In what was easily the most exciting game in this year’s playoffs, the Green Bay Packers came away with an thrilling 34-31 victory over the Dallas Cowboys in the Divisional Round of the 2016 NFL Playoffs.
Despite a massive early lead, things got mighty hectic towards the end for the team. Still, Green Bay managed to survive the late onslaught by the Cowboys — one which completely erased an 18-point deficit the Packers had placed on them — to come away with a miraculous last-second victory in the divisional round of the 2016 NFL playoffs.
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There were multiple players stepping up big for both offenses throughout this game; through them, we saw a seemingly endless dazzling display of big plays and exciting moments, all coming to a head with the final three drives seeing the teams trade 50+ yard field goals.
Among all of the amazing highlight-level contributions, what plays, players, and moments were the most important to bringing about this outcome?
Here’s which ones I believe made the most difference for the Packers …
When facing a team like this current iteration of the Cowboys, one of the most effective gameplans relies on getting a fast lead on the opposition. Forcing a team which is built heavily on the dominance of its running game to play from behind may not necessarily be a death sentence for their chances, but it does mitigate the overall impact and damage they can bring about through their most effective weapon.
Even with this hope clearly in mind however, there is no guarantee a team can actually bring to fruition this sort of plan. Also to keep in mind: for all the positive talk surrounding the offense during the “run the table” streak, there have still been plenty of games where it takes the group to really get going. Just a game before, Green Bay was forced to punt the ball on their first five offensive drives when playing the Giants; beyond that, there were three other games in the streak where Green Bay had to punt at least three times during the first half.
The slow starts didn’t manage to take down the Packers lately, but they were a paramount problem in the 4-6 start to the year, and against an offense as effective as Dallas’ the Packers could find themselves in an insurmountable hole if they didn’t come out firing on all cylinders.
Fortunately, that is exactly what Green Bay did.
From the beginning, it was as if the Wild Card round never ended for the offense. The first three drives by Aaron Rodgers and Co. all went for touchdowns. These weren’t exactly the simplest drives either; each of them went for at least 75 yards, and two of them lasted at least 9 plays. Big-time plays were spread across each of them; between 34 yard strikes for touchdowns to 14 yarders to convert key third downs, there was plenty going well to help the offense put those points on the board. Combining the fiery offensive start with a nice defensive effort to begin gave the Packers a 21-3 at one point and a 21-13 lead at the half.
The Packers would end up needing every one of those early point with the second half comeback mounted by the Cowboys. Without the early success on offense, this may have become much closer to the unfortunate outing during the regular season than any of us would’ve been hoping for.
While the offense is what really stood out in this contest, the defense definitely made some timely plays which were at least as important to the outcome.
The Cowboys easily could have come out and made this into a shootout right away, but the defense was able to hold off Dallas from making it into the endzone on their first drive.
Things began well for them, but a timely blitz by Micah Hyde started the eventual bogging down of the drive; following that first down sack Dallas was able to only pick up 14 of the necessary 16 yards to keep things moving, and the Cowboys had to settle for a 50 yard field goal attempt by Dan Bailey.
Even more importantly: how the defense did just enough to hold up to force another field goal right at the end of the game.
Though Green Bay had just picked up the lead again off their own long field goal, Dallas had an offense which had truly found their rhythm while scoring two straight touchdowns; another touchdown here likely seals the game in favor of Dallas, especially with so little time remaining. Dallas followed the decision to spike the ball (while having timeouts left) with a short throw to Cole Beasley, but then on third down Nick Perry was able to bat away Dak Prescott’s final pass to force the Cowboys to settle for a long field goal.
They would go on to make it and tie the game, but only needing a field goal to win allowed Green Bay to go on and do just that.
When giving up over 30 points to the opposition, a defense can’t really claim to have had a good performance, but coming through with key plays early and late allowed them to mitigate the damage done by the Dallas offense and give their offense just enough help to survive for a thrilling victory.
With Jordy Nelson unable to participate in this game due to his rib injury, Green Bay was missing their top receiving option in its most important game of the season. Unlike last season however, the Packers were much more prepared to deal with his absence.
With Jordy out, his fellow receivers were going to need to step up in some manner here. Rather than one guy becoming the main target however, the gameplan focused on involving everybody Green Bay had left at the disposal.
Randall Cobb had the most catches of any Packer, cutting underneath the coverage to keep drives going. Jared Cook picked up the most yardage on the team, while also having perhaps the most important grouping of catches. Davante Adams acted as the deep shot target, trusted even in the stickiest examples of opposing coverage. Ty Montgomery was an effective option out of the backfield, for short passes to the flat and to help undermine defensive blitzes with screen passes. Geronimo Allison was the target on multiple sandlot-style plays, finding his way into openings in the defensive coverage for receptions. Richard Rodgers managed to break away for a long touchdown completion.
In all, four different players ended up with at least five catches, and three players ended up with more than 60 receiving yards. They brought in two of the team’s four touchdowns, and were responsible for numerous magical catches.
This sort of thing is what goes down into the historical lore surrounding a player once their career is in the books.
On that final drive for the Packers, there was little time to work with for Green Bay; just 35 seconds remained available as the team began their drive from their own 25.
Following a couple quick plays, Green Bay was at their own 42 with 23 seconds left. Just another 15-20 yards, and we’d be looking at a field goal for Mason Crosby, who’d already made one previously.
The next play surprisingly didn’t end the drive, but it could (and maybe should) have: a blindside sack at full speed by Jeff Heath of the Cowboys seemed like it should have knocked the ball loose from Rodgers’ hand.
Somehow, even with only one hand on the ball, Rodgers held on without an issue; he instantly and calmly rolled up out of the hit to call a timeout.
Despite keeping control of the ball, the situation still wasn’t looking great for the Packers’ hopes of winning in regulation: just 18 seconds remained, and at least 30 yards would be needed for any sort of viable field goal attempt.
An incompletion came next, leaving the Packers with 0:12 on the clock and a 3rd and 20; overtime was all but assured.
Or so it seemed.
Rather than face the perils of random chance brought on by overtime, Rodgers drew up his own play on the fly. In the huddle, he motioned out routes with his hands for each receiver.
Once the play started, he calmly rolled out to his left; buying some time and constantly looking downfield, he eventually zings the ball deep.
Cook was there right along the sideline, and he somehow managed to not only bring in the ball, but successfully drag his feet immediately before crossing over the rapidly-approaching sideline.
The play gave the Packers just enough to get Crosby in range for his long game-winning field goal try; without it, maybe Green Bay finds itself gazing from the couch instead of taking the field in the Georgia Dome.
Who ever would have seen this as a possibility way back during this man’s struggles in 2012?
Back then, Crosby missed 12 different field goals on his way to by far the worst kick percentage of his career (63.6%). The biggest part of that? His failure on long kicks (he went 2/9 on 50+ yard attempts that season).
Since that year, Crosby has proven time and again that the Packers were smart to stick with him through his struggles. To date, I haven’t ever seen a better performance out of him (and there are plenty to choose from); in fact, this may be the most clutch performance by a kicker, ever.
Grouped together these were historically impressive, but each was outstanding on its own merits as well.
His first kick was from 56 yards out to give the Packers a short-lived 31-28 lead. That kick was the third-longest ever converted in postseason history and tied for third-longest of his career.
The second kick was not quite as long — “just” 51 yards this time — but the situation was even more dramatic.
Three seconds remained after the enormous completion between Rodgers and Cook moved the ball 36 yards to even give Crosby the shot; a miss here would leave the Packers at risk of yet another overtime heartbreak.
He wouldn’t miss, but he did have to kick it twice; the annoying (and ultimately pointless, both in this particular instance and statistically overall regarding this sort of situation) decision by Jason Garrett to ice Crosby made sure fans and players alike would have to sit with their hearts in their throats to wait out another long kick.
Somehow even more dramatically this time, with the hopes of an entire organization on his leg yet again, he booted the ball through the uprights again (barely, but still through).
That kick not only gave the Packers the win, but added to some increasingly remarkable milestones and records reached by Crosby.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Crosby is the first kicker ever to make two 50+ yard field goals in the final two minutes of a playoff game.
If that seems surprising, so will this: it was the first time in his career Crosby had ever accomplished the feat of making two 50+ yarders at all (prior to this he’d been 0-2 on 50+ yard attempts in his career), much less in the same game or in such a clutch situation.
With these kicks added to his repertoire, Crosby reached 26-28 on postseason field goal attempts in his career — including an NFL record 23 straight postseason conversions (second place is David Akers with 19).