the sideline, and Mason Crosby kicked a 51-yard field goal on the next play as time expired, sending the two-time MVP into a showdown next Sunday with the possible winner this year, Atlanta's Matt Ryan.

''We're going to enjoy this one, and then we'll get on to Atlanta tomorrow,'' said Rodgers, who threw for 356 yards and two touchdowns. ''But this one's special, more special than we've had around here in a while.''

The throw on the run from Rodgers to Cook came on third-and-20 with 12 seconds left, and after the Cowboys (13-4) tied the score twice in the final 4:08 after trailing by 18 in the first half and by 15 to start the fourth quarter in their fifth straight divisional-round loss.

Dallas' rally was led by rookie sensations Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott in their playoff debuts, and the first two career postseason touchdown catches for star receiver Dez Bryant along with the first for 14th-year tight end Jason Witten.

Prescott threw for 302 yards and was the first rookie QB in the Super Bowl era with three touchdown passes in a playoff game. Elliott, the NFL rushing champion, had 125 yards.

''We've built the team in such a way where we've got a lot of young guys who are cornerstone players for us,'' coach Jason Garrett said. ''I think the mix of youth and guys who are in the prime of their careers and some veteran guys has really been beneficial to the chemistry of this football team.''

Things to consider after the Packers beat the Cowboys in the divisional round for the second time in three seasons:

HALF MARY? Rodgers, who threw his first interception during the eight-game streak, didn't have another Hail Mary after three in 13 months, the latest before halftime in last week's wild-card win over the New York Giants. But the throw to Cook had the same effect, allowing the Packers to get in scoring range after the Cowboys tied it for the second time in the last 4:08 with 35 seconds remaining.

''We've got a good repertoire of plays toward the end of the game, whether it's obviously the well-publicized Hail Marys or other plays we've made over the years to kind of draw from,'' said Rodgers, who celebrated in his first appearance on the Cowboys' field since he was the Super Bowl MVP while winning his only title six years ago.

PROMISING FUTURE, NO SOLACE: Cowboys owner Jerry Jones thought there was a good chance of ending that two-decade Super Bowl drought, and was convinced by the late comeback that they were more than capable of doing that this season. ''It's no solace,'' Jones said. ''But we have a team and we have players that are made of the kind of thing that can win these big games.''

That includes Prescott and Elliott, only the NFL's third QB-running back rookie duo to make it to the playoffs.

Still, Jones was ''terribly disappointed'' that the Cowboys failed to make it past the divisional game for the ninth consecutive playoff appearance since three Super Bowl titles in a four-season span (2002, 2003 and 2005).

SPREADING IT AROUND: If Rodgers is without Jordy Nelson again at Atlanta after his No. 1 receiver injured his ribs against the Giants, the options seem plentiful. Rodgers found six different receivers, including a 34-yard touchdown to Richard Rodgers that was his longest since catching one of those Hail Marys from Aaron Rodgers to stun Detroit late in the 2015 season.

DAZZLING DEZ: This was Bryant at his best. Healthy for most of this season after his injury-filled 2015 when the Cowboys won only four games, Bryant had nine catches for 132 yards and his first two career postseason touchdowns . Things are looking up two seasons into his $70 million, five-year contract. ''For Dez, it's physical preparation, it's mental preparation, but it's also emotional preparation,'' Garrett said.

ROADIES: Rodgers' third NFC title game will be on the road, just like the previous two. He split those, beating Chicago on the way to the title and losing to San Francisco two years ago. He doesn't mind the road through. Green Bay ended a 12-game playoff winning streak for home teams. The previous road winner? The Packers at Washington in the wild-card round last season.

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