Rodgers Caps Brilliant Game with Heroic Finish to End Cowboys' Storybook Season

Mike FreemanNFL National Lead WriterJanuary 15, 2017

ARLINGTON, TX - JANUARY 15:  Aaron Rodgers #12 of the Green Bay Packers celebrates after Mason Crosby #2 of the Green Bay Packers kicked the game winning field goal against the Dallas Cowboys in the final seconds of a NFC Divisional Playoff game at AT&T Stadium on January 15, 2017 in Arlington, Texas. The Green Bay Packers beat the Dallas Cowboys 34-31  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

ARLINGTON, Texas — So, this is the scene. It seems to come straight from a Hollywood scriptwriter's mind.

Two Pro Bowl rookies make the playoffs for America's most popular football franchise. They stare down the barrel of greatness, in the person of a legend who has devastated every team in his path over the past two months. The youngsters are nervous initially but go on to mount one of the great playoff performances the NFL has ever seen from a pair of rookies.

What transpired Sunday was one of the most entertaining and drama-filled divisional games ever. This wasn't scripted. This was real life. The rookies were the non-nervous and lethal pair, Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott. They played beyond their years.

The character of GOAT was played by Aaron Rodgers.

Prescott, Elliott and the Cowboys lost to a master in Rodgers, and to the Green Bay Packers 34-31 in the NFC Divisional Round at AT&T Stadium. The Packers will play at Atlanta in the NFC Championship Game next week.

For the two young players, there is no shame losing to Rodgers. Lots of players have. There is a trail of carcasses littering the NFL landscape right now, all slain by Rodgers.

What. A. Game.

Dak Prescott, after watching Mason Crosby's game-winning field goal.
Dak Prescott, after watching Mason Crosby's game-winning field goal.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

 

Where do you start? Mason Crosby making two long field goals, the second from 51 to win the game? The brilliant comeback from 21-3 down by Prescott and Elliott? The catch by Jared Cook? The fact Green Bay scored 34 points, which tied for the third-highest total Dallas has ever given up in a playoff game? You could begin in any of those places.

But you have to start with 3rd-and-20 with 12 seconds left, 68 yards from the end zone. You have to start with Rodgers. You always have to start with Rodgers.

I watched Rodgers walk off the field after the emotional win, and I saw a man who could barely believe what he just experienced. One of the Dallas assistants (I'm not sure who it was) hugged Rodgers and said: "You're unbelievable." 

The assistant is not alone in feeling that way. Rodgers has a made a regular habit of doing the impossible. The impossible looks at Rodgers and says, "I want to be you."

We also learned after the game that Rodgers drew up the final play basically in the dirt. He keeps amazing us—then, he amazes us some more.

"He put the football in the perfect place," Cook said of the throw that led to Crosby's game-winner. "He's the greatest quarterback in football."

"We're seeing something special right now," Crosby said of Rodgers.

We're seeing maybe the best stretch of football any quarterback has ever played. We're seeing the best quarterback to ever do it. Go ahead. Argue, or @me. It's true.

But back to that 3rd-and-20. It turned into a 35-yard pass-and-catch and put the Packers in field-goal range with three seconds remaining and a tie score.

That's what the history books will say, but it was more than that. Rodgers initially looked like he was loading up to throw toward the end zone, but then Cook flashed into his view.

Rodgers put the football in a place where only Cook could catch it. The catch was incredible, with Cook dragging both feet in the turf. Yet the throw was so remarkable (adjectives to describe Rodgers are running low).

Indeed, Rodgers on Sunday made at least three or four throws no other quarterback today could make. He seems to make throws on the regular that few quarterbacks in history could have.

Another place to start in this game is at the beginning. Rodgers put on a doctoral-level quarterback clinic. Later in the game, we saw Rodgers use his physicality with accurate throws and scrambling. Early, he used Jedi mind tricks to help Green Bay jump to a big lead.

In one series, the first, he caught the Cowboys with 12 defenders on the field after a quick snap for a five-yard penalty. On the same drive, he tossed a deep touchdown pass on a free play. According to the Fox broadcast, Rodgers' 13 touchdowns off the hard count since he came into the league are the most. The next-closest quarterback has three.

Later in the first half, he caused the Cowboys to call a timeout far too early in the contest—after a bye week.

I'd like to write about something other than Rodgers. But this is ridiculous and historic, and there is no other topic to discuss right now when it comes to games Rodgers plays in. It's Rodgers' world, and we're all squirrels just trying to get a nut.

 

I didn't stay in the press box for this game. I walked the stadium the entire contest, parking myself in different parts of it and just observing. I can't stress enough how much everyone in the stadium was stunned early on at what Rodgers was doing. Throughout the crowd, pockets of Cowboys fans watched, mouths agape, and with great appreciation of what they were watching.

On the Cowboys' sideline, players looked genuinely shocked as Rodgers orchestrated the early lead. Quarterback Dak Prescott walked to members of the offensive line, clapping and cheering them on. When Prescott threw a gorgeous dime to Dez Bryant, turning a 21-3 first-half game to 21-10, it seemed Dallas was primed to make a comeback.

The same fans who were sitting on their hands were screaming again. 

Then came the beginning of the third quarter. Rodgers methodically and without mercy led Green Bay to another score. On that drive, he hit six passes to four different receivers.

On one play, Rodgers rolled right knowing that he was going to get blasted—and he did—yet still completed an impossible throw downfield. 

On the Dallas bench, several players shook their head in disbelief. It was as amazing watching Cowboys players' reactions on the bench as it was the play Rodgers made.

ARLINGTON, TX - JANUARY 15:  Head coach Jason Garrett of the Dallas Cowboys meets with Aaron Rodgers #12 of the Green Bay Packers after the Green Bay Packers beat the Dallas Cowboys 34-31 in the NFC Divisional Playoff Game at AT&T Stadium on January 15, 2
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said when Rodgers is done, he will go down as one of the top three to ever play. Not top three quarterbacks. Top three players, period.

"I love the challenge," Rodgers said. "I love the opportunity to make big plays."

Rodgers said he was trying to steady his breathing and stay calm on that last drive. He did both pretty well, eh?

Jim Brown is the best football player of all time. Rodgers is starting to threaten that position. This statement will cause some of you to lose your mind. But this is the universe we're entering right now. He's been that good.

And there's more to come.

    

Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.