Green Bay 34, Dallas 31
When: 4:40 PM ET, Sunday, January 15, 2017
Where: AT&T Stadium, Arlington
ARLINGTON – (Special to Digital Sports Desk by The Sports Xchange) – The clock had 35 ticks remaining, the score was tied and one thought went through the head of Aaron Rodgers.
“A little too much time on the clock.”
The NFL’s hottest quarterback put the Green Bay Packers in position to advance to the NFC Championship and kicker Mason Crosby did the rest, booting a 51-yard field goal at the final gun to beat the Dallas Cowboys 34-31 Sunday afternoon at AT&T Stadium.
Aaron Rodgers (12)
The Packers moved on to face the Atlanta Falcons next Sunday with a spot in the Super Bowl at stake.
The final score came in improbable fashion after the Cowboys tied the game in the last minute. On third down with 12 seconds remaining, Rodgers dialed up some familiar magic.
Scrambling to his left, he rifled a 36-yard completion to Jared Cook, who dragged his toes in bounds at the 33-yard line with 3 seconds on the clock. Crosby followed with a game-winner just inside the left upright, after his first attempt right down the middle was waived off after the Cowboys called a timeout right before the snap.
“It’s unreal,” Crosby said. “When we have 35 seconds left on the clock and that offense can move the ball into field-goal range for a manageable kick, that’s just special.”
Rodgers finished 28 of 43 for 356 yards and two touchdowns, with an interception, despite being without leading receiver Jordy Nelson.
Cook caught six passes for 104 yards and a score. Ty Montgomery also had six receptions and scored on two short runs.
Dallas’ season ends after earning the No. 1 seed in the NFC and an off week for the first round of the playoffs.
“I thought we were a team that was capable of taking this thing all the way,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said.
The Dallas stars came to play, especially their rookies, quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott. Prescott completed 24 of 38 for 302 yards, three scores and a pick. Elliott rushed 22 times for 125 yards.
Despite their remarkable regular season, Prescott could find little solace after his first playoff game. He said he was feeling as low as possible, but also vowed to be back.
“These are the games I dreamed as a kid of playing in,” he said. “I hope to play in many more of them.”
Dez Bryant had nine catches for 132 yards and two touchdowns.
The Cowboys rallied from an 18-point second-quarter deficit and were on the verge of overtime after Dan Bailey’s 52-yard field goal.
But Rodgers proved too much, continuing a run of incredible performances that began in late November. Green Bay has reeled off eight straight wins.
“I can’t say enough about my football team’s resiliency,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said.
After a big first half, the Packers didn’t skip a beat in opening the third quarter with a touchdown. Rodgers led his team 75 yards in just six plays, ending with the 3-yard toss to Cook.
The Cowboys needed an answer, and were driving for another score before the momentum swung back to the visitors. With a second-and-1 at the Green Bay 19, Prescott threw a quick slant that was jumped by Green Bay safety Micah Hyde.
The game’s first turnover could have been disastrous for Dallas, but the Packers gave the ball right back. Free safety Jeff Heath picked off Rodgers — his first interception since Nov. 13 — deep in Dallas territory.
Prescott calmly directed a scoring march that ended with a 6-yard pass to Jason Witten and trimmed Green Bay’s lead to 28-20 early in the fourth.
The Cowboys weren’t done. After a rare stop of Rodgers and the Packers, Dallas put together a clutch game-tying possession.
Green Bay Packers (11-6) at Dallas Cowboys (13-3)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:40 p.m. ET, AT&T Stadium. TV: FOX, Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Erin Andrews, Chris Myers.
THE SERIES: 42nd meeting. Dallas leads 21-20, including 4-3 in the playoffs. Dallas won the earlier meeting this season, 30-16. Green Bay won the last playoff meeting, 26-21 in 2014. Dallas won the last playoff meeting in Dallas, 38-27 in 1996. The Cowboys are 4-1 against the Packers in the playoffs.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Cowboys led all teams in the NFC with a 13-3 record and have home-field advantage until the Super Bowl. But the Packers are peaking, having won seven straight.
Fresh off a 38-13 dismantling of the New York Giants in the wild-card round at Green Bay last weekend, the fourth-seeded Packers believe the continuity of playing every week can make a difference.
The Cowboys had a first-round bye. And, as Aaron Rodgers was quick to note, they rested several starters to end the season, a lackluster 27-13 loss at the Philadelphia Eagles on Jan. 1.
“They were off this last week, and they’re hosting the game (Sunday), so there’s extra pressure on them as the No. 1 seed to win,” Rodgers said. “And, we’re coming in with a lot of confidence and riding the streak. We’re feeling good about the way we’ve been playing.”
The Packers also are motivated to avenge a surprisingly lopsided 30-16 loss to the Cowboys in Green Bay three months ago.
Led by the rookie tandem of quarterback Dak Prescott and halfback Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboys ran over and away from the Packers, who played from behind after giving up a touchdown in the game-opening series. Elliott accounted for 157 of Dallas’ 191 rushing yards, and Prescott threw for three touchdowns.
The Packers are bracing for more of Elliott in the rematch. He led the NFL with 1,631 yards and 15 touchdowns on the ground, averaging a robust 5.1 yards per carry. The Cowboys ranked second in the league with an average of 149.8 rushing yards.
While the Packers can’t bank on No. 1 receiver Jordy Nelson being able to play a week after he was knocked out of the first-round game with cracked ribs, coach Mike McCarthy is wary of Dallas’ premier pass catcher. Dez Bryant didn’t play in the first meeting Oct. 16 because of a knee injury.
“This is a complete offense,” McCarthy said. “They attack you all over the field — formation, personnel, scheme. And, the ability, really starting with that run game, moving the quarterback around, it creates one-on-one opportunities (on the outside), and Dez is a big challenge.”
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Packers OLB Clay Matthews vs. Cowboys LT Tyron Smith. Matthews is the Packers’ best pass rusher. He had a sack and forced fumble against the Giants in the wild-card round. Smith is the best left tackle in the league but has been slowed all season by a back injury and missed the season finale with a sprained knee. He will play but will have to be at his best to keep Matthews off quarterback Dak Prescott.
–Packers WR Randall Cobb vs. Cowboys CB Orlando Scandrick. Cobb caught five passes for 116 yards and three touchdowns in the wild-card playoff win over the Giants. His presence will be even more important with Jordy Nelson out with a rib injury. Cobb excels out of the slot, where he will draw Scandrick. Scandrick is playing his best football of the season after a slow start during which he battled hamstring injuries and plantar fasciitis. The key for Scandrick is limiting Cobb after the catch and getting him on the ground.
Friday Injury Report
GREEN BAY PACKERS
–Out: WR Jordy Nelson (ribs), RB James Starks (concussion), C J.C. Tretter (knee)
–Questionable: LB Jayrone Elliott (hand), WR Jeff Janis (quadricep), CB Quinten Rollins (neck, concussion)
–Questionable: CB Morris Claiborne (groin), DT Tyrone Crawford (shoulder), LB Justin Durant (elbow), DE Demarcus Lawrence (back), DT Terrell McClain (ankle), T Tyron Smith (knee), DT Cedric Thornton (ankle)
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Packers CB LaDarius Gunter. In part because of attrition, Gunter has emerged as Green Bay’s most dependable cornerback. The second-year pro primarily shadowed New York Giants standout Odell Beckham Jr. in the Packers’ lopsided victory in the wild-card round last weekend. Beckham managed only four catches for 28 yards in 11 targets. Next up for Gunter is Dez Bryant. The Cowboys didn’t have an injured Bryant available when they came to Green Bay in mid-October. That didn’t matter because the Cowboys pulled away for a 30-16 win, thanks in part to a number of coverage breakdowns by Gunter.
FAST FACTS: The Packers have won seven consecutive games, outscoring opponents 223-125. … Packers QB Aaron Rodgers passed for 362 yards and four touchdowns last week in a win over New York. He has a 100.3 career postseason passer rating, making him one of four quarterbacks in NFL history to have a 100 rating (minimum 150 attempts). … Green Bay WR Randall Cobb caught five passes for 116 yards and tied the NFL postseason single-game record with three touchdown catches. … The Packers had three players selected to the Pro Bowl: S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, OG T.J. Lang and Rodgers. … Dallas has qualified for the postseason 32 times, tied with the Packers and Giants for the most in league history. … Dallas is the only team in NFL history to have a rookie pass for 20 touchdowns (QB Dak Prescott, 23) and a rookie rush for 15 touchdowns (RB Ezekiel Elliott, 15) in the same season. Prescott’s 13 wins are tied for the most by a rookie QB in NFL history, and his 104.9 passer rating is the highest by a rookie. Elliott led the NFL with 1,631 rushing yards, the third-most by a rookie. … The Cowboys had five players selected to the Pro Bowl: C Travis Frederick, OG Zack Martin, OT Tyron Smith, Prescott and Elliott.
PREDICTION: Rodgers is right. The Packers are hot and the Cowboys haven’t done anything notable for weeks. The Cowboys were swept this season by the Giants, who couldn’t keep up with the Packers. That’s all we need to know.
Pittsburgh Steelers (12-5) at Kansas City Chiefs (12-4)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 8:20 p.m. ET, Arrowhead Stadium. TV: NBC, Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Michele Tafoya, Heather Cox.
HISTORY: 32nd meeting, second in postseason. The Steelers lead, 21-10. The Chiefs beat the Steelers 27-24 in overtime in a 1993 AFC wild-card game at Arrowhead Stadium. Pittsburgh is 10-7 in Kansas City, but the Chiefs won the last meeting, 23-13 in 2015.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Chiefs were hammered 43-14 in Pittsburgh in October, and they are determined to back up their No. 2 seeding by paying back the visiting Steelers.
Le’Veon Bell ran for 167 yards and two touchdowns last week in the Steelers’ blowout of Miami. It was a record-setting rushing performance in Pittsburgh postseason history. Back in October, Bell put up 144 yards on 18 carries against Kansas City.
“He has a unique style about him — that delay to get to the line of scrimmage,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “It’s been effective for him. He’s really the only one that does it, so it’s unique. The obvious thing is you have to contain him and take care of your gaps.”
Pittsburgh is riding a nine-game winning streak and an AFC North title with more than just Bell. Wide receiver Antonio Brown was among the league leaders in catches (106), yards (1,284) and touchdown receptions (12). Ben Roethlisberger threw five touchdown passes to four receivers against the Chiefs in October.
The Chiefs can test the Pittsburgh defense with big plays from wide receiver Tyreek Hill and tight end Travis Kelce. Over Kansas City’s last six games, Hill and Kelce have scored seven touchdowns and contributed 45 percent of the offensive yards (470 of 2,150).
“He is as dynamic as any tight end in football right now,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said of Kelce. “He is a matchup issue — too athletic for linebackers, too big and strong often times for secondary people. Hill’s contributions have evolved since we played them. Now, he is very much a part of their routine offensive attack. He is an impactful guy and his speed and bursts are unique.”
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Steelers RB Le’Veon Bell vs. Chiefs LBs Ramik Wilson, Terrance Smith, D.J. Alexander and Justin March-Lillard. It may take all four of those linebackers to slow down Bell, the engine of the Pittsburgh offense. He’s a threat as both a runner and receiver, leading the AFC with 1,884 scrimmage yards in 12 games. The Chiefs’ linebackers must find ways to fill the gaps and keep Bell bottled up behind the line of scrimmage as he seeks a running lane. An experienced offensive line will make that difficult; but, to have a shot at winning the game, the Chiefs inside ‘backers can’t allow Bell to average the 5.8 yards per carry he posted last Sunday against Miami in an 18-point Pittsburgh victory.
–Chiefs OLs Mitch Morse, Laurent Duvernay-Tardif and Zach Fulton vs. Steelers LBs Ryan Shazier and Lawrence Timmons. Kansas City must find a way to stay balanced on offense. The running game must be available and effective for the Chiefs to win. That inside blocking trio must also handle the Steelers defense’s blitz schemes. Timmons and Shazier were the leading tacklers for Pittsburgh and combined for six sacks, 17 pressures and five interceptions. In the regular-season game between the teams, K.C. ran for just 87 yards, but 46 came on a Spencer Ware run. On the 17 other carries, the Chiefs gained 41 yards.
Friday Injury Report
–Out: LB Anthony Chickillo (ankle)
–Doubtful: TE Ladarius Green (concussion)
–Questionable: DE Ricardo Mathews (ankle), RB Fitzgerald Toussaint (concussion)
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
No players listed
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Chiefs WR Jeremy Maclin. In the second half of the season, tight end Travis Kelce and wide receiver Tyreek Hill produced big plays and touchdowns. Barely showing up was Maclin, the team’s highest-paid receiver after signing a five-year, $55 million deal before the 2015 season. In the second year of the deal, Maclin caught just 44 passes for 536 yards and two touchdowns over 12 games, the least productive of his seven NFL seasons. A significant groin injury cost him five games in the middle of the season. In his absence, Hill got more and more playing time. With Pittsburgh’s defensive focus falling on Hill and Kelce, there should be openings for Maclin against a mediocre secondary.
FAST FACTS: Pittsburgh defeated Miami 30-12 last week, the Steelers’ NFL-record 35th postseason win. Steelers RB Le’Veon Bell rushed for 167 yards and two touchdowns, the most rushing yards in a postseason game in club history. … Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger threw touchdown passes of 50 and 62 yards to WR Antonio Brown in the wild-card win. Brown is the only player in NFL history to score two 50-yard touchdowns in the first quarter of a playoff game. … Pittsburgh had five players selected to the Pro Bowl: OG David DeCastro, C Maurkice Pouncey, Roethlisberger Bell and Brown. … The Chiefs, who have won 10 of their past 12 games, clinched the AFC West for the first time since 2010. … Kansas City QB Alex Smith has a 0.5 interception percentage (one interception, 186 attempts) in his postseason career, the best mark in NFL history (minimum 150 attempts). … Chiefs rookie WR/KR Tyreek Hill is the only player in NFL history to record at least three receiving touchdowns (six), three rushing touchdowns (three) and three kick-return touchdowns (three) in a season. … Kansas City had four players selected to the Pro Bowl: FS Eric Berry, TE Travis Kelce, CB Marcus Peters and Hill.
PREDICTION: The Steelers’ Big Three looks unstoppable, and the Steelers have momentum and matchups in their favor. Plus, the cold won’t bother them.
Green Bay Packers (4-5) at Philadelphia Eagles (5-5)
KICKOFF: Monday, 8:30 p.m. ET, Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia. TV: ESPN, Sean McDonough, Jon Gruden, Lisa Salters.
SERIES HISTORY: 40th regular-season meeting. The Packers lead the series, 25-14. They won the last meeting in 2014, beating the Eagles 53-20 in Green Bay. The Eagles turned the ball over four times in that game and Aaron Rodgers threw for 341 yards and three touchdowns.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Packers were throttled, 42-24, by the Redskins at FedEx Field in Week 11, dropping to 4-6 — their worst record through 10 games since beginning 2005 with a mark of 2-8. Green Bay has lost four straight games for the first time since a five-game skid in 2008.
What has been a forgettable three-game road swing for the Packers comes to an end Monday night. They can save some face and finish the grueling stretch on a high note by snapping their four-game losing streak in the prime-time matchup with the Eagles. No easy task, however, in a hostile environment against a Philadelphia team that is in the thick of a competitive NFC East race that could yield both wild-card spots for the conference.
The tired refrain from the Packers the last few weeks in the throes of their turmoil is they need to get off to a good start. They have fallen behind early in each of the last three games. Unless Green Bay can get a lift from James Starks or newcomer Christine Michael with running the football, the dependency on Aaron Rodgers to throw it upward of 50 times could play right into the hands of the Eagles’ defense. Rodgers is averaging 41 passes per game, putting him on pace to end the season with 656, which would shatter Brett Favre’s team record of 613.
Philadelphia ranks ninth in the NFL against the pass, giving up an average of only 229 yards per game. The Packers have a top-10 passing offense, with an average of 262 yards. Given the Eagles’ stinginess in points allowed, ranking fourth at 18.6, third-down and red-zone success will be vital for Green Bay. The Packers are among the league’s best third-down teams, converting 47 percent, but they rank in the bottom half in the red zone, scoring touchdowns just 55 percent of the time.
Conversely, the Eagles’ defense is No. 2 in the red zone, allowing a touchdown only 43 percent of the time, and ranks third with a third-down conversion rate of a mere 35 percent.
Green Bay’s injury-ravaged and struggling defense must find a way to keep rookie QB Carson Wentz from getting as comfortable as the likes of Atlanta’s Matt Ryan, Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck, Tennessee’s Marcus Mariota and Washington’s Kirk Cousins have been during the Packers’ four-game slide.
Wentz was the No. 2 pick in this year’s draft. The Eagles have experienced the good and the bad with Wentz. He has been productive, in part, because of solid pass protection, taking only 21 sacks. However, Wentz has fumbled a league-high-tying 10 times and has thrown two interceptions in three of the last five games. It is incumbent on Green Bay to force a few miscues by Wentz, as well as contain a formidable rushing attack led by Ryan Mathews.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Packers WRs Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb vs. Eagles CBs Nolan Carroll, Leodis McKelvin and Jalen Mills. The Eagles corners are physical, but not particularly fast. They’re going to struggle against Nelson and Cobb.
–Eagles TE Zach Ertz vs. Packers CB Micah Hyde and SS Morgan Burnett. Both Hyde and Burnett are expected to be matched up against Ertz at some point. Ertz has 26 receptions in the last four games.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Packers RB Christine Michael. The debut by the fourth-year pro in a Packers uniform is expected to happen Monday night. Michael’s midseason arrival in Green Bay comes none too soon, given the lethargic state of the team’s running game. The Packers rank 19th in the league, averaging barely 100 yards per game. Their best runner in the last four games has been quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who has gained 163 yards in only 18 attempts, with one touchdown. That’s more rushing yards than No. 2 halfback James Starks has gained for the season (100) and one more rushing touchdown than by any other Green Bay player this season. Michael, who arrived in Green Bay late last week after being claimed off waivers from the Seattle Seahawks, figures to complement Starks, the starter in place of Eddie Lacy (season-ending injured reserve, ankle) since returning from his own injury two games ago. Michael’s abrupt release from the Seahawks as their top rusher this season denied him the opportunity to play the Philadelphia Eagles last weekend. Michael should get that belated shot Monday at Philadelphia.
FAST FACTS: Packers QB Aaron Rodgers threw for 351 yards and three TDs last Sunday night, recording his eighth career game with 350 yards and three or more TD (he’s 4-4 in those games). Dating to Week 9 last season, Rodgers has at least one scoring toss in a career-high-tying 19 straight games — the longest active streak in the league. … Eagles QB Carson Wentz was picked off twice by the Seahawks in Week 11 and has six interceptions in his last five games (he threw one INT in his first five games). Wentz is 4-0 at Lincoln Financial Field.
PREDICTION: All due respect to Wentz and an Eagles team that has surprised often this year, it is difficult to pick against Rodgers, even after watching him lose a shootout to Washington QB Kirk Cousins.