ARLINGTON, Tex. – The rookie magic of Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott and tailback Ezekiel Elliott ran into a more powerful force here Sunday. That was the quarterbacking wizardry of Aaron Rodgers, and he carried the Green Bay Packers into the NFC title game with a pulsating 34-31 victory that ended the Cowboys’ season in stunning fashion.
The Packers, who had a record of 4-6 after a November loss to the Washington Redskins, have not been beaten since. They finished the regular season with six straight wins and have kept right on rolling in the postseason. They will play at Atlanta on Sunday in the NFC championship game.
They have Rodgers and kicker Mason Crosby, who connected on a 51-yard field goal as time expired, to thank. The winning kick by Crosby was set up by Rodgers’ 36-yard, third-and-20 completion to tight end Jared Cook, who just managed to keep his feet in bounds along the sideline, with three seconds to play. An instant replay review confirmed the catch.
“Too much time on the clock,” Rodgers said. “We’ve got a good repertoire of plays for the end of the game.”
Said Crosby: “I didn’t feel any pressure and was able to execute.”
Rodgers threw for 356 yards and two touchdowns in a 28-for-43 passing performance. He did throw an interception, his first in 319 passing attempts since mid-November. But he did little else wrong.
The Packers scored touchdowns on their first three and four of their first six possessions to build leads of 21-3 in the first half and 28-13 in the fourth quarter. Rodgers threw touchdown passes to tight end Richard Rodgers and Cook. Tailback Ty Montgomery ran for two touchdowns.
“We’re an excellent football team, and we’re two steps away from achieving greatness,” Packers Coach Mike McCarthy said.
The Cowboys, the NFC’s top seed after a 13-3 regular season, fought back to tie the game at 28 on Prescott’s fourth-quarter touchdown passes to tight end Jason Witten and wide receiver Dez Bryant. Prescott’s two-point conversion run got the Cowboys even with a little more than four minutes remaining.
The Packers, aided by a pass interference call on the Cowboys that negated an interception, drove to Crosby’s 56-yard field goal to reclaim the lead with 1:33 to go. Dallas kicker Dan Bailey answered with a 52-yarder with 35 seconds left.
Prescott and Bryant also teamed for a second-quarter touchdown, and Elliott ran the ball for 125 yards. But Prescott threw a costly third-quarter interception. And the Dallas defense could not deal with Aaron Rodgers. So a Cowboys season that had promised to deliver so much more ended two steps shy of a Super Bowl appearance.
The Packers were playing without Rodgers’ favorite receiver, wideout Jordy Nelson, who was sidelined after suffering a rib injury in Green Bay’s first-round triumph over the New York Giants. No matter. The Dallas defense still had no answers for Rodgers in the early going. He connected on 15 of 20 throws for 191 yards on the Packers’ first three drives as they raced to a 21-3 advantage.
Rodgers is a master of getting free yards and free plays for the Green Bay offense, especially when the Packers are in no-huddle mode. He caught the Dallas defense twice on Green Bay’s first possession. The Cowboys had too many players on the field on a third-down snap for a 5-yard penalty that gave Green Bay a first down.
Then on Rodgers’ 34-yard touchdown pass to Richard Rodgers, the Cowboys were offside at the snap, and the quarterback took full advantage of the free play. He lofted a deep pass to his tight end as Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee attempted to keep up in coverage. Richard Rodgers made the catch, and the Packers had the early lead.
Green Bay drove 90 yards the second time it had the ball. Montgomery bulled his way into the end zone from the 3-yard line, and the stadium suddenly became very quiet. It was even quieter after Montgomery’s second touchdown run, this time from the 1-yard line, extended the lead near the quarter’s halfway point. The Packers’ drive was kept going by a hands-to-the-face penalty called on Cowboys cornerback Morris Claiborne on a third-down incompletion.
The Cowboys were the team coming off the bye. And yet they were the team that seemed confused and disorganized for much of the first half. After they got a field goal on their opening possession, their second drive stalled when wide receiver Brice Butler was given an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for joining the huddle and then leaving it without participating in a play.
But once the deficit reached 21-3, the Cowboys steadied themselves a bit. The defense began blitzing Aaron Rodgers and got stops on Green Bay’s final two first-half possessions, aided by a blatant defensive holding penalty on Claiborne that went uncalled on the first of those drives.
Prescott connected with Bryant, who beat cornerback LaDarius Gunter along the left sideline, for a 40-yard touchdown to make it a 21-10 game. The Cowboys then had to settle for Bailey’s second field goal of the day after Witten’s justified pleas for a holding or pass interference call near the goal line failed to produce a flag. But at least it was a competitive game again.
Whatever Dallas figured out on defense late in the first half didn’t carry over to the third quarter. Rodgers took the Packers quickly down the field and flipped a 3-yard touchdown pass to Cook.
The Cowboys moved into position for a reply. But even with Elliott running effectively, they attempted a screen pass on a second-and-1 play from the Green Bay 19. Defensive back Micah Hyde saw the play coming and stepped in front of wideout Cole Beasley for the interception.
Dallas safety Jeff Heath returned the favor with an interception of a Rodgers pass on Green Bay’s ensuing drive. Dallas cashed in with Prescott’s 6-yard touchdown pass to Witten early in the fourth quarter.
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