GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Give Aaron Rodgers just a few seconds of wiggle room and he's bound to make a play out of supposedly nothing.
When the best team in the NFC during the regular season has dug out of a substantial hole and has the upset-hungry Green Bay Packers on the ropes, the tough lesson to be learned in an early start to the offseason is simple. Don't give Rodgers the football with 35 seconds left and a playoff game on the line.
"A little too much time on the clock," Rodgers asserted knowingly.
Sure enough, with plenty of time at his disposal, Rodgers drove a huge dagger through the heart of Dallas by guiding the fourth-seeded Packers to a 34-31 road victory over the No. 1 Cowboys in the divisional round of the NFC bracket.
After coughing up an 18-point lead in the first half, the Packers survived a scintillating finish to advance to the NFC Championship for the second time in three years.
They will take an eight-game winning streak into a rematch with the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome on Sunday afternoon. The second-seeded Falcons edged the Packers 33-32 at midseason Oct. 30 in the same venue.
"Guys stepped up and made plays," a jubilant Crosby said after Sunday's game-winner. "This team right now is special. We're doing some special thing. To be able to even have an opportunity to win it in regulation was awesome. We just keep fighting. That's all I can say about my teammates. I don't know if I've been around a better group of guys."
As valiant as the Cowboys were in erasing deficits of 21-3 and then 28-13 in the second half, they may lament for a while how they quickly answered Crosby's 56-yard field goal with 93 seconds remaining.
Rookie quarterback Dak Prescott spiked the football on first down to stop the clock with 49 seconds left after driving Dallas to the Packers' 40-yard line. A subsequent short pass completion that the Cowboys took out of bounds to stop the clock and an incomplete pass resulted in a 52-yard field goal by Dan Bailey that tied the score at 31-31, but left those precious 35 seconds on the clock.
"We've got a good repertoire of plays for the end of the game, whether it's the well-publicized Hail Marys (three since last season) or the other plays we've hit over the years to draw from," Rodgers said. "We picked that one out, and we executed well at the most important part of the game."
Rodgers was referring to what he would say later essentially came down to a sandlot-like play. The third-and-20 situation from the Green Bay 32 started with the clock stopped at 12 seconds, two plays after Rodgers pulled off his first heroic feat by somehow hanging onto the football after he took a crushing blindside hit by blitzing safety Jeff Heath for a sack.
"When they kicked that field goal to tie it up, we were confident that we could go back out there and try to get (the ball) back in field-goal range," right tackle Bryan Bulaga said. "We had the ball last, and when you have the ball last with time, you have a chance.
"And, (with) Aaron, it never hurts."
Rodgers rolled left, had time to scan down field, stepped up and threw the football deep toward the near sideline. Cook made the catch as he slid out of bounds, at first getting an "incomplete" signal from one official before side judge Rob Vernatchi quickly swooped in with an overriding "complete" call.
"Just awareness of where I was on the boundary and just knowing how big of a play it was and how much we needed it," Cook said about the completion to the Dallas 32, the biggest play in his eight-year pro career.
With three seconds to spare, Crosby connected not once, but twice on the 51-yard field goal to end the game after the Cowboys used a timeout to try to ice him a split second before the first attempt.
"It was a pretty surreal feeling," Bulaga said. "I don't think too many people gave us a chance to come in here and win this game. Nobody's been really giving us a chance since we were 4-6. A lot of people counted us out. I'm sure a lot of people counted us out of this game before we played it, which is pretty incredible."
Thanks to Rodgers' ongoing flair for the dramatic, the Packers are a win away from returning to the Super Bowl for the first time since they won the league title in the 2010 season.
"He's an incredible player," head coach Mike McCarthy said of Rodgers. "He's an incredible talent, and to do it when it's all on the line like that, that's what great players do, and he got it done for us (Sunday).
"Our focus is on, obviously, now going to Atlanta and the goal that I think every team has when the season starts," McCarthy added. "We're an excellent football team, and we're just two steps away from achieving greatness."
REPORT CARD VS. COWBOYS
PASSING OFFENSE: A-minus -- Aaron Rodgers admittedly has completed better passes in his stupendous nine-year career as an NFL starting quarterback. Yet, Rodgers' 36-yard throw to tight end Jared Cook with three seconds left in the fourth quarter Sunday will long be remembered by Packers fans as one of the greatest plays in the team's illustrious history. Rodgers managed to get enough loft and pinpoint accuracy as he threw across his body after rolling out to the left and slightly stepping forward on the third-and-20 play from Green Bay's 32-yard line. And, of course, the incredible play wouldn't have been just that without an alert Cook making the catch and somehow getting both feet inbound as he dragged them mere inches from the sideline. That set up the game-winning field goal as time expired to send Green Bay to the NFC Championship. Rodgers was as prolific as ever, throwing for 356 yards and two touchdowns. However, lulls in the second half, which included his first interception in nine games and 319 passes on safety Jeff Heath's lunging grab of an errant downfield throw, made Rodgers ordinary to some extent. He completed 28 of 43 passes and finished with a passer rating of 96.7. Rodgers also was sacked three times, the last one by Heath on a riveting blindside hit in which the quarterback amazingly held onto the football and had the wherewithal to call time out two plays before his absurd connection with Cook. With top wide receiver Jordy Nelson (ribs) sidelined, the Packers still had plenty of pass-catching contributions. The tight end duo of Cook (six receptions, 104 yards, 11 targets) and Richard Rodgers (one catch, 34 yards) each had a touchdown reception. Randall Cobb (seven catches, 62 yards, eight targets), Davante Adams (five receptions, 76 yards, 10 targets), Ty Montgomery (six catches, 34 yards, seven targets) and Geronimo Allison (three receptions, 46 yards, five targets) also were impactful.
RUSHING OFFENSE: B-minus -- What few times the Packers ran the football, they had some satisfactory results. Montgomery ran hard on occasion in his return to his native North Texas. He had 11 carries for 47 yards, highlighted by an explosive run of 15 yards and back-to-back touchdowns of 3 yards and 1 yard in the second quarter to stake Green Bay to a 21-3 lead. Montgomery, though, was driven back for a five-yard loss on defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence's well-timed burst at the snap into the backfield with less than two minutes to play to ultimately force the Packers to kick a successful long field goal that briefly put them back ahead 31-28. Fullback Aaron Ripkowski broke free for a 20-yard run, aided by a downfield block from Allison. However, Ripkowski managed only 24 yards in four carries. The Packers managed 87 yards and a stout average of 5.1 yards in 17 rushing attempts. Aaron Rodgers accounted for the other 16 yards with scrambles of 11 and five yards for first downs in the second half.
PASS DEFENSE: C-minus -- Turns out Cowboys rookie Dak Prescott produced better numbers than his victorious counterpart at quarterback. In rallying Dallas from an 18-point deficit, Prescott finished 24 of 38 for 302 yards and three touchdowns with one interception. That computed to a passer rating of 103.2. LaDarius Gunter, Green Bay's most trusted coverage cornerback at its injury-depleted position, struggled as the primary matchup with Dez Bryant. The Cowboys' talented wideout, who didn't play their lopsided win at Green Bay back in October, had his way with nine receptions for 132 yards and two touchdowns (long of 40 yards) in 12 targets. Green Bay's lone takeaway, though, came on a Prescott throw to Bryant. Slot corner Micah Hyde perfectly read the quick screen throw from Prescott out to the left and stepped in front of Bryant to make the interception. Hyde also sacked Prescott in the game-opening series to thwart a Cowboys drive in Green Bay territory and later in the first quarter broke up a deep pass to Brice Butler. Nick Perry had the other sack of Prescott. Cornerback Damarious Randall, who entered the game questionable with a foot injury, continued to be a liability in pass coverage. Tight end Jason Witten made an impact with six catches for 59 yards and a touchdown in nine targets.
RUSH DEFENSE: C-minus -- The Packers' huge lead in the first half didn't make the Cowboys as one-dimensional as observers figured would happen. Instead, Dallas continued to ride the NFL's No. 1 ball carrier, rookie Ezekiel Elliott, as it chipped away and eventually erased the double-digit deficit. Elliott had only 44 yards in 10 carries with a long of nine yards at halftime. He gave the Cowboys a spark in the second half. Elliott had a 22-yard run in Dallas' first play of the third quarter. That spurred him to a second straight 100-yard performance against the Packers. Elliott finished with 125 yards on 22 carries, averaging a hefty 5.7 yards per rush. Prescott pulled the football down two times, converting a third down in both instances with runs of four and nine yards.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B-minus -- The highly dependable Mason Crosby etched his name in the record book while kicking the Packers onto the doorstep of the Super Bowl. He became the first player in NFL history to make two field goals of 50 or more yards in the final two minutes of a playoff game. Crosby's 56-yard boot, the third-longest in league postseason annals, with 1 minute, 33 seconds remaining put the Packers ahead 31-28. Then, after the Cowboys pulled even again, Crosby bent a 51-yard attempt just inside the left upright to touch off a Green Bay celebration on the AT&T Stadium field. That was the extent of Green Bay's highlights on special teams, though punter Jake Schum averaged 54.7 gross yards and 45.3 net yards in three kicks. He outkicked the coverage on a 66-yard punt that bounced into the end zone in the final quarter. Crosby's long kickoff indoors resulted in six touchbacks and zero return opportunities for the Cowboys. Christine Michael handled both kickoff runbacks for the Packers, one of which turned out to be nearly disastrous. Michael inexplicably brought the football out after muffing the catch in the end zone and was promptly tackled at the Green Bay 6. Michael had total return yardage of just 18. The Packers didn't have a punt return. They held Cole Beasley to an eight-yard runback in the lone punt return for Dallas.
COACHING: B-minus -- Head coach Mike McCarthy has the Packers in the NFC Championship for the second time in three years. Yet, Green Bay needed the clutch trio of Aaron Rodgers, Cook and Crosby in the closing seconds to escape Texas with the win after throwing away the 18-point lead. Had the game gone to overtime with the momentum on Dallas' side, the Packers may have walked away with their sixth walk-off loss in the playoffs under McCarthy since the 2007 season. McCarthy wisely allowed Rodgers to go to work early and often with the pass to build the seemingly safe advantage, spreading the Cowboys out and exploiting their weaknesses on the perimeter. McCarthy, however, resisted going to the run to chew up clock and try to keep the Cowboys at bay amid their big comeback in the second half. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers again made do with what little he had at his disposal in the secondary, especially after losing veteran safety Morgan Burnett to a leg injury in the early going. Capers went mostly nickel with the formations while still flooding the box to keep Elliott from having a monster game on the ground. The pressure on Prescott was judicious, allowing the rookie time to make several big-play passes to keep Dallas in the game. Special teams coordinator Ron Zook was taken off the hook by Crosby's field goals at the end. A season-long Achilles' heel going to Atlanta with a Super Bowl berth on the line is an inadequate return game.