Aaron Rodgers, as he always does, pulled off the unthinkable again Sunday silencing AT&T Stadium while leading Green Bay into the NFC Championship Game in Atlanta. There he will match offensive greatness against the Atlanta Falcons Matt Ryan, the quarterback who many think will be awarded the regular season NFL MVP Award.
It wasn’t the Hail Mary heave Rodgers has delivered several times in his career, but was every bit as dramatic considering the circumstances. His 36-yard completion to Jared Cook with 12 seconds remaining put the Packers in a position to win it. It’s hard to say which was more impressive, Rodgers extending the play and delivering a strike along the sideline or the big Green Bay receiver with a terrific toe-drag to stay inbounds.
From there you knew Mason Crosby would deliver the winning 51-yard field goal. He nailed a warm-up try a fraction after Dallas Coach, Jason Garrett called timeout. Undeterred, the veteran of many pressure-packed kicks drilled another one that had about a half-second of doubt to it then straightened and breezed through the uprights.
Game over. Dallas season over. The best regular season in the history of the Cowboys.
Rodgers called that winning pass play at the line of scrimmage. He orchestrated the routes, and Cook was not his first option. The Packers’ QB is the best in the game at extending a play, necessary once again to find the big tight end. When it’s a wrap on his career, the 33-yard old from California has to be in the list of top five signal callers all-time.
The Cowboys fell into a huge hole 21-3 as Rodgers spread the ball all over the field. Lacking his best weapon, wide receiver Jordy Nelson and very little in the running game, the Packers’ quarterback still completed 28 passes to six different targets. In the end, he accumulated 356 yards and two touchdowns.
Even when Rodgers isn’t shredding defenses with his arm or legs, he accomplishes amazing things. At one point he was waiting for a quick snap while visibly counting the Dallas defenders on the field, He saw there were 12, and the Cowboys were scrambling to get one to the sideline. Rogers was simply going to get the ball snapped to try something with a free play. It led to a burned timeout so Dallas wouldn’t be penalized. Little things that put him at the top.
Maybe Rodgers will have all his weapons Sunday at Atlanta if Nelson can recover in time from his rib injury. Along with Randall Cobb, Devante Adams, Geronimo Allison and TE Cook, it would seem like too much firepower for any defense to stop.
Defense was the dominant thread Sunday Night in Kansas City where the Pittsburgh Steelers earned the right to meet New England in the AFC Championship. Chris Boswell made a total of only 21 field goals in 15 regular season games then booted six on Sunday. That speaks largely about Ben Roethlisberger and the NFL’s best running back La’Veon Bell putting the ball in the end zone on a consistent basis.
Kansas City’s defense thwarted every drive although Bell was a big factor, rushing 30 times for 170 yards. He continuously extended drives with his uncanny ability to hesitate, see the hole and dart through it. It’s a talent he possesses unlike any other back in the game.
The Chiefs had a beautiful opening drive capped by Alex Smith’s easy 5-yard TD toss to Albert Wilson to grab a 7-3 lead then seemed to be chasing the game the rest of the way. Their best weapon, Tyreek Hill was never a factor. KC tried to get him in the ball in space, but the great Pittsburgh linebackers Ryan Shazier and Bud Dupree were all over the field.
Finally with its last possession, trailing 18-10, KC got rolling again. A 13-play drive resulted in Spencer Ware’s 1-yard TD blast. The Chiefs converted the tying two-point try only to have it wiped out by a holding penalty on tackle Eric Fisher, the former first overall selection in the 2013 draft. A subsequent passing attempt from the 12-yard line fell incomplete.
Pittsburgh received the ensuing kickoff with 2:32 left. Following the two-minute warning and with KC out of timeouts, Roethlisberger hit Antonio Brown for a first down finalizing the Chiefs’ fifth straight home playoff loss.
Looking back over the years I can’t find a playoff game that featured one team scoring two touchdowns yet losing to an opponent that scored none, a truly remarkable statistic.
The Steelers cast of offensive weapons will next try to match big plays with New England. On Saturday for once, Tom Brady wasn’t the star of the Patriots juggernaut. That title belonged to diminutive running back Dion Lewis.
The 5-foot-8 fifth-year player scored a rushing TD, caught a scoring pass from Brady and even better returned a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown. That followed a 14-play drive from Houston that led to a field goal and gave an indication the Texans were in the game.
But as the game wore on in the second half Houston showed signs of frustration. Keeping the New England offense down is a nearly impossible task. The Texans linebackers sacked Brady twice and hit him on other occasions, even infuriating him at times. Offensively Houston couldn’t match Brady and company.
It seems from week to week New England features a different weapon. In addition to Lewis, the offense got big contributions from receivers Julian Edelman (8 catches for 137 yards) and Chris Hogan (4 grabs for 95 yards). Bruising ball carrier LeGarrette Blount wasn’t much of a factor. He led the NFL in rushing touchdowns and will be needed in the conference championship against the physical Steelers.
Saturday’s other Divisional playoff saw the visiting Seattle Seahawks jump out quickly with an 89-yard touchdown march that used 8:34 of the first quarter. A perfect scheme to beat Atlanta. Keep the Falcons high-powered offense on the sideline and don’t turn the ball over.
This is fine unless you are backed up deep in your own end and an offensive lineman steps on the quarterback’s foot.
After Thomas Rawls was thrown for a 3-yard loss Seattle was backed up to its 7.
Russell Wilson then dropped back to pass. One problem: rookie right guard Rees Odhiambo, taking over after Germain Ifedi was injured, stepped back onto Wilson’s foot, sending the quarterback tumbling down in the end zone for a safety.
That made it 10-9. Atlanta felt the momentum change and quickly cashed in a field goal to take the lead it would never relinquish. The crushing sequence had the Falcons taking possession on their 1-yard line with 3:41 remaining in the first half. 99 yards later Tevin Coleman was cruising into the end zone with a short pass from Matt Ryan.
Seattle never threatened to make it competitive after halftime.
Featured picture photo credit/NY Post