Despite staking themselves to an early 18-point lead, the Green Bay Packers ended up pinning the fate of their season on Mason Crosby…twice.
The Packers’ kicker responded both times to send the fourth seeded Packers to the NFC Championship game in a heart pounding 34-31 victory over the top seeded Dallas Cowboys that was undoubtedly the most exciting game of the 2016 postseason.
Green Bay built up a 21-3 lead over Dallas midway through the second quarter, but the Cowboys methodically chipped away at the deficit until a Dez Bryant touchdown tied the game at 28 with just over four minutes remaining. The Packers had lost all of their momentum and were hoping that Aaron Rodgers could save the day.
He did that, albeit with a lot of help from his kicker. Rodgers responded by driving Green Bay to the cusp of field goal range, where Crosby pounded a 56-yard field goal through the uprights to recapture a 31-28 lead.
But there was still a minute and a half left on the clock, and the Packers’ defense remained unreliable as Dak Prescott drove the Cowboys 42 yards in just a minute. Dan Bailey knocked through a 52-yard field goal of his own to tie the game with just 35 seconds left.
Cue the last minute heroics from Rodgers, Crosby, and tight end Jared Cook. Following a sack and incompletion, the Packers faced third and 20 from their own 32-yard line with just 12 seconds remaining. Rodgers rolled to his left and fired 36 yards downfield, where Cook made an excellent grab just inches from the sideline.
Crosby took the field again, and for the second time in under two minutes he connected on a long field goal. The 51-yard boot came as time expired, giving the visitors a 34-31 upset victory and setting up a date with the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC title game.
While Green Bay was unable to put the game away and avoid the dramatic finish, their first half offense looked as good as it had all season. Led by a highly efficient Rodgers, the Packers scored touchdowns on each of their first three possessions. Two Ty Montgomery rushing scores and a 34-yard reception by Richard Rodgers capped off drives of 75, 80, and 90 yards and gave the team a 21-3 lead.
From there, Dallas was able to claw its way back into the game. The Cowboys responded with two scoring drives of their own—one ending on a Bryant touchdown catch and the other on a field goal—to bring their halftime deficit to just 21-13.
Green Bay looked like it was on pace to recapture all the momentum in the second half, as Rodgers hit Cook for a touchdown on the opening drive of the third quarter and Micah Hyde picked off Prescott on the Cowboys’ ensuing possession. But Rodgers responded with an interception of his own after a poor throw to an open Davante Adams (his first interception since Week 10 against the Titans), giving Dallas new life.
The Cowboys marched down the field twice to draw even, before the aforementioned exchange of field goals between Dallas and Green Bay. Even with defensive ineptitude and a second half stall from the offense, the Packers are on their way to their second NFC Championship game of the past three seasons.
Rodgers finished the game with 356 yards and two touchdowns, but did throw an interception and take three sacks. The Packers relied heavily on the passing game (43 attempts), but the ground game was effective in limited action, averaging 5.1 yards on 17 carries as a team and accounting for two scores.
Cook led the receiving corps with 104 yards, while Davante Adams (76 yards) and Randall Cobb (62 yards) were also major factors.
Damarious Randall and LaDarius Gunter were manhandled by the Cowboys’ receivers, and the secondary lost Morgan Burnett early in the game. If the Packers want to beat the Falcons, they will have to be much more effective on defense against the league’s highest scoring offense. Nick Perry recorded a sack for the defense, as did Micah Hyde, one of the few bright spots on the Packers’ defensive unit.
Prescott threw for 302 yards and three touchdowns, and (likely) offensive rookie of the year Ezekiel Elliott gashed the Packers’ run defense for 125 yards. Bryant led the way for the Cowboys’ receivers with 132 yards and two touchdowns.
While the contest was much closer than it looked like it would be early on, Packers’ fans can rest easy for a while knowing that their team came out ahead in a close, entertaining, and thrilling playoff game. Green Bay has to clean a lot of things up—especially on defense—before next Sunday, but extending their winning streak to eight games and upsetting the NFC’s top seed have the Packers riding high with their eyes on a berth in the Super Bowl.——————
Sean Blashe is a Packers fan who grew up in Bears territory and is currently a journalism and history major at Marquette University. Sean is a writer with PackersTalk.com and you can follow him on twitter at @SeanBlashe .