Mason Crosby. Clutch murderer, silver fox. God-damned Cowboys killer. Best there is. My man.
The Packers kicker, the second-longest-tenured player on the team, made not one, not two, but three impossibly high-stakes field goal attempts late in the fourth quarter of Green Bay’s 34-31 Divisional Round playoff victory over the Cowboys in Dallas, the final kick the game-winner as time expired. With the win, the Packers advance to the NFC Championship Game to face the Falcons next week in Atlanta.
I’ve always been a huge Mason Crosby fan. I’ve written about him often, last year named him the 2015 team MVP and a few weeks ago wrote about his ice-cold veins in advance of a game against the Bears. Save for his slump-ridden 2012 season, when he was nearly released and took a pay cut to stay in Green Bay, he’s been one of the NFL’s best kickers. He’s one of my favorite players to talk to in the locker room, and after a decade with the Packers, the 32-year-old is as much a fixture on game days as Aaron Rodgers, brats and beer.
Crosby solidified his status as a Green Bay hero at AT&T Stadium, on the same field where six years ago he made his only field goal and all four extra-point attempts to help the Packers beat the Steelers in Super Bowl XLV and where he hit a 57-yarder against the Cowboys in 2013. On Sunday, Crosby was 4 of 4 on PATs but wasn’t called upon until the fourth quarter for a field goal attempt. One of the most accomplished kickers in league playoff history wasn’t fazed: he made a 56-yard attempt to put the Packers up 31-28 with 1:33 left to play, and then, after Dallas tied it up a minute later, Crosby hit a 51-yarder to win the game.
Adding to the impressiveness of the game-winner was the fact that he had to do it twice. The Cowboys called a timeout just before the field-goal snap, trying to ice Crosby by making him think about the kick and the big moment, so his first make didn’t count. But Crosby lined back up a couple minutes later and coolly converted the same attempt. He raised his arms as teammates mobbed him, Rodgers hugged assistant coaches, Mike McCarthy pumped his fist and the underdog Packers rejoiced in their eighth straight win.
"It was unreal," Crosby said. "It’s fun to be a part of and I was happy to be able to capitalize there."
Before Sunday, Crosby had been 0 for 4 on potential game-tying or go-ahead field goals from 50-plus yards in the fourth quarter or overtime. But on Sunday, according to ESPN Stats & Info, he became the first kicker in the last 15 years to make two 50-yard field goals in the final seven minutes – much less the final two minutes – of any game, including the playoffs. With the two he hit against the Cowboys, Crosby extended his own NFL record for consecutive playoff field goal attempts made to 23. He’s as automatic as they come in the postseason, something Rodgers noted afterward.
"He’s the best kicker in the league. He’s so reliable for us," Rodgers said, mentioning the increased difficulty of often kicking in cold-weather environments such as Lambeau. "I know he’s made a bunch in a row in the playoffs. It’s just incredible."
As McCarthy said in his postgame press conference, "That was one heck of a football game to be a part of, and I’m sure it was a fun one to watch."
It was indeed, Mac. So how did we get here, with Green Bay knocking off top-seeded Dallas and celebrating the continuation of its unlikely "run the table" season, now just one win away from a return to the Super Bowl? Here's everything you need to know, or just forgot, or missed because you fainted from yelling so furiously at the impossibly biased, anti-Packers broadcasters Joe Buck and Troy Aikman – plus all kinds of other wacky whatnots, from the Packers' Divisional Round win over the Cowboys.
General manager Ted Thompson is famously not a big free-agency spender. He’s splurged for Charles Woodson and Ryan Pickett in the past, signed Julius Peppers a few years ago and has done a couple other minor deals, but largely does not consider that avenue for roster-building. This past offseason, he deviated from his preferred strategy by signing former Rams and Titans tight end Jared Cook, a physically gifted pass-catcher who’d never really played with a good NFL quarterback.
Despite injuries this season that limited him to a career-low 10 games and just 30 catches for 377 yards – his worst production since his rookie year – when he was healthy, he was a hugely valuable player on offense. He and Rodgers spoke often about their mutual chemistry – not something easily won for a pass catcher, especially a new one – and when Cook was on the field in 2016, Rodgers has thrown 23 touchdowns and two interceptions. He presents matchup problems for opponents because of his size and speed, as defenses have to cover him with linebackers and safeties, and that opens up space on the field for other players.
Against the Cowboys, Cook had his most important game of the season, catching six passes for 104 yards and a touchdown. For 2016, it was tied for his most receptions, just one yard short of his season-high and only his second score of the year. He also was part of the biggest non-Crosby play of the game, miraculously catching Rodgers’ 36-yard pass while somehow getting both feet down – one referee said he was out of bounds, another ref said he was in and a replay review confirmed the catch – to set up the kicker’s game-winner.
Clay Matthews was a total nonfactor. The oft-injured superstar linebacker had a down year – a career-low five sacks – largely because of injuries that limited him to just 12 games, but over the past few weeks he’d at least made one or two high-impact big plays that made up for his otherwise quiet performance. In the final two games of the regular season, he had a sack and three passes broken up, and last week against the Giants, he made possibly the defensive play of the year – a strip sack, forced fumble, fumble recovery that few players have the size, speed, strength and smarts to do.
But on Sunday against the Cowboys, Matthews barely registered after the first couple of series, when he got some decent pass-rush pressure on rookie quarterback Dak Prescott. Matthews finished the game with a statistical line that showed one tackle and nothing else, perpetually stymied by All-Pro left tackle and human brick wall Tyron Smith.
As Green Bay players dropped like flies, Matthews’ team needed him to make plays more than ever. Instead, Prescott had time to comfortably throw for 302 yards with three touchdowns and a 103.2 rating, while rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott rushed 22 times for 125 yards (5.7 average). Matthews just wasn’t good enough, and the Packers need him to be great.
Fourth-year defensive back Micah Hyde has proven his value and versatility over and over again this season – playing his usual nickel back role with aplomb, stepping up at safety on occasion and filling in at cornerback when that position was utterly depleted by injury – and Sunday might have been his best game.
Hyde had four tackles, two passes broken up, one sack for a six-yard loss and a critical third-quarter interception he returned 18 yards that ended what likely would have been a Dallas scoring drive. He also fair caught a punt, a special-teams contribution that can’t be overlooked given the razor-thin margin for error in the playoffs and the muffed kick return by Christine Michael on Sunday. Hyde, whose contract is up at the end of the season, may have just earned himself an extension with his game in Dallas.
(Mike McCarthy isn't renowned for his play-calling, having fired and then rehired himself for that role last year, but he does try his best. Here we rate his coaching performance, on a score from one to 10 McCarthy heads.)
If last week we docked him for the Packers punting on their first five drives – NFL teams and coaches typically script their first few offensive series before the game, so the results can be pretty easily tied to preparation and execution, rather than circumstance – we have to reward McCarthy for how Green Bay started on Sunday. Rodgers and the offense roared out to score touchdowns on their first three possessions, all of which were at least 75-yard drives, using a lot of short- and mid-yardage rhythm passing that had the Cowboys on their heels.
Things stalled a little bit after that, with just one scoring drive on their next five series and McCarthy seeming to somewhat revert back to his overly conservative, the-game-is-in-the-bag mode late in the fourth quarter, when he ran the ball too much, rather than letting Rodgers continue to push aggressively forward – when running back Ty Montgomery was stopped for a five-yard loss on second-and-8 and then Rodgers’ deep pass fell incomplete on the next play, it felt like we were re-watching the 2014 Seahawks NFC Championship game.
But McCarthy managed his timeouts well, controlled the clock and was a generally effective play-caller. Afterward, he said he was riding too much of a high to think about the "analytics" of his decisions late in the game. Well-played, Mac. Smart response. Seven heads.
Bend, don’t break. Win and advance.
If veteran backup quarterback Tony Romo, the pride of Burlington, Wisconsin, had played, the Cowboys would have won. (We’ll let Skip Bayless take this take.)
"We’re just going to enjoy this game. We’re going to enjoy the heck out of this game, unbelievable effort. What a game. We’re going to celebrate this, then we’re going to move on to Atlanta, Matt [Ryan's] had a hell of a season, they have a good defense, we’re just going to enjoy this right now." – Aaron Rodgers
After three years in a row when the Packers’ season came to an end in the playoffs on the final play of a close game – in 2013, the 49ers hit a field goal as time expired; in 2014, well, we know what happened in 2014 against Seattle; and in 2015, when Green Bay’s Hail Mary was for naught, as the Cardinals scored immediately in overtime to win the game – it was both incredibly relieving and invigorating to see them actually emerge victorious in a game where they’d seemingly lost the momentum and appeared destined to lose.
But the defense did its part – bending a lot, but not quite breaking late – and the offense converted enough plays to give Crosby his chances to be a hero. Five of McCarthy's seven postseason losses have occurred on the final play of the game, but he kept his team together on Sunday in Dallas. Afterward, he was beaming with pride, and deservedly so, as it was arguably the Packers’ biggest playoff win since the title run half a dozen years ago.
"I just can't say enough about my football team's resiliency," McCarthy said. "This game, this was about us. Our great players are stepping up and everybody else as a team took a step today. Obviously a fantastic finish, and that’s what these games come down to."
Defense? Injuries? Both? The Falcons just put up 36 points on Seattle, which had the NFL’s third-ranked scoring defense this year. And Matt Ryan’s offense – which tagged Green Bay for 33 in their Week 8 win – will surely be salivating at the prospect of revenging Atlanta’s Divisional Round home loss in the 2010 playoffs that helped the Packers to the Super Bowl. Green Bay allowed 429 total yards against the Cowboys, and the defense was only able to get two sacks and one turnover.
The Falcons had the league’s highest-scoring offense this season (33.8 points per game) and they're a more complete, experienced team than Dallas. On Sunday, the Packers lost safety Morgan Burnett, a key player in the injury-ravaged defensive backfield – not to mention having tackles David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga, and receiver Davante Adams get hurt on offense – and they could go into Atlanta even more worse for the wear than they were in the October meeting.
Against the Cowboys, cornerbacks Damarious Randall and LaDarius Gunter had moments of solid play but also bad mistakes; undrafted rookie safety Kentrell Brice played surprisingly well, and fellow undrafted rookie Josh Hawkins didn’t hurt the defense. But the fact that those guys were even playing is concerning; against Julio Jones and the Falcons, the Packers may not be able to get away with it.
With the win over the Cowboys, the Packers have now won eight straight games – six in the regular season, two so far in the playoffs – and will travel to Atlanta to face the second-seeded Falcons. The winner will be in the Super Bowl. Those are very strange and exciting words to type, given how this Green Bay season has gone. Packers-Falcons is scheduled for Sunday at 2:05 p.m. CT on FOX.
Born in Milwaukee but a product of Shorewood High School (go ‘Hounds!) and Northwestern University (go ‘Cats!), Jimmy never knew the schoolboy bliss of cheering for a winning football, basketball or baseball team. So he ditched being a fan in order to cover sports professionally - occasionally objectively, always passionately. He's lived in Chicago, New York and Dallas, but now resides again in his beloved Brew City and is an ardent attacker of the notorious Milwaukee Inferiority Complex.
After interning at print publications like Birds and Blooms (official motto: "America's #1 backyard birding and gardening magazine!"), Sports Illustrated (unofficial motto: "Subscribe and save up to 90% off the cover price!") and The Dallas Morning News (a newspaper!), Jimmy worked for web outlets like CBSSports.com, where he was a Packers beat reporter, and FOX Sports Wisconsin, where he managed digital content. He's a proponent and frequent user of em dashes, parenthetical asides, descriptive appositives and, really, anything that makes his sentences longer and more needlessly complex.
Jimmy appreciates references to late '90s Brewers and Bucks players and is the curator of the unofficial John Jaha Hall of Fame. He also enjoys running, biking and soccer, but isn't too annoying about them. He writes about sports - both mainstream and unconventional - and non-sports, including history, music, food, art and even golf (just kidding!), and welcomes reader suggestions for off-the-beaten-path story ideas.