So, in an ironic twist, Rodgers' clutch 50-yard touchdown pass to Greg Jennings that beat the Chicago Bears 21-15 on Sunday night wasn't nearly as beautiful as it looked to the 70,000-or-so Packers fans in attendance at Lambeau Field.
After Rodgers hit Jennings for a 7-yard gain and a first down at the 41-yard line, Jordy Nelson dropped a pass that would have moved the ball to about the 45. That inconsequential play will be but a footnote to what happened moments later, but it seemed to foreshadow yet another fourth-quarter failure by a team that went 0-7 in games decided by four points or less last season.
Rodgers' 9-yard scramble moved the ball to midfield to set up a critical third-and-1. With the clock ticking, coach Mike McCarthy called for a running play to Ryan Grant. Jennings, however, lined up in the wrong spot, and the Packers were forced to burn one of their three timeouts.
"I was teasing him after the game that he lined up on the wrong side on purpose," Rodgers said.
Given a few moments to ponder his options, McCarthy opted to try to pass for the first down.
"A lot of times you do have two calls, and we had a very similar play out of the personnel group that we put on the first time when Greg lined up on the wrong side," McCarthy said. "So, that was one of my two calls in that particular personnel group, so I switched personnel groups and then took the shot."
The formation called for two tight ends — Jermichael Finley on the left and Donald Lee on the right — with Grant lined up behind fullback John Kuhn in the I formation, and only Jennings split out to the left. At the snap, Rodgers was supposed to fake a handoff to the right to Grant, which was intended to suck in the defense and allow Lee to use his size in a one-on-one matchup against cornerback Charles Tillman on a route up the right sideline.
The formation smelled of run, and in fact, the Packers had handed the ball to Grant several times out of that look. With Green Bay needing only a field goal to take the lead, Bears coach Lovie Smith had his defense sell out to stop the run. He had cornerbacks Tillman and Nathan Vasher playing at the line of scrimmage, and all 11 defensive players were within 8 yards of the the ball.
Rodgers and Grant sold the play-action fake, and the defense — including the safety on Jennings' side of the formation, Al Afalava — swarmed to Grant.
Greg Jennings joins the fans after his touchdown. Morry Gash/AP
Rodgers dropped back into the pocket and looked at his first option, Lee, which prevented the other safety, Kenny Payne, from giving Vasher help against Jennings.
"In practice, we'd hit Donald just about every time down the sidelines running kind of an out-and-up," Rodgers said. "The good thing, though, was because I started with him, the safety was not a factor. I just came back to Greg and he ran a great route. Charles Tillman, who was to (Lee's) side, didn't buy the fake. He just backpedaled, so I was off of Donald Lee, and just sat on, just a little tick, just to hold that safety (Payne) a little more, knowing I was going to give Greg a ball."
When Jennings lined up and saw Vasher at the line of scrimmage and practically no safety help, he knew the big-play potential — "and," Jennings said, "they paid for it."
"Initially, I'm thinking I've got a chance," Jennings added. "I honestly thought (Rodgers) was going to put it up to me, anyway. Maybe that's a little arrogant on my behalf, but I feel like he should have confidence in me that I'm going to make a play. When I walked out there and I saw Vasher up close, I'm thinking if I beat him off the line, this is a touchdown. I know Aaron thought the same thing."
The story, however, doesn't end quite as simply as Jennings taking a Lambeau Leap after Rodgers threw the winning touchdown pass.
Throughout the game, the Bears' defense harassed Rodgers, and this play was no different. It's a good thing Grant wasn't tackled on the fake, because he had to bail out a missed assignment. Finley helped left tackle Chad Clifton against defensive end Alex Brown. Linebacker Nick Roach, who was lined up to the outside of Finley on the offense's left side, bought the fake to Grant and ran down the line of scrimmage, then came free at the last second when he saw Rodgers still had the ball. Grant came from the right side of the formation, where the fake run took him, back to his left to pick up Roach at the last second. Still, Roach's presence prevented Rodgers from fully stepping into the throw.
"There wasn't a whole lot of, ‘We didn't know who to block,'" McCarthy said. "It was more how we were doing it. But we did have some mental errors. Actually, the touchdown play, it's a great play and everything, but we blocked it wrong. We had one guy that was free. Aaron did a great job stepping up and making a great throw. Aaron and Greg made that play. The protection was a minus."
Fortunately, the throw didn't have to be perfect, because Jennings had beaten Vasher thoroughly, Payne was frozen by Rodgers' glance at Lee and Afalava had run himself out of the play.
"I just gave (Vasher) a move and he jumped outside, and I kind of pushed him, helped him outside a little bit more, and just ran up the field. Aaron threw a perfect ball," Jennings said.
And it was a perfect ending — even if almost everything before and during the play was imperfect.
"I'm not going to sit here and tell you we got the exact thing we thought we were going to get, but our guys executed and we stayed with the play," offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. "It was a good throw and catch at an important time. Our guys, it's been well-documented, have had an inability to make plays in the last 2 minutes of a game the last couple of years. So, we made a play."
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