GREEN BAY, WIS. – Mike McCarthy picked a good time to win his first coaching challenge of the year, the Cowboys’ luck with officials ran out and, oh yeah, Aaron Rodgers added another page to his Hall of Fame résumé: Favre-like toughness.
Playing on a torn left calf muscle, Rodgers channeled his inner Brett Favre — sans the interceptions — and willed the Packers back from an eight-point deficit by completing 12 of his final 14 passes for 204 yards, two touchdowns and eight first downs in the final 18 minutes of a 26-21 NFC divisional playoff victory in front of a Lambeau Field-record 79,704 fans.
“He set the tone for the whole locker room by how he fought through it today and played with a lot of guts,” defensive tackle Mike Daniels said. “He’s the big dog in here. He’s the man. If he can play with guts like that, why can’t the rest of us?”
Rodgers’ game-clincher — a 12-yarder to Randall Cobb on third-and-11 with two minutes left — never would have been the game-clincher had McCarthy, the Packers’ head coach, not raised his challenge record to 1-1 on the day and 1-6 for the season. McCarthy’s red flag at the 4:06 mark of the fourth quarter overturned what had been ruled a 31-yard completion from Tony Romo to Dez Bryant on fourth-and-2 from the Green Bay 32-yard line.
“I was due,” said McCarthy, whose Packers will return to Seattle, where they lost in Week 1, for next Sunday’s NFC Championship Game.
Instead of first-and-goal at the Green Bay 1, the Cowboys turned the ball over on downs and never got it back. Perhaps it was karma. In a wild-card game a week earlier, a pass interference flag on Dallas was picked up when the Lions were in Dallas territory with a 20-17 lead late in the fourth quarter.
On Sunday, referee Gene Steratore said Bryant did not, per the rules, “maintain possession throughout the entire process of the catch. In our judgment, he maintained possession but continued to fall and never had another act common to the game.”
“I think I saw it three times before I threw the challenge flag,” McCarthy said.
Meanwhile, Cowboys coach Jason Garrett argued that Bryant had “three feet down” and “reached out for the goal line, which he has done so many times. It is a signature move for him.” Or, as Bryant said, “I think it was a catch, and they took it away.”
It was obvious from the start of the game that reports of Rodgers’ calf injury the previous two weeks weren’t a media-fueled exaggeration. Rodgers spent the entire game in the shotgun, working mostly out of the pistol formation to make his footwork less stressful on the calf. He clearly was out of sorts without his usual elite ability to run and make plays outside the pocket.
Rodgers really only attempted to leave the pocket twice the entire game. The first time came with 8:30 left in the first quarter. On third-and-goal at the 4, he saw an opening to run for the touchdown and took it. Or at least he tried before pulling up and zipping a touchdown pass to tight end Andrew Quarless.
“As I moved forward in the pocket,” said Rodgers, “I realized that I couldn’t do a whole lot.”
In the second quarter, Rodgers fumbled a snap and recovered, but couldn’t escape pressure and had the ball stripped and taken away. Five plays later, Romo hit Terrance Williams for a 38-yard touchdown and a 14-7 lead.
The next time Rodgers really tried to leave the pocket, the Cowboys led 21-13 with 3:32 left in the third. He was slow to get up after an incompletion thrown under pressure on second-and-3 from his 17.
But that was the last time Rodgers looked vulnerable in the pocket or sloppy with throws he was unable to step into. He converted Green Bay’s final four third-down situations, completed his final 10 passes and finished with 316 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and a 125.4 passer rating.
It was Rodgers’ fifth playoff rating above 110.0 in 10 playoff games. Joe Montana and Tom Brady share the record with six.
Green Bay’s final two touchdown passes were vintage Rodgers. A 46-yarder to rookie Davante Adams was a 12-yard throw that whizzed within inches of Cowboys cornerback Sterling Moore on third-and-15. And the game-winning 13-yarder split Moore and safety J.J. Wilcox through a tiny window to tight end Richard Rodgers.
“It was a hard throw,” the tight end said. “It was a harder throw than a catch.”
Aaron Rodgers also extended his streak of consecutive passes without an interception at Lambeau Field to 512, including 41 touchdown passes. The last player to intercept Rodgers at Lambeau was Vikings safety Harrison Smith on Dec. 2, 2012.
Two weeks ago, Rodgers and his bum calf returned to the field and finished out a victory over the Lions that won the NFC North and earned a bye week. Sunday, he played hurt while beating a Cowboys team that had been 8-0 on the road.
So what’s next?
“I think I’ve got 120 minutes left in me,” Rodgers said with a smile. “So I’m going to do everything I can to make sure I can play all of those minutes.”
In terms of toughness, Favre couldn’t have said it any better.