The rambling, non-recap Packers game review: Week 5 vs. Cowboys
On Twitter, at bars and in homes throughout Wisconsin, and certainly inside Dallas' AT&T Stadium on Sunday evening, Aaron Rodgers' game-winning touchdown pass elicited two simultaneous, usually unrelated-but-increasingly common reactions: "wow" and "yep."
The Packers' final drive, and particularly the throw to Davante Adams, was both unbelievable and unsurprising, Rodgers' greatness at once astonishing and expected. Pressured all day, trailing most of the game, staring into the sun and, without his favorite target, going to a receiver who almost didn't play Sunday because of a concussion, Rodgers broke the Cowboys' hearts on the same field, and in much the same way, that he did in last year's divisional playoff victory.
He connected with Adams – on the exact play that had failed one snap earlier – for a 12-yard touchdown with 11 seconds remaining, giving Green Bay an exhilarating 35-31 win over Dallas that left Packers fans shrieking, Cowboys fans shaking their heads and everyone else in awe. The 75-yard drive, which took only 1:02, was Rodgers at his unparalleled best: commanding the offense, completing precise passes, scrambling 18 yards on a crucial third-and-8 and, of course, throwing for the winning score. Rodgers finished 19 of 29 for 221 yards with three touchdowns and zero turnovers.
We've come to fully anticipate Rodgers' inevitable individual excellence – and indeed, the Packers probably rely too heavily on it every week – but it felt especially apparent against the Cowboys.
In a game where he didn't play perfectly – he missed a few throws, including a two-point conversion attempt to Jordy Nelson and the first end-zone attempt to Adams; he was sacked four times, mostly due to poor protection; the effective running game meant he didn't have to do everything – there was still seemingly no doubt that it would end like it did: Rodgers marching the Packers down the field and then eviscerating the opponent with some miraculous clutch play at the end. Call the Lions to commiserate, Jerry Jones; they can certainly relate.
In a thrilling, back-and-forth, mega-hyped and ultra-dramatic nationally televised rivalry game, one team had Aaron Rodgers and the other team didn't. Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott was very good, throwing for 251 yards and three touchdowns and running for the go-ahead score late; running back Ezekiel Elliott rushed for 116 yards; the defense put Rodgers under constant pressure.
Even the two-time MVP's teammates made it difficult on him – Mason Crosby missed two extra points, multiple defensive players left the game with injuries, Nelson was on the sideline for Green Bay's last series. None of it mattered. Rodgers – with vital help from Adams and rookie running back Aaron Jones – was, once again, the magical, masterful white knight we all waited for him to be.
That was football at its finest, sports at its most fun. The fourth quarter alone contained five lead changes, and even after the Packers scored to take the lead with 11 seconds left, Dallas' multi-lateral last play was enormously exciting.
There are certainly some lingering issues left to work out, the defense still couldn't get a stop when it had to and – stop me if you've heard this before – Green Bay desperately needs to get healthier, but Sunday night's victory was easily the emotional apex of this young season. It was good for the standings too, as the Packers moved into their familiar first-place perch in the NFC North, with Detroit's loss, heading into a stretch of three divisional games and a bye in their next five weeks.
I'm not always the Packers' biggest cheerleader in this space, but I can't stop smiling about that game. So, while we're still happy and before some inescapable bad injury news about Nelson bums us way out, let's review Green Bay's 35-31 win over Dallas on Sunday.
I say this all the time here – and I could certainly spend the next 800 words writing about how wonderful Rodgers was – but let's go with someone besides No. 12. With that qualifier in mind, let's double down and actually hedge our bets again by choosing co-stars. Adams and Jones were absolutely vital for the Packers offense, which – as noted above and oft-mentioned – was hampered by injuries to the offensive line.
Jones looked like the real deal in Green Bay's backfield, carrying 19 times for 125 yards and a touchdown, becoming the first Packers rookie to gain more than 100 yards in his first start since Samkon Gado in 2005. He showed good quickness, footwork, vision and decisiveness, hitting holes hard and finding cutback lanes. Jones not only gave the offense its much-needed balance, but he was a yard-gaining asset for the Packers, who were without Ty Montgomery because of the starter's broken ribs.
As for Adams, after suffering a horrific-looking concussion on a brutal hit against the Bears 10 days ago, he was back and brilliant on Sunday. Targeted 11 times, Adams had team-highs of seven catches for 66 yards and two touchdowns, including, obviously, the game-winning score. Since the beginning of last season, he's become one of the NFL's best wide receivers, and the Packers will need to pay handsomely – and probably soon – to keep him in Green Bay. After the crushing, subdued sentiment of watching him be stretchered off the field against Chicago, it felt good to cheer for Adams as the hero.
This spot is typically reserved for a cornerback, and some of the usual suspects were definitely eligible again this week. Damarious Randall partially redeemed himself with a critical pick-six in the fourth quarter, but the enigmatic third year was basically handed the interception on Dallas receiver Terrence Williams' drop, then managed to commit an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in his celebration, and he also was beaten repeatedly in coverage, including for a Dez Bryant touchdown earlier in the game.
Quinten Rollins wasn't much better, though he made a key third-down tackle and didn't do anything terribly egregious. Rookie Kevin King sustained a concussion and had to leave the game in the first half. And, generally, giving up 31 points and 408 total yards isn't great for the defense, though it resembled the bend-don't-break, turnover-producing unit of past years.
No, this week, even though we don't want to, it has to be Mason Crosby. The veteran kicker missed two extra points, one that clanged off the right upright and another that appeared to be the product of a bad snap and hold. Still, the franchise's all-time leading scorer was responsible for the first miss and still should have been able to convert the second, despite the sloppy process. Throughout the second half, and especially in the fourth quarter, those two missed points – which also prompted the Packers to try an ultimately unsuccessful two-point conversion – loomed large.
Martellus Bennett hasn't transformed the Packers' offense – or even just been the Jared Cook-like threat we expected by now – and the veteran tight end doesn't seem to be on the same page with Rodgers quite yet, but he was subtly integral to the win in Dallas.
Because of the makeshift offensive line – Green Bay hasn't had both of its starting tackles, David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga, play together yet this season, and lined up guard Lane Taylor at left tackle, with underwhelming Justin McCray at left guard on Sunday – Bennett has had to do a lot of pass protection so far.
He's a very good blocking tight end, and his physical presence was desperately needed against the Cowboys. Bennett also caught all three passes thrown to him, for 53 yards, including a big 14-yard gain on the second play of the final scoring drive. Presumably, Bennett's playmaking role will continue to grow, and eventually he will give Green Bay that added offensive dimension, but for now he's doing the small things to help the Packers win.
(Mike McCarthy isn't renowned for his play-calling, having fired and then rehired himself for that role in the past, but he does still call the plays. Here we rate his coaching performance, on a score from one to 10 McCarthy heads.)
Give credit when it's due. McCarthy coached a good game, and the usual complaints don't apply in this case. His offense came out strong, executing a well-designed gameplan and scoring an opening-series touchdown; he was judicious with his timeouts, using them when he needed to but smartly saving one for the last possession; he leaned on the running game and used Jones to open up Rodgers' passing attack (though the second Jones run on the final drive was probably unwise); the Packers gained an impressive 5.9 yards per play, and efficiently scored four offensive touchdowns with just 24:54 time of possession.
Indeed, you'll find no McCarthy criticism here tonight. The 12th-year head coach, one of the longest-tenured and winningest (.653 percentage) in the league, brought his guys into a hostile road environment against an amped-up opponent – Green Bay has won seven of the last eight meetings with Dallas – and found a way to beat one of the NFC's best teams. Mostly because of Rodgers. Just kidding! Sort of. Not really, though. Seven McCarthy heads this week.
"I was going to call another play, but (Adams) came back and said 'call it again.' With his eyes, he said, 'just throw a better ball.'" – Rodgers on calling the same end-zone pass play to Adams back-to-back.
At halftime, the Packers were down 21-12, having been thoroughly outplayed and looking as though they had few answers for Prescott, Elliott and their own protection problems the rest of the game. But they dug deep, made adjustments, played hard, overcame adversity and various other sports clichés, and genuinely were a different, better, more highly motivated team in the second half.
Particularly now given their injury situation, but looking ahead to (presumably) the playoffs, Green Bay is going to be in other difficult games against tough opponents and will have to scrap and claw to win games it probably should lose; this showed the Packers can do that.
King went down with a concussion and safety Morgan Burnett left the game with (what else?) a hamstring injury. That's two starters from the defensive backfield who could potentially miss time, as though the secondary needed any more reasons to struggle. It's tiresome to continually talk and write and read and hear about injuries with the Packers, but unfortunately it continues to be their biggest concern.
The offense was just starting to get better – Montgomery and Bahktiari should return this week – but the defense needs all the help, and healthy bodies, it can get.
Now at 4-1 and in first place in the division, the Packers travel to Minnesota next Sunday to take on the 2-2 Vikings (who play on Monday night this week) at 12 p.m. Then, Green Bay returns home to host the New Orleans Saints at noon on Oct. 22, before the team's Week 8 bye.
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