ARLINGTON, Texas — This can be a devastatingly simple game.
Cowboys-Packers on Sunday afternoon gave us one of the greatest finishes to a playoff game in recent memory, a dazzling sideline throw-and-grab from Aaron Rodgers to Jared Cook to set up a game-winning field goal as time expired, sending the Packers to the NFC Championship Game next week in Atlanta. Rodgers, who has thus far delivered on his “run the table” remarks from the fall, could be seen gesturing to his receivers in the huddle before the 35-yard connection. Turns out, he wasn’t improvising on a long-practiced play, creating some nuance that was sure to throw Dallas’ secondary for a loop.
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He was just making a up a new play on the spot, inventing a route combination from whole cloth. “He made it up right in the huddle,” wide receiver Randall Cobb told The MMQB. “He said ‘X, go deep, Cook, run an over, everybody else go left. He made it up.
“It’s just about you believing in the man to your right and left,” Cobb said, “and finding a way to get it all done.”
Rodgers, fresh off a blindside hit from a blitzing safety, rolled left, stalled, and hit Cook at the last possible moment, as he scraped his toes inbounds. After the catch, Mason Crosby nailed the 51-yard field goal to win 34-31.
“Magic,” Cobb said of Rodgers and his play drawn in the sand. “He’s a magician.”
Sometimes that’s how it goes in the playoffs. You can forget about practiced route depths and orchestrated route combinations; that’s the junk coaches spit out when they’re explaining away training camp interceptions. When you have Aaron Rodgers, the biggest play of the game boils down to one man’s imagination in the center of a tornado.
But this can be an incredibly complicated game, too.
Take the erstwhile Play of the Game, before all the fourth-quarter shenanigans, when it seemed just for a few minutes that the Cowboys led by rookie quarterback Dak Prescott were doomed by a Micah Hyde interception returned deep into Dallas territory. Down 28-13 with just over seven minutes remaining in the third quarter, the Cowboys lined up on second-and-1 in single back, with three receivers in a bunch look on the left and a tight end on the right. Then something happened that set off a chain reaction in three magnificent football brains.
Dallas sent one of those three receivers in motion to the right side of the formation. Immediately, safety Kentrell Brice sprinted up into the box to join the rest of the defense. That’s because Packers coordinator Dom Capers wanted to force the Cowboys to beat them throwing the ball, and secondary coaches Darren Perry and Joe Whitt Jr. had spent time going over this specific formation—stacked receivers with a single back and the QB under center—with the understanding that it usually means a run-pass option, and the pass is a bubble screen to a receiver behind the line of scrimmage.
Cornerback Damarious Randall could see it all happening from his spot on the other side of the formation. “We knew whenever they got into that stack formation they’re getting into it to run the ball,” Randall said. “But if they see we have more numbers in the box, they’ll throw out the run. We just knew that was coming.”
On the two-receiver side, cornerback Ladarius Gunter and Micah Hyde were on the same wavelength. As the ball was snapped, Gunter hollered “Go!” Hyde was already in full sprint. Prescott threw the football to him as though he were the intended receiver.
Ultimately, the interception didn’t matter, with Green Bay turning the ball over on the ensuing drive. But the level of competence and preparation necessary for the Hyde interception shows what it takes to play football in the second half of January. This play wasn’t a staple of the Dallas offense—this was a footnote. The Cowboys hadn’t used the pass option since Week 15 against the Buccaneers, and even then it only went for three yards (on another second-and-1). Packers players couldn’t even remember if backup quarterback Brett Hundley’s scout team had run it at all during the week. But they saw that motion, and everybody was on the same page in a heartbeat.
“That’s DB room film study,” Hyde says. “When they see that safety come down they know it’s a two-on-two situation on the outside. We want them to throw that. Ladarius is all alone out there if both of those guys run routes, but we both saw it, and he told me to go, and I just went.”
A lot of things have to go right to get this far in the postseason—one game between you and the Super Bowl. You have to be relatively healthy. And usually you have to come down on the right side of some questionable officiating calls (like the one that awarded Green Bay an extra five yards on a dubious pass interference call on a drive that ultimately led to a go-ahead field goal).
As for the circumstances within your control, you’ve got to have 53 guys committed to studying and, in a split second, recalling those hours upon hours of game-planning. And after all that, you must be capable of recognizing when simple will do the trick, when no amount of coaching can trump confidence and chemistry.
If you want a ring: Get you a team that can do both.