Aaron Rodgers and the miracles

The Wall Street Journal’s Jason Gay starts writing about phobias, then says …

Me? I’m terrified of Aaron Rodgers.

Seriously. Who isn’t scared of Rodgers at this point? Besides exuberant Green Bay Packers cheeseheads, that is. The most frightening thing left in these NFL playoffs isn’t the Atlanta Falcons or the Pittsburgh Steelers or even Grumpy Bill Belichick’s New England Patriot Dance Machine, but a scruffy, solitary 33-year-old quarterback.

Rodgers. If my team is alive, I don’t want any part of him.

Consider Sunday’s thrilling Green Bay victory over Dallas. This thing was setting up to be a Cowboys comeback for the ages: the Packers racing to a 21-3 early lead, and then Dallas rallying to tie it late, led by rookie quarterback Dak Prescott.

When Rodgers took to the field deep in Packers territory in the closing minute, he noticed what he had left to work with:

35 seconds.

“There’s too much time left on the clock,” Rodgers said later.

Too much time!

Here a brief list of things I cannot do in 35 seconds or less:

1. Put on both shoes.

2. Find my keys.

3. Log into my company email.

4. Decide if I want hash browns (which is weird, because I always want hash browns.)

5. Dress my kids for a snowstorm (I also cannot do this in 35 years or less.)

But 35 seconds is plenty enough for Rodgers to help his team win a football game, as it turns out. Even after a crushing Dallas sack (how did Rodgers not fumble?) left Green Bay with a third-and-20 from its own 32. It was enough time for a rolling Rodgers to locate tight end Jared Cook, who brilliantly tiptoed on the sideline’s edge and pulled in a 36-yard completion. It was enough for Mason Crosby—and let’s hear it for Mason Crosby, a historic performance, kicker man—to come on for 51-yard field goal, and that was that.

Another Aaron Rodgers Green Bay epic in the book.At this point, it’s absurd, expected. When you play Rodgers, you don’t really play him. You’re at his mercy. I don’t want to use some cliché like “standard rules of space and time don’t apply” but it’s true: standard rules of space and time do not apply. If you give him a few seconds, he’s good. If you give him one play from his own side of the field, he’s good.
Which leads us to the Hail Marys. Rodgers is to Hail Marys what Steph Curry is to midcourt 3-pointers. It’s a fluky thing for everyone else. For them, not so much.

Ask yourself: If it’s your team, do you want to watch Aaron Rodgers heave a Hail Mary in the closing seconds of the half?

I don’t need an answer, because I know it. If you’re on the other sideline, a Rodgers Hail Mary is absolutely terrifying. Ask the New York Giants.

The Packers are a quirky kind of headache. They are probably the most imperfect team left in the NFL postseason. They have a depleted roster, especially on defense. After that early deficit, Dallas was able to move the ball rather easily on both the ground and in the air. Rodgers is without his best receiver, Jordy Nelson, who suffered broken ribs against the Giants in the Wild-Card round (it isn’t clear if Nelson will be back for the NFC title game.)

Green Bay’s flaws aren’t news. The Packers began their 2016 season 4-6, on the outside of the playoff picture, with chatter swirling about head coach Mike McCarthy’s job status and Rodgers’s diminished effectiveness. He isn’t the same, was the prevailing criticism.

That’s when Rodgers suggested that the Packers might be able to “run the table,” win their final six games and get a playoff spot. Which is a rather brash thing to predict. And it’s exactly what Green Bay did.

I’m assuming Atlanta was happy the Packers won Sunday—it means another home game for them, a championship closer for the Georgia Dome. The Falcons were impressive in handling Seattle on Saturday.

And yet this also means facing Rodgers in a climate-controlled environment. I always assume that when great quarterbacks from harsh-weather outdoor stadium teams get to domes, they turn into giddy free-range chickens. They think: This is amazing! I can’t believe people get to play here! I can feel my fingers!

It certainly felt that way for much of Sunday’s game in AT&T Stadium. It will probably feel that way for portions of next Sunday’s. Packers fans can’t wait. Aaron Rodgers is on the loose. The rest of us should be hiding behind the couch.

Sports Illustrated’s Peter King delves further into Sunday’s remarkable finish (with NFL Films video here):

This happened in the last five minutes:

5:00 left, fourth quarter: Green Bay 28, Dallas 20. Cowboys driving, but even if the kid quarterback, Dak Prescott, can score here, he’ll still need a two-point conversion to tie, and have a prayer of extending the game.

4:17 left: The kid squeezes a seven-yard TD pass into Dez Bryant on a short post route. The kid executes a quarterback draw well, but Packers linebacker Jake Ryan corrals him around the 1. Prescott’s will, and his body, barrel across the goal line. Prescott has brought Dallas all the way back from a 21-3 deficit against the great Aaron Rodgers. Two facts here. One: No rookie quarterback has thrown three touchdown passes in a playoff game in the past 50 years, and now Prescott has. Two: Prescott’s ridiculously good. Tie, 28-28.

2:00 left: Rodgers throws an ill-advised pick (that is the last time in this column you will read “Ill-advised” and “Rodgers” in the same sentence) to Dallas safety Jeff Heath … but wait. Rookie corner Anthony Brown gets called for pass interference for hooking Ty Montgomery early in his route. Iffy call, but watching it six more times Tuesday, it’s the right one. Brown hooked him and interfered with his route. Jason Garrett doesn’t like the call. Why would he?

1:33 left: Mason Crosby ambles onto the field to try the longest playoff field goal of his career–56 yards. He’s made 21 straight playoff field goal. His last miss: a 50-yarder he shtoinked off the left upright six years ago to the day in Atlanta. He boots a low, half-knuckleball liner that’s eight feet above the crossbar, just inside the right upright. Rodgers shows more glee on the sidelines than he ever shows after a TD pass, punching the air violently. Green Bay, 31-28.

0:49 left: Who exactly is the rookie here? Prescott to Terrence Williams for 24 up the gut. Prescott on a cross to Jason Witten for 11. First down, Packer 40. And then Prescott does something that looks stupid in the moments after the game. He spikes the ball. Odd, because the Cowboys have one timeout left, an incredibly reliable kicker (Dan Bailey), and they’re five to seven yards from a low-risk field goal in the weatherless stadium. If they’re playing for the tie and overtime, they should let the clock run. If they’re playing to win it right here, they’ll need that down they just gave away. Sure enough, Prescott throws a seven-yard out to Cole Beasley … clock stops … and Nick Perry bats down a pass at the line … clock stops … and it’s fourth down. What have the Cowboys done? Have they left enough time for Rodgers to score?

0:35 left: Bailey, with the easiest-looking 52-yard field goal in world history. Rodgers confers with Randall Cobb on the Green Bay sideline. I am guessing he might have said, “Can you believe they spiked it and left us enough time to win?” Tie, 31-31.

0:21 left: There’s going to be parade down the center of the Saginaw Valley (Mich.) State campus for Jeff Heath after the season. The feisty safety bursts around left tackle on a blitz and nails Rodgers for a 10-yard loss, back to the Green Bay 32. Watching at home in Columbus, Ohio, a good pal of Rodgers’, A.J. Hawk, is shocked, like the rest of America, that Rodgers has the ball in his right hand, ready to throw, and doesn’t feel the rush at all. You can see it in his eyes on the replay. He had no idea anyone was coming. And boom! Heath levels him. “Man, how’d he hold onto that ball?” Hawk wondered Tuesday, when I interviewed him for The MMQB Podcast With Peter King. “When that happened and he held onto the ball, I said to my wife, ‘He’s going to make a deep throw to win it, right now.’” On replay, it’s more amazing. Heath’s sacking arm is within eight or 10 inches of the ball but never could find the target to punch out. But it’s moot anyway. Rodgers needs 33 yards to get into field position and has maybe two plays to do it. But …

0:18 left: The act of the sack isn’t even done, but Rodgers, after a total clock-cleaning and his head bouncing back and forth like a crash-test dummy’s, pirouettes up quickly and signals for Green Bay’s second timeout. There’s some presence of mind.

0:12 left: Sideline route to Cook. Excellent coverage by Dallas’ Byron Jones, who sticks his arm in to bat a perfect pass away. Incomplete.

Third-and-20, Green Bay 32. How many 35-yard completions against seven DBs you got on that playsheet, Mike McCarthy? Shotgun snap. Ty Montgomery as a sidecar. Three Cowboys rush.

0:11 left: Rodgers spins completely around to face the left sideline and begins a loop.

0:10 left: Rodgers takes his first look downfield. Guard Lane Taylor breaks away from the mosh pit at the lane to protect Rodgers, and here comes the only rusher with a chance, linebacker Justin Durant.

0:09 left: Taylor engages Durant, who tries to use his quickness to get around the guard. Nothing doing. Rodgers stops. He bounces once, looking downfield.

0:08 left: Cobb’s open, slightly, just past midfield, but not deep enough. Useless throw. Rodgers pumps and recoils, and then jogs three more steps to his left. At home watching in Minnesota is Rich Gannon, who knows Rodgers well. “This is the most difficult throw for a right-handed quarterback,” Gannon told me on the podcast Tuesday. “Going to his left, throwing right-handed.”

0:07 left: Rodgers, three yards from the left sideline, now has Durant coming into his vision. But here’s the important thing: Taylor did a terrific job slowing Durant long enough for Rodgers to release it. Rodgers reaches back while still moving left slightly, never stopping to set up, and he rears back to throw, and the ball leaves his hand. He’s got a prayer to hit Jared Cook 38 yards away. Hey, it’s probably overtime. Take a shot.

0:06 left: “I can make that throw 15, 18 yards,” Gannon said. This Rodgers throw passes midfield with juice on it. A line drive.

0:05 left: Cook, who took a long, looping route to the left sideline from the right tight end spot, sees the ball coming toward him. “I used to watch him on the flights back home when I was on the Rams,” Cook said, “and I’d think, ‘He’s a beast.’ Now I see him make these passes every day.” Like this one. Here it comes, and Cook knows he has to be mindful of his feet. Stay inbounds, feet.

0:04 left: Ball hits hands. Cook falling out of bounds. Feet close to stripe. Ball secured. Cook on ground. Gannon is wowed at home in Minnesota. “He put it in a 12-inch box!” Gannon says, awestruck.

0:03 left: Cook on ground. Out at the 33. Head linesman Jeff Bergman, 15 yards behind the play, immediately signals no catch. “Pass is incomplete, out of bounds,” Joe Buck says on TV. Side judge Rob Vernatchi, 11 yards in front of the play, staring at Cook’s feet, sprints toward the play, signaling it was a catch. Bergman and Vernatchi converge at the 32. Bergman slaps Vernatchi on the rear end, as if to say, “You had it. Good call.” Which it was. Perfect, decisive call by Vernatchi.

Troy Aikman in the booth: “Unbelieva–

Buck: “Unbelievable!”

Two minutes and 40 seconds later, ref Tony Corrente has the ruling.

Corrente: “After review, the ruling on the field of a completed pass is confirmed.”

0:00 left: Crosby, from 51 yards for the win, good! But wait, Dallas timeout. He has to do it again.

0:00 left: Crosby, from 51 yards for the win … jussssst inside the left upright. Good. Green Bay, 34-31.

Three 50-yard field goals in the last two minutes of a game has never happened. “Really it was four,” radio host Chris Russo said Tuesday. “He made the other one and Garrett called time.” Never mind Rodgers: How about the icy kickers?

But that throw.

“To fit that ball in there,” Gannon said. “Incredible.”

Rodgers is breathless, seemingly, when Erin Andrews gets him on the field. “I mean, it’s just kind of schoolyard at the time,” Rodgers tells him. And as our Robert Klemko tweeted after the game, Cobb told him that Rodgers made up each receiver’s pattern in the huddle before the play. That really makes the whole story better.

The world moves so fast. Slow it down this morning, and appreciate one of the best games we’ll ever see.

Rodgers has had an unbelievable postseason. Pick your own favorite:

Gay is unfortunately correct that the Packers might be the worst team left due to their somewhat porous defense thanks to all the defensive backfield injuries and their sort-of adequate running game. (But the worst of four is still better than the remaining 28 teams, including the previously number-one-seeded Cowboys.) Not having Jordy Nelson Sunday and possibly not having Davante Adams will make things even more difficult.

If you thought the Packer defense was tested by the Cowboys, consider that the Falcons were the top scoring team in the NFL this regular season, ahead of fourth-place Green Bay. On the other hand, if you think the Packers’ defense wasn’t very good this season (21st in scoring), the Falcons’ defense was worse (27th in scoring). Based on that betting the over in an over–under bet (which as of now is 61.5) seems appropriate. (For comparison purposes, the Cowboys were fifth in scoring offense and scoring defense.)

This will be the third straight week the Packers will play in the postseason someone they played in the regular season. They looked awful and lost to Dallas 27–16 (and the game wasn’t that close), and then two weeks later lost to Atlanta 33–32 on a touchdown with 31 seconds left. The Packers lost three more games after that, and haven’t lost since then.

This looks eerily similar to the 2010–11 postseason (which included a surprisingly large win over Atlanta), but history generally doesn’t repeat itself, and one feels like the Packers’ magic can’t continue. The NFL would love a Patriots–Packers Super Bowl, but I don’t think the Falcons are going to cooperate.

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