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The NFL Game of the Year: Packers-Cowboys Finally Delivers a Playoff Classic

And Aaron Rodgers was as brilliant as he’s ever been

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

There are a few tells that something explosive is about to happen, like, say, when someone kidnaps Liam Neeson’s daughter, or Kanye remembers that he has a Twitter account. Or when Aaron Rodgers gets hot in a playoff game.

Rodgers has been the key figure in a few of the greatest playoff games in history: the Packers’ loss to Arizona in 2010, their NFC title game loss in 2015, and another loss to the Cardinals in 2016. Sunday’s epic 34–31 Packers win ranks among the greatest playoff games in history — and, given the stakes, is clearly the game of this NFL season.

Moreover, there’s a case that Rodgers’s 36-yard pass to Jared Cook that got the Packers to the Dallas 32 with three seconds left is the most impressive throw in playoff history. Not most dramatic, mind you — there’s always the Immaculate Reception or the Helmet Catch or even Fourth-and-26. But as far as being impressive goes? Rodgers’s throw is in the conversation for no. 1.

Here was the scenario: Rodgers was on the move, and if he didn’t complete that third-and-20 pass, the game was certainly going to overtime. Rodgers had to throw it at that exact moment because time was close to expiring and two defenders were closing in on him. The window in which to throw the pass was impossibly small and Jared Cook was moving so close to the sideline that he looked like Michael Jackson dragging his feet as he secured the reception. To top it off, Rodgers drew the play up himself. Hell, it was so unlikely that it fooled the Fox broadcast team and at least one referee initially, let alone millions of viewers at home.

If you were to design the most dramatic game possible, you’d have come up with something just like this one: The Packers dominated early, going up 21–3 in the second quarter as a slinging Rodgers looked unstoppable. Then Dak Prescott found a rhythm and the Cowboys went back to being the Cowboys: Jason Witten and Dez Bryant had their first career playoff touchdowns and Ezekiel Elliott began ripping off chunks of yardage. In the final 4:08 of the fourth quarter, the Cowboys tied the game twice and the Packers took the lead twice, including Mason Crosby’s game-winning 51-yard field goal.

Like most classic games, a certain amount of incompetence from both sides helped. The Packers’ pass defense made it ludicrously easy for the Cowboys to drive 42 yards down the field to set up Dan Bailey’s field goal with 35 seconds left. The Cowboys, apparently unaware of who Aaron Rodgers is, didn’t bring much pressure in the early part of the game. That Dallas strategy revealed itself to be, well, flawed:

Coincidentally, the matchup this one topped for game of the year also included the Cowboys squaring off against a historically great NFL franchise — the Steelers-Cowboys showdown from November, when Zeke scored on a 32-yard run with nine seconds remaining to win the game 35–30. A similar situation seemed to be setting up on Sunday before the Cowboys opted for a string of odd play calls on their final drive. On first-and-10 from the 40, the Cowboys spiked the ball, threw to Cole Beasley, then called another pass, an incompletion to Bryant. This sequence did a few things: The plays kept a surging Elliott from a potentially marquee moment, ensured there wouldn’t be another first down, and failed to drain any time off the clock.

The Packers got the ball back with 35 seconds and two timeouts remaining. That’s an eternity for Rodgers. Among the few unstoppable things in sports right now: Joel Embiid’s Twitter account and Rodgers with time to make something happen.