There are very few times when you know, while watching a football game, that what you just witnessed will be replayed for the rest of your life. But when it comes to a rivalry that was born 50 years ago, and then reborn for this generation, the moments of January 2015 in Green Bay and January 2017 in Arlington easily pass the test of historical relevance.
Both games came down to a late play that tested the limits of what constitutes a catch, and how the officials see things with their naked eye in real time. Both went against the Dallas Cowboys. And given the way the latest one went, I assume many are too sick to even look at what we want to discuss and dissect today.
But for those brave souls who want to look at the details of what happened (or to those of you who are reading this for the first time in April as the wounds are starting to heal), let's take one last look at how the defense performed in a game in what was as unforgettable 2016 season.
For the entire summer, the defense would be blamed for ruining most of 2016's prospects to help this stunning offense reach its goals. Then, for most of the season, the defense performed better than expected. For the entirety of 2016, many of the defensive numbers were flattering. In fact, the Cowboys finished with a top-five ranking in points allowed, which should maybe be considered the most important stat of all, and spent most of the time after Thanksgiving looking like they were peaking at just the right time.
And now we examine how it appears that one guy was the primary reason why the Cowboys are looking ahead to the 2017 season.
This is the issue, sometimes, with regular season numbers. The NFL is about earning your spot in the regular season, but the postseason -- where legacies are made -- is about a three-hour test. And within those three hours, there may be 10 plays that decide the game. And among those 10 plays, one quarterback may be asked to make five of them. And if he makes all five, he can undo all of the hard work an entire organization put forth from July to January. There are no best-of-seven series, in which you are allowed a few bad days. In the NFL, you are hardly afforded bad plays in the postseason. That is why it is so hard to get your hands on that trophy.
In this game, the Cowboys' defense had some options. It appears they tried them all. They tried to mix up coverages and pressures. They blitzed almost as much as they had at any point of the season, but also tried to bring just three at other times to frustrate Rodgers with a populated secondary. They even brought a number of four-man pressures with zone-blitz elements, when one of the four might have been a cornerback with a defensive end dropping to a zone. It worked a few times. But over the course of the day, Rodgers remained a step ahead of Rod Marinelli.
Below, please find the weekly blitz percentages. After the Redskins exposed the Cowboys' secondary on Thanksgiving Day, you definitely see an uptick in pressure plans. They wanted to rattle quarterbacks and were having success when the quarterbacks were Sam Bradford, Eli Manning, Jameis Winston or Matthew Stafford.
The issues came about when Rodgers started carving them up early. He then put the Cowboys on their heels with the inability to substitute sub-packages. Then he started ear-marking matchups he wanted to exploit. First, Mo Claiborne, then Sean Lee, then Byron Jones. By the time it was over, Rodgers was able to lead his team to its eighth straight victory. The Cowboys were actually able to give him as much trouble as basically anyone had during that streak (it was his second-lowest passer rating during the stretch, but in Chicago, Davante Adams dropped two easy touchdown passes) and picked him off for his first interception since Nov. 13.
WEEKLY DATA - GREEN BAY
The numbers above give you the details. The three sacks and a takeaway are nice. The third downs, explosive plays, red-zone percentage and, of course, 34 points and 414 yards allowed are usually the types of numbers that will get you beaten. You cannot allow a team to score seven every time it gets down in the red zone, and you cannot let them beat you for 20-yard plays seven different times.
Here is the damage done through the air Sunday:
AARON RODGERS THROW CHART
Twenty times he threw the ball more than 10 yards down the field. He actually only hit on nine of those 20 passes, but oh, the damage that was done. On top of that, there were penalties, free plays and a number of occasions that asked guys to defend their men for 5-8 seconds. It is really difficult to deal with that offense right now, despite the facts that they had no Jordy Nelson and are very limited in the run game (that they seldom care to use).
Additionally, the Cowboys had one of their lowest "splash play" totals of the year, with 13. When you are on the field for 63 snaps, you would like to have a positive ending on more than 13 plays. But from the first drive of the game on, Cowboys defenders were mostly trying to keep up with the challenges they faced.
Let's look at some tape:
I think this is a real key part of the game. Right after the Brice Butler penalty, the Cowboys punt. They pin the Packers deep (at the 10). Now, it is third-and-7 from the 13. Get off the field, the game is still in great shape and you likely start again near midfield. Instead, Rodgers makes a throw under pressure to Jared Cook (with Byron Jones in his pocket) and he hits a target that is extremely small, where you might even say he threw Cook open. Jones is right there. But that is a real difficult third-down conversion.
Later in that drive. Another third down from midfield. They go after Jones again, who is on Adams this time. Cowboys are in a Cover 1-Rat, where they have a safety high and another player in the hole. Rodgers sees his corner route and actually makes a weird throw that Adams adjusts to before Wilcox gets there to clobber him. Another conversion.
Near the end of the half, the Cowboys pull back into the game with a few important third-down stops. Adams wanted a hold on Claiborne on this one, but the refs were letting them play. Forced a nice stop and punt.
And then this one is another slot blitz from Claiborne that gets home right before the half. If the Cowboys hadn't had to waste all of their timeouts, this would have allowed another nice chance for the offense to get points with 40 seconds to go.
So, they are trying everything and are starting to give him problems. On to the second half. And the first throw shows that Rodgers is still going to make silly throws. And by silly, I mean this:
It all looks so harmless on the first play of the second half. The zone releases Randall Cobb to the safety. And yet, from this other view, it seems like a ridiculous throw.
He is on the run. He is being chased. He has a defender charging at him. He is throwing the ball 35 yards. He is trying to throw it where only his guy can catch it on the boundary. And he made it look kind of easy. I really don't know how to defend this throw. And yet nobody will call it his best pass of the day.
Later that drive, the Packers hit Cook again as Rodgers stares down a slot blitz and runs a pump-and-go over the top. They beat the safety to the spot, and the fourth touchdown is a moment later. Remember that play, because the Cowboys are going to learn from this one.
This is the next drive. The key here is twofold. One is it's on the near hash, not the far hash. The other key is that it's Barry Church the first time, and the surprising Jeff Heath in center field on the other. I have to admit, although I have not written much about it, the more I watch this team, the more I think Heath is their best free safety (at least, the best one not named Byron Jones). Something is weird here about Adams -- he appears to lose the ball in the lights, or something. The throw is also too inside, but Heath makes a great play (the kind of play we don't see much from a Dallas centerfielder) and turns the game on its ear.
Rodgers is not short on confidence, but I think the Cook play made him think he could do this again and got lazy on his location. Also, look at Adams. He seems to have no idea. Great play, and it also looks like the Cowboys had a chance at a really big return if he beats one more guy.
Fourth quarter now. Another big third down and another time a Marinelli blitz gets to Rodgers. All the third downs were massive plays for both sides, it seems. One thing about all of these sacks is consistent: The Cowboys' pass rushers never once beat their men. All of these sacks look like scheme sacks, where Rod gets a free run at Rodgers. To win, you will need some pass rushers who can win in games like this.
Two minutes to go, 28-28. Packers at midfield. Here is a penalty I have heard many be mad about, because Heath ends up with another interception. If it sticks, it likely is the game and the Cowboys seem in full control.
Packers go empty and motion out running back/wide receiver Ty Montgomery. They did this in the first half and had Montgomery open behind Sean Lee on a sluggo (slant-and-go). They will do it again here, but the Cowboys are prepared with a corner -- Anthony Brown. Same concept, same move, and this time, Brown gets handsy. Rodgers is looking here the whole time and likely still annoyed he missed the chance in the first half (2:38 in the first quarter). He is under pressure but knows where he wants to go, and knows that either Montgomery will have a step, or it will draw the call. He gets the flag.
I assume people want to see that call allowed to go, but it also seemed pretty cut and dried that any tugging in the open field with the intended target was likely going to attract the attention. Perhaps a five-yard defensive hold, but they charged 10 yards for pass interference. Both come with an automatic first down.
This play above might have been the game-saver. It appeared to knock the Packers out of field goal range. They lost five yards here moving, a 51-yarder to 56 when DeMarcus Lawrence makes a huge play. But, as history will tell, Mason Crosby was able to handle that. It's 31-28.
So the Cowboys tie the game and leave a little time. This last part might leave a mark.
Heath had the game of his life. But he was so close to two more plays that might have made him a Cowboys hero. This is the other one (not the disallowed interception), where he gets a clean run and a blindside hit on Rodgers. Rodgers has the ball in one hand. Orlando Scandrick is right there to pick up a fumble. Nobody knows how Rodgers doesn't lose the ball. Inches away.
... Which sets up third-and-19.
We have talked quite a bit about my theory that the Cowboys were worried Rodgers was going to the end zone. I said this because all they heard about all week was the Hail Mary. They were asked repeatedly in the room and I am sure they game-planned. I might be wrong, but the lasting memory will always be the above picture, which shows six defenders deeper than the field goal target of the 35-yard line. Nobody but Byron Jones is close to Cook.
Now, I have heard knowledgeable people identify Brandon Carr as a bust. He was supposed to stay in his area and help Jones "bracket" Cook. I will assume they know the call, and it makes some sense as long as Rodgers doesn't then try to hit Adams before the safety gets there. J.J. Wilcox is still 15 yards off Adams, so it is difficult to be too critical of Carr.
Additionally, would Carr have made a difference? A well-timed hit of Cook? Perhaps.
This view will reveal some things. Most notably, another ridiculous throw that is hard to imagine Rodgers doing again if you gave him 10 more tries. (But who knows?) Also, Cook's effort and ability to secure the ball and get his feet in. And the controversial hold on David Irving.
I am sure you have seen this:
The video above shows that Lang certainly did something that could have been called, but definitely stopped short of tackling him, or jumping on for a horse-back ride like the picture indicates.
The center is blocking Irving and that is why Lang releases him, but the picture sure makes it look like a blown call -- and something we will talk about, along with the play itself, for decades. It is one more layer of the onion of this instant classic, when one side was elated and the other gutted at the end.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
This one really will hurt for a while because so much seemed set up for a Super Bowl run. And in the moment of one play, it is all gone. I have talked to countless fans who swear if the game goes to overtime, the Cowboys surely win. We will never know.
I think the Cowboys made a calculated gamble on draft day to not really do too much to address the defense in 2016 and bolster an already loaded offense. They still feel happy about it, and we will really change the mood the moment Jaylon Smith takes the field. But on Sunday, they certainly looked outclassed when the Packers had the ball. And that will no doubt be the focus this offseason. If they meet again, you need a few more difference-makers who can win and sack that quarterback before he can make those throws.