Straight Through the Heart of Texas

New story, same ending.

Admit it, if you’re a fan of the Green Bay Packers, that thought permeated your brain at some point during the Packers’ 34-31 win over the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL divisional playoffs Sunday evening. After watching the last three seasons end in gut-wrenching fashion, who could blame you for letting your mind wander? Perhaps it seemed almost inevitable that Green Bay would come out on the wrong end of another legendary playoff game.

This time, though, the Packers wrote a new ending.

Early on, it looked as if Green Bay might run away with the contest. The Packers scored touchdowns on each of their first three drives – a touchdown pass from Aaron Rodgers to Richard Rodgers followed by a pair of short yardage plunges by Ty Montgomery – and held a 21-3 advantage midway through the second quarter. From that point forward, the two teams delivered the shootout everyone was expecting.

The scoring went back and forth as such:

A Dez Bryant 40-yard touchdown grab and a Dan Bailey field goal on the next two Cowboys drives cut the Green Bay lead to 21-13 at halftime.

The Packers marched right down the field after receiving the second half kickoff and extended the lead back to 15 points on a Rodgers toss to Jared Cook.

Early in the fourth quarter, after the two teams traded interceptions, Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott hit tight end Jason Witten for a 6-yard score, making it a 28-20 game. After getting a defensive stop and snatching the momentum, Prescott proceeded to find Bryant in the end zone again, this time from 7 yards out. The rookie quarterback ran the ball in himself for the two-point conversion, and the game was suddenly knotted at 28 with just over four minutes remaining.

And that’s when the fun began.

Green Bay, aided by a pass interference penalty, was able to reach the Dallas 38-yard line and brought out Mason Crosby for a 58-yard field goal attempt. Crosby’s kick was true, and the Packers led 31-28 with 1:33 left.

Given how the Cowboys offense had moved the ball throughout the second half, this was no doubt where the doubt began to come to a head for Packer fans.

It took just two plays for Dallas to reach the Green Bay 40-yard line with less than a minute to play. After a Prescott spike and a short completion to Cole Beasley, the Packers’ defense was able to come up with a huge stop on 3rd down, as Nick Perry batted the ball down at the line of scrimmage. Out came Bailey, and he nailed a 52-yard field goal with 35 seconds remaining.

The Packers went incomplete, 17-yard completion, sack, incomplete to begin the next drive. On 3rd & 20, Rodgers rolled to his left, hesitated, then fired a bullet to Jared Cook, who hauled it in along the sideline while dragging both feet – an absolutely incredible play, and even more so given the circumstances. That set up Mason Crosby for a potential game-winning 51-yard field goal attempt. After a Dallas timeout, Crosby sent the ball through the uprights as time expired.

And so a great weight was lifted from the shoulders of Packer fans. For many, there surely were flashbacks to the heartbreak of years past during the last few tense moments of Sunday’s win in Dallas.

For the guys on the team – not so much.

Aaron Rodgers, who finished with 356 yards and two touchdowns on 28 of 43 passing, was confident throughout.

“A little too much time on the clock,” Rodgers said when asked what he thought when the Packers got the ball back with 35 seconds to go. “I was just thinking about my breathing, and trying to steady that. I felt good. I felt very calm there.”

As it turned out, they would need all but three of those seconds to set up Mason Crosby for a chance to dagger the team he grew up rooting for as a kid in Georgetown, Texas. Even with the weight of the season on his shoulders, Crosby, too, remained composed.

“Move back to the sideline, come back, do my same process,” said Crosby when asked about his mindset when the Cowboys tried to ice him on his first attempt at the game-winner. “Obviously, to get the win here and make those kicks, that’s one I’ll remember for a long time.”

As for the guy who helped set up the final kick, well, he had a little more trouble articulating his feelings.

“Words can’t describe it, man,” Cook said about advancing to next week’s NFC Championship. “This has been eight years just to get this far…it’s pretty awesome.”

Sunday’s win means the Packers will travel to Atlanta for a clash with Matt Ryan and the high-flying Falcons offense. Given the state of Green Bay’s secondary, it could shape up to be an even stiffer test than what they saw against the Cowboys.

But the importance of this win won’t be lost on the Packers.

“We’re going to enjoy this one, and then we’ll get on to Atlanta tomorrow,” Rodgers said. “But this one’s special. More special than we’ve had around here in a while.”