GREEN BAY, Wis. — With one good leg and one unworldly arm, Aaron Rodgers was suddenly helpless on the sideline, craning his neck at the scoreboard along with his shivering congregation, all of them packed parka to parka inside frigid Lambeau Field on Sunday afternoon. When Rodgers saw Dallas wide receiver Dez Bryant stretch his arm on the video replay and slam the ball against the frigid turf, he knew.
“I was confident right away it would be an incomplete pass,” the Green Bay quarterback said later.
On the other sideline, Bryant was just as certain — albeit with a different conclusion. “All I know is I had possession,” he said.
But unlike one week earlier, when the Cowboys beat the Detroit Lions thanks in part to a penalty flag that was thrown and then picked up, this time the officials had a chance to review the video and decide: Had the Cowboys’ postseason luck run out, or would they somehow eke their way further into the playoffs?
The video revealed Bryant did not maintain possession, the referee announced, and moments later, time expired on Green Bay’s exciting 26-21 playoff victory over the Cowboys, punching the Packers’ ticket to the NFC title game next week against the Seattle Seahawks.
In a town that loves swapping old stories about its football legends, Rodgers provided the loyal fan base with another one that would be relived and retold for years to come. With kickoff temperatures hovering around 24 degrees, Sunday’s game wasn’t the perfect sequel to the famed Ice Bowl — that 1967 classic in which the Packers topped the Cowboys, 21-17, in sub-zero temperatures — but what the playoff matchup lacked in artistry, it made up for in dramatics.
Packers Coach Mike McCarthy had said in the days leading up to Sunday’s game that Rodgers’s injured calf wouldn’t hinder the 10th-year quarterback, but it was evident early on that Rodgers’s mobility was impacted. He seemed at times tethered in place, frozen in the pocket, even hobbling at times to the huddle. It wasn’t until the second half that Rodgers began to look comfortable throwing downfield, dodging Dallas pass rushers, showing that two good legs are a luxury, not a necessity.
Rodgers finished the game 24-for-35 passing for 316 yards and three touchdowns. He threw for 226 yards in the second half, including a go-ahead strike late in the game.
“Everybody wants to compare performances. I mean, that’s as good as it gets,” McCarthy said.
Green Bay trailed much of the afternoon and didn’t regain the lead until more than five minutes passed in the fourth quarter. From the Dallas 13-yard line, Rodgers shook off defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence coming around the edge and moved to his left. He fired a bullet toward the end zone, splitting two Cowboys defensive backs and finding rookie Richard Rodgers on the move for the game-winning score.
“Nothing really surprises me with Aaron anymore,” Green Bay guard Josh Sitton said. “He’s the best player in the game.”
But Dallas was eager to answer, and Tony Romo wasted no time pushing the Cowboys into Green Bay territory. With 4 minutes 42 seconds remaining, facing fourth and two from the Green Bay 32-yard line, Romo launched a floater down the sideline. Bryant leapt high, impressively came down with the ball and spun his way inside the 1-yard line, slamming the ball to the ground as he reached for the goal line. “It was a signature play for him,” Dallas Coach Jason Garrett said. The Cowboys were inches from the lead, minutes from advancing to the NFC title game.
Or so it seemed.
The rule book requires the receiver to maintain possession throughout the entire process of the catch. As the Cowboys’ offense lined up at the 1-yard line, McCarthy challenged the play. The officiating crew huddled, conferred with league officials reviewing the play in New York and then overruled the call on the field.
“In our judgment, he maintained possession but continued to fall and never had another act common to the game,” referee Gene Steratore explained later. “We deemed that by our judgment to be the full process of the catch, and at the time he lands and the ball hits the ground, it comes loose as it hits the ground, which would make that incomplete.”
Bryant’s interpretation of the play was simpler: “I had possession of the ball coming down,” he told reporters. “That’s possession, right — one, two [feet], reach, hand — that’s possession.”
The Packers took over possession and were able to run out the clock and hold on for the win. They advance to face the Seahawks, a team that beat Green Bay, 36-16, at CenturyLink Field in the season opener. While the Seahawks are trying to become the first team to defend its Super Bowl title since the 2004 Patriots, the Packers will find themselves in the conference title game for the first time since their Super Bowl-winning 2010 campaign.
The Packers have six days to prepare, which means Rodgers has six days to rest his calf before he tries to write another chapter.
“I think I have 120 minutes left in me,” Rodgers said. “So I’m going to do all I can to play all those minutes.”
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