GREEN BAY, Wis. — It was like a make-up call from the football gods.
“I just can’t believe it — that’s all I can say,” Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant said over and over again after the Green Bay Packers’ rallied behind a gimpy Aaron Rodgers and a fortuitous and critical referee’s call for a 26-21 divisional playoff victory at Lambeau Field. “I’ve never seen anything like that in my life.”
When Bryant soared along the sideline near the goal line to make a spectacular 31-yard catch at the 1-yard line over Packers cornerback Sam Shields in the fourth quarter Sunday, it looked like the Cowboys were indeed a team of destiny. What a gutsy fourth-and-two play call by coach Jason Garrett with the game on the line. What a throw by Tony Romo. And what a catch by Bryant.
The Cowboys, down 26-21, were inches from taking the lead with 4:06 left in the game. It looked like the team of destiny was about to pull off an upset and move into the NFC Championship Game.
But fate, which moved its huge hands in favor of Bryant and the Cowboys last week against the Lions, intervened against them this time. The play was challenged by Packers coach Mike McCarthy — who had not won a challenge all season. Replays indicated that Bryant, falling to the ground at the 1-yard line, bobbled the ball after it hit the ground. He maintained possession and went into the end zone. But the play was overturned. The Packers regained possession and ran out the clock to advance to the NFC Championship game against the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks on Sunday at CenturyLink Field in Seattle.
It was poetic justice to those who felt the Cowboys shouldn’t have been here in the first place. The NFL acknowledged two officiating errors that helped the Cowboys beat the Lions at home last week. And Bryant could have been penalized, but was not, for running onto the field to dispute a flag for pass interference on linebacker Anthony Hitchens that was eventually picked up.
But regardless, it was a tough break for the Cowboys. In the spirit of the game, Bryant’s fabulous play sure looked like a catch. Bryant never lost possession of the ball. He had control of it as it hit the ground and only then did he bobble it. If it wasn’t a bad call, it’s a bad rule. That catch should be a good one.
“He made a great play,” Shields admitted. “He’s a great receiver. He went up for the ball and made a good catch … and then at the end, he came up bobbling.”
Referee Gene Steratore explained the ruling:
“Although the receiver is possessing the football, he must maintain possession … throughout the entire process of the catch. In our judgment, he maintained possession, but continued to fall and never had another act common to the game.
“We deemed that by our judgement to be the full process of the catch, and at the time he lands and the ball hits the ground, it comes loose as it hits the ground, which would make that incomplete; although he re-possesses it, it does contact the ground when he reaches [for the goal line] so the re-possession is irrelevant because it was ruled an incomplete pass when we had the ball hit the ground.”
Bryant, of course, was not buying that explanation.
“I caught it. I caught it. I came down with it. I tried to reach for the goal line,” said Bryant, who was well-covered by Shields throughout the game and had three receptions for 38 yards. “I don’t understand why it was even a challenge.”
But let the record show that the Cowboys took the reversal of fortune like professionals. “I’m not so much into talking about the judgment of the officials as I am [that] it was just a bad time for us to have a play like that,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. “To Green Bay’s credit, they were in a position to win the game and they had to make a play like that. Last week we made the play.”
“I don’t think it comes down to that call,” Cowboys center Travis Frederick said. “We could have done a lot of different things throughout the game and not been in a situation like that. Every play matters.”
And even Bryant noted that the game was far from over even if the catch had counted and led to a touchdown that would have given the Cowboys at least a 27-26 lead. “You’ve got Aaron Rodgers on the other side,” he said.
Despite the dispute over the key call, Rodgers’ performance was the biggest factor of the game. Clearly slowed by a calf injury for much of the game, Rodgers was in MVP form when he had to be.
The Packers trailed 21-13 with 4:12 left in the third quarter after Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray (25 carries, 123 yards, one touchdown) scored on a one-yard run to cap a six-play 80-yard drive. At that point, Rodgers had a subpar 90.9 passer rating — he was 11-of-19 for 105 yards and a touchdown.
But in the Packers’ final three possessions of the game, Rodgers was suddenly the best quarterback in football again — 13-of-16 for 211 yards, two touchdowns and a perfect 158.3 rating.
With Jordy Nelson held in check (two receptions, 22 yards), Rodgers found other weapons. He threw a 46-yard touchdown to Davonte Adams (7-117), who made the catch at the 30-yard line, escaped a tackle, made a nifty move and ran into the end zone to cut the deficit to 21-20 with 1:41 left in the third quarter.
He was just warming up. Rodgers drove the Packers 80 yards on eight plays, capped by a 13-yard laser to Richard Rodgers for the touchdown that gave the Packers a 26-21 lead with 9:10 left.
The Bryant incompletion gave Rodgers the ball back and he never gave it up. On third-and-11 from the Cowboys 35 with 2:00 left, he threw a pinpoint, 12-yard pass to Randall Cobb (8-116) for a first down that clinched the game.
“Once we opened things up and he was able to get into some rhythm throws and move around, he played like Aaron Rodgers,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “Just an incredible game for Aaron.
The Packers had other heroes. Former Bear Julius Peppers had a sack and forced two fumbles — one of which the Packers recovered. Eddie Lacy rushed or 101 yards on 19 carries. Nick Perry (1 1/2), Mike Neal, Mike Daniels and Datone Jones — not exactly the Fearsome Foursome — combined for three sacks.
Rodgers finished with Rodgers-like numbers after all — he was 24-of-36 for 316 yards, three touchdowns and, of course, no interceptions for a 125.4 passer rating. The Packers are 9-0 at home this season, with Rodgers throwing 28 touchdown passes and no interceptions.
“The guys did a good job getting open,” Rodgers said. “The line gave me a lot of time and I expect to be accurate. It’s just a matter of throwing the ball on-balance and luckily with it being my left [calf], the rhythm is not really affected by the calf. It’s just the mobility. So I was able to throw some balls on rhythm and put them where I wanted.”