The Cowboys are going to require open heart surgery this offseason, because Aaron Rodgers and the Packers just crushed the Cowboys' Super Bowl hopes in the most devastating, Red Wedding/Titanic sort of way.
Riding Rodgers' hot hand, the Packers jumped out in front of the Cowboys almost immediately on Sunday, taking an 18-point lead in the second quarter. But the Cowboys ripped off 15 unanswered in the fourth quarter to draw even, setting up an incredible ending.
First, Rodgers mounted what appeared to be a game-winning drive in the final minutes that ended with Mason Crosby's 56-yard field goal. But the Cowboys responded with their own clutch drive, which Dan Bailey capped with a 52-yard field goal.
The stage was set for Rodgers with 35 seconds remaining and the ball at his own 25-yard line. A screen to Ty Montgomery got the Packers to the 42-yard line, but a sack pushed them back to the 32. Only 18 seconds remained and Rodgers fired incomplete deep downfield.
But on third-and-20, Rodgers did something unbelievable. He drew up a game-winning play in the huddle.
Cobb said the final play was not an actual playcall. Rodgers just told each receiver what to do, like a kid drawing in the dirt. Seriously.— Robert Klemko (@RobertKlemko) January 16, 2017
It truly was a backyard football play. He spun out of the pocket, waited, and then fired a sideline dart to Jared Cook, who executed perfect footwork before falling out of play at the Cowboys' 33-yard line.
The catch was upheld after an official review.
With three ticks remaining, Crosby headed out for another field goal -- this one from 51. He drilled it, but Jason Garrett was granted a timeout just before the snap, negating the made kick.
Once again, Crosby lined up. Once again, he was perfect, as the ball squeezed through the upright.
That's how the Packers beat the Cowboys, 34-31. They're now on to Atlanta, where they'll face the Falcons with a spot in Super Bowl LI at stake.
And, just like that, the Cowboys' dream 13-3 season is over.
Aaron Rodgers' torches Jerry World
Without Jordy Nelson, Rodgers threw for 356 yards and two touchdowns. Statistics really don't do Rodgers' performance any justice considering Montgomery vultured two touchdowns away from him with goal line runs.
His dominance began immediately. After the Cowboys kicked a field goal on the opening possession, Rodgers needed just five plays to take the Packers 75 yards downfield and into the end zone. He completed all three of his passes. He caught the Cowboys with 12-men on the field to pick up a first down. He threw a 34-yard touchdown to Richard Rodgers.
And, oh yeah, it came on one of his patented free plays.
Esoteric stat of the day:— Chris Wesseling (@ChrisWesseling) January 14, 2016
Since 2012, Rodgers has 12 TDs on "free plays" due to offsides or encroachment. No other QB has more than 3.
Make that 13.
Of course, I could point out that Rodgers' pass was actually under thrown and should've been deflected by Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee, but that feels like nitpicking. Was it a perfect throw? No, but it was good enough.
He one-upped himself on the Packers' second series, journeying 90 yards on 13 plays. This one ended with a Montgomery run from in close, stretching the Packers' lead to 11 points.
It didn't stop there. The Packers used a nine-play, 80-yard drive to put the Cowboys in a 21-3 hole.
The Cowboys woke up and scored the final 10 points of the first half, narrowing the gap to eight, but the Packers got the ball to start the third quarter and Rodgers kept on Rodgers-ing.
Not many QBs in the NFL are making this play. pic.twitter.com/aGj2GNaKDx— Cian Fahey (@Cianaf) January 15, 2017
On the opening series of the third quarter, Rodgers hooked up with Cook for his second touchdown.
That touchdown ended a six-play, 75-yard drive.
The Cowboys would eventually pick off Rodgers late in the third quarter, which resulted in a touchdown that closed the gap to eight points, ending Rodgers' streak of 318 passes without an interception. They even forced another stop to give their offense a chance to tie the game, which they did.
But the Cowboys also surrendered those two lengthy field goals in the final minutes. Inexcusably, they allowed that third-and-20 pass to set up the game-winning kick.
In the end, Rodgers won. Somehow, he almost always does.
The Cowboys' miraculous rally
The Cowboys dug themselves into a 15-point hole in the third quarter and still found a way to tie the game. For that, they deserve credit, especially considering they were in completely foreign territory.
A byproduct of the Cowboys' overwhelming success this season is that they were never really forced to play from behind. As Football Outsiders' Aaron Schatz pointed out, Prescott threw 16 passes in the regular season when the Cowboys trailed by more than a touchdown. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the Cowboys' offense ran 36 plays when they were down by at least 10 points. Suddenly, with a rookie quarterback and running back, the Cowboys needed 15 points in the second half of a playoff game.
But the comeback began with a Jeff Heath interception late in the third quarter.
The Cowboys turned that turnover into a 10-play, 59-yard drive, as Prescott located Jason Witten for a touchdown.
After another defensive stop, the Cowboys went back to work. On the 11th play of their ensuing drive, Prescott hit Dez Bryant for a 7-yard score. Prescott ran in the two-point conversion to knot up the game.
Even when the Packers responded with a go-ahead field goal, the Cowboys answered right back with their own field goal. Obviously, the Packers were able to get the final word in, but -- again -- give the Cowboys credit for continuing the fight.
And here's the good news: They're set up to make another run next year. Prescott handled his first playoff start with confidence and poise, throwing for 302 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception for a 103.2 passer rating. And Elliott rushed for 125 yards on 22 carries (5.7 yards per carry).
He was electric:
omg I can hear the WHAAAA from Clay Matthews pic.twitter.com/TT7X1F83X9— Mike Tunison (@xmasape) January 16, 2017
The Cowboys' season was supposed to have ended when Tony Romo went down in the preseason. Instead, it ended after a 13-3 season and an incredible fourth-quarter comeback in the playoffs.
It's not the ending Jerry Jones wanted, but it's probably a better ending than he expected back in late August.
With all that being said, the Cowboys lost ... in their first playoff game ... and at home. They blew a pretty damn good chance to wind up in Houston for Super Bowl LI. Opportunities like these don't always come around and despite their young talent, they might not find themselves in a better situation for a long, long time.
And they can only blame themselves for committing countless stupid mistakes.
Before their third snap from scrimmage, the Cowboys' defense tried to substitute players on third down. Rodgers spotted this (like he always does) and snapped the ball, giving the Packers an automatic first down. Before the next play, the Cowboys burned a timeout because they trotted out just 10 men onto the field.
On the Cowboys' second offensive series, a 22-yard pass was negated due to a 15-yard penalty against Brice Butler for going into the huddle but not participating in the play -- yes, that's apparently an infraction.
Why is it unsportsmanlike conduct for an NFL player to enter a huddle and then leave the field? The league doesn't want teams to try to deceive defenses by using fake substitution patterns. If you send in a player that you're going to eventually pull off the field, the defense might be left with the personnel it wanted to go against that particular player. The league doesn't consider that strategy to be within the spirit of the game. The Cowboys were more likely confused than they were trying to deceive, but that is the rule.
That flag resulted in a 37-yard swing and turned a first-and-10 into a second-and-long. The Cowboys' promising drive was derailed and they were forced to punt back to the Packers as a result.
The Cowboys struggled with the basics -- like getting players on the field. They also struggled in other areas. They ignored Elliott for too long in the first half. Cowboys coach Jason Garrett turned down a free kick at the end of the first half. Late in the game, with the Cowboys down eight points, Butler had a chance to haul in this touchdown.
Those first 35 minutes or so put the Cowboys in a hole they never should've been in. Furthermore, on the Packers' go-ahead drive in the fourth quarter (the one that preceded the Cowboys' game-tying drive and the Packers' game-winning drive), they actually picked off Rodgers again. But that interception was wiped away by pass interference.
Mistakes like those doomed the Cowboys.
Dez Bryant caught everything
Just because the Cowboys lost doesn't mean we should forget about Dez Bryant's awesome performance. He finished with two touchdowns and 132 yards.
When the Cowboys needed something positive to happen, he did this:
The Jared Cook signing pays off
For much of the season, Jared Cook -- a free agent addition -- sat on the sidelines. He appeared in the team's first three games, but didn't see the field again until Week 11. The Packers didn't lose again after Week 11.
When the Packers signed Cook, I wrote a lengthy piece about his inconsistencies as a player and the depressing list of quarterbacks he played with before arriving in Green Bay. I arrived at this conclusion:
With Rodgers throwing darts, I'd expect Cook to enjoy a productive year. He'll be able to win in man-to-man coverage, he'll serve as Rodgers' quick outlet, and he'll break open some big plays the Rams' quarterbacks were unable to execute
Just don't expect Cook to turn into a top-caliber player. While it's true that Cook's been saddled with some truly awful quarterbacks since he first entered the league, it's also true that Cook has hindered himself.
Even quarterback god Aaron Rodgers can't save Cook from himself.
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