Packers Up to the Challege

Aaron Rodgers' big second half sent the Packers past the Cowboys 26-21 and to next week's NFC title game at Seattle. Coach Mike McCarthy's challenge, which overturned a fourth-down catch by Dez Bryant that might have ended Green Bay's season, was a pivotal moment. (Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY)

Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy smiled.

Dallas Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones was “shocked.”

McCarthy’s first winning replay challenge of the season helped preserve the Packers’ 26-21 over the Cowboys in a NFC divisional playoff game on Sunday at Lambeau Field.

Dallas receiver Dez Bryant made what appeared to be an incredible catch on fourth-and-2 near the goal line to put the Cowboys in position for a go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter. Instead, McCarthy won his challenge that Bryant did not maintain possession while stretching out toward the end zone.

The Packers then burned off the final 4 minutes to advance to next week’s NFC Championship Game at Seattle.

“Based on the time of the game, it was my immediate reaction,” McCarthy said of the challenge. “But that was such an impactful play, you have to challenge that.”

After a hobbled Aaron Rodgers threw his third touchdown pass to give the Packers a 26-21 lead, Dallas took possession at its 18 with 9:06 remaining. Running back DeMarco Murray ripped off a 30-yard run on the first play and quarterback Tony Romo hit Bryant for 10 to the Packers' 38. On fourth down, Romo threw deep up the left sideline to Bryant, who made a leaping attempt over cornerback Sam Shields.

Bryant had both hands on the ball and the ball hit the ground as he tumbled to the turf. The impact with the ground popped the ball free. Bryant caught the ball on the rebound but, because the ball hit the turf, it was ruled that Bryant did not complete the catch. Had the play stood, the Cowboys would have had first-and-goal at the 1.

“I’ve never seen that a day in my life,” Bryant said. “I want to know why it wasn’t a catch.”

Bryant said he gave “not even a thought” to the play being overturned.

Rodgers was brilliant. Playing on a strained left calf sustained at Tampa Bay on Dec. 21 and minimal practice time this week, he completed 24 of 35 passes for 316 yards. He completed all 10 of his attempts in the fourth quarter to give the Packers (13-4) another shot at the Seahawks (13-4). Seattle dominated a season-opening matchup in September.

“It’s meaningful for our football team,” Rodgers said. “It’s a big win for us at home. Finish out the year 9-0 at home, beat a great football team like that, a good second-half comeback there, defense being really stout, offensive line dominating the game at the line of scrimmage, and Randall (Cobb) and Davante (Adams) coming up with some big plays for us.”

Rookie wide receiver Adams caught seven passes for 117 yards. His 46-yard touchdown catch-and-run in the third quarter, which pulled the Packers within 21-20, turned the tide of the game, McCarthy said. He came up big again on the final drive when he wrestled the ball away from Cowboys cornerback Sterling Moore for a 26-yard gain on a third-and-3 play. The Packers then converted a third-and-11 to clinch the game, with Rodgers' pass deflected at the line of scrimmage by defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford but caught by receiver Randall Cobb for a gain of 12. Cobb caught eight passes for 116 yards.

“You can’t tell me there’s not a God, just the way that ball bounced in the air after the tip – for it to be fluttering and for me to be in position to be able to make a play on it is unbelievable,” Cobb said.

The Packers pulled within 14-13 on Mason Crosby’s 30-yard field goal midway through the third quarter on a drive set up by linebacker Julius Peppers' strip of Murray.

Dallas answered emphatically when Romo hit Bryant for 20 and tight end Jason Witten for 15 on a pass that deflected off Bryant. Murray then sprinted for 26 yards around right end, sprung by pulling guard Zach Martin, before plowing in from the 1 to make it 21-13.

Adams’ touchdown pulled the Packers within one, and they took a 26-21 lead with 9:10 remaining in the game on Rodgers’ 13-yard touchdown pass to tight end Richard Rodgers. Aaron Rodgers stepped up in the pocket and drifted to the left and threw a bullet to the rookie tight end, with the ball beating defensive backs Sterling Moore and J.J. Wilcox. The two-point play, a fade to tight end Andrew Quarless, was broken up.

That set the stage for the officiating to come into play. A week after the Cowboys benefitted from a pass-interference flag that was picked up against Detroit, their season ended on a Bryant catch that was overturned by instant replay.

“Sometimes they go for you and sometimes they don’t,” Jones said.

Added Romo, who took several big hits but completed 15 of 19 passes for 191 yards and a pair of touchdowns: “They came after us with a Cover-0 look. I had a couple of options on the play and decided to go to Dez. I threw the ball where I thought he could make a play on the ball and he did a good job. They called it complete so, obviously, we didn’t score there. The calls don’t go your ways sometimes and that is part of the game.”

Dallas’ defense got the first big play of the game. With the game tied 7-7 and Green Bay driving, Rodgers wasn’t ready for Corey Linsley’s shotgun snap. The ball hit Rodgers between the “1” and the “2” on his jersey, and he scooped up the ball and moved to his right. Defensive end Jeremy Mincey hit Rodgers from his behind and jarred the ball loose and recovered the fumble.

The Cowboys struck quickly to take a 14-7 lead. Romo hit receiver Terrance Williams, who broke cornerback Tramon Williams’ tackle attempt at the 33 and cut back inside for a 38-yard touchdown.

The second bit turn of events came late in the first half. With the Cowboys in scoring position and facing third-and-1, Romo dropped the shotgun snap, recovered and threw incomplete to Williams in the end zone. They were flagged for a false start before a 45-yard field-goal attempt and Dan Bailey missed badly to the right from the 50 with 28 seconds to go.

That set up the Packers at their 40, and Rodgers hit Cobb for gains of 12 and 31 yards to set up Mason Crosby’s 40-yard field goal on the final play of the half to cut the margin to 14-10.

The Packers struck first, with Lacy doing the heavy lifting with seven carries for 45 yards. On third-and-goal from the 4, Rodgers took off up the middle and, with the Dallas defense closing in, fired a bullet to tight end Andrew Quarless for the touchdown.

Dallas answered, with Murray converting a pair of third-and-1s and Terrance Williams drawing a pass interference flag in the end zone. The drive was punctuated by Romo’s easy 1-yard touchdown pass to fullback Tyler Clutts.

For the Packers, it sets up a rematch against the Seahawks. Nobody in the locker room had given the Seahawks much thought over the past month or so, even if a collision course seemed inevitable. Now, that rematch is at hand for two teams chasing history.

“You've just got to be efficient against them, which is tough, because they take away just about everything you like to do,” Rodgers said. “They're No. 1 in passing yards per game and points per game, I believe, bare minimum. There's probably other categories that they're No. 1. It's a great defense, they've got pro bowlers all over the place. They're well coached. It's not an intricate scheme. But it doesn't have to be when you've got those kinds of players.”

Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.


Packer Report Top Stories