Sunday, December 29, 2013
Rodgers, Cobb give the Packers a chance
By Rob Demovsky
The Packers knew that as long as they had No. 12 on Sunday, their playoff hopes were in safe hands.
CHICAGO -- Time and again during the Green Bay Packers' final drive at Soldier Field on Sunday, linebacker Mike Neal had just one thought as he watched from the visitor's sideline.
On fourth-and-1 from their own 22, when coach Mike McCarthy made the bold decision to go for it even though 4 minutes, 41 seconds still remained.
On fourth-and-1 from their 44, when McCarthy had no choice but to go for it with two minutes left.
On fourth-and-8 from the Chicago Bears' 48-yard line, when there were potentially only 46 seconds left in their season.
Each time, Neal told himself the same thing.
"We've got 12," Neal said.
He was, of course, referring to his quarterback.
For seven weeks, that was something no one on the Packers' sideline could say. But with Aaron Rodgers making his first appearance since he fractured his left collarbone on Nov. 4, Neal's words rang true.
Except that he forgot to add No. 18.
With receiver Randall Cobb also back in action for the first time since he fractured the tibia in his right leg on Oct. 13, the Packers had the right combination of playmakers to pull off Sunday's 33-28 victory that gave them their third straight NFC North title and the home playoff game that goes with it.
With Rodgers and Cobb together again, the Packers look better than their 8-7-1 record that got them into the postseason for the fifth straight year. As the No. 4 seed in the NFC, they will host the fifth-seeded San Francisco 49ers in a wild-card playoff game at Lambeau Field next Sunday at 4:40 p.m. ET.
It was an unlikely 48-yard touchdown pass from Rodgers to Cobb with 38 seconds left that kept the Packers' mercurial season alive, but that doesn't happen if not for the first two fourth-down plays on the final drive.
All three showed just how important it was to have Rodgers back.
On the first one, he saved the play when he reminded tight end Ryan Taylor to move closer to the line of scrimmage to avoid an illegal-formation penalty. After Rodgers barely got the snap off on time, fullback John Kuhn plunged forward and got just enough to keep the drive alive.
On the second one, Rodgers hit Jordy Nelson, who had a stellar game with 10 catches for 161 yards, for a 6-yard gain.
And then there was the play that linebacker A.J. Hawk called "one of the best plays ever ... in Packers history."
Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker called an all-out blitz, sending seven pass-rushers after Rodgers. The Packers cleanly blocked six of them, but defensive end Julius Peppers came free to Rodgers' left. That's when Kuhn slid across the formation, dove at Peppers and struck just enough of him with his right shoulder to slow him down.
"I just tried to get as much of Peppers as I could," Kuhn said.
That allowed Rodgers to step to his left, avoid Peppers' outstretched right arm and float a rainbow to Cobb, who ran down the seam waiving his left arm to let Rodgers know that he had slipped behind the coverage.
"Oh my gosh, it was in the air for so long," said Cobb, who caught both of Rodgers' touchdown passes on Sunday. "I had so many thoughts going through my head -- 'You better not drop it, if you drop it they're going to kill you, everybody. You better catch it, just catch the ball, body-catch it if you have to, do whatever you have to do' -- and I was able to make the catch."
Whatever rust Rodgers had in the early going, when he threw a pair of first-half interceptions and otherwise played it safe by throwing a variety of short passes and even sliding much earlier than usual on his scrambles, he played like his MVP self down the stretch.
Nearly two months of frustration, waiting for his collarbone to heal and hoping to get clearance to return, came out in his emphatic celebration after Cobb found himself safely in the end zone.
It was a moment that Rodgers said will rank "right near the top" in his career.
"This has been a wild season," said Rodgers, who completed 25 of 39 passes for 318 yards. "There's been a lot of stuff that's happened to get us to this point -- from our comeback to get a tie [against Minnesota], to comeback in Dallas to win, a 61-yard field goal in Baltimore that gave us a little edge there over Detroit, and then everything that was today: a sack-fumble that goes for a touchdown, fourth-and-8 to win the game."
The Packers have celebrated some meaningful wins in this stadium, including the NFC Championship Game in January 2011, but McCarthy called this one "clearly one of our finer moments in our time in Green Bay."
Said Hawk: "That last drive our offense put together, three fourth downs including that last one, we have faith in them. We know they do crazy things like that all the time, especially Aaron, especially that last play. I think that'll go down as one of the best plays ever, I'm sure, in Packers history. For sure."