No way Aaron Rodgers made that play.
That’s what went through Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott’s mind in the seconds after Rodgers rolled out to his left and found tight end Jared Cook for a 36-yard gain on a third-and-20 in last year’s playoff game.
That play set up a 51-yard game-winning field for the Green Bay Packers as time expired in a 34-31 victory that ended the Cowboys’ magical ride behind rookies Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott.
“It was a tough loss, obviously, but it motivated us pretty much throughout this whole off-season moving forward and coming here,” Prescott said.
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Said Elliott, “I just remember seeing him do what he does best, get out of the pocket, extend the play and make a big play. He seems to make big plays, more likely than less likely, in those situations.”
Rodgers and the Packers return to AT&T Stadium on Sunday afternoon in a pivotal showdown between teams that have seen each other often in recent years.
This will be the fifth time the teams have faced off in the past four years, and Rodgers has been on the winning side of all but one — last year’s regular-season contest that the Cowboys won 30-16 in Green Bay.
Containing Rodgers, of course, is the No. 1 priority for the Cowboys this week. Rodgers already has Hall of Fame credentials and is among the top quarterbacks in the league.
He ranks third in passing yards (1,146) and is tied for first in touchdown passes (10).
“He’s just exceptional,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “He’s exceptional in every way. Obviously, really smart, really experienced. I think he has rare athletic ability, both his feet and his arm talent are off the charts. He has a great feel for the game and is an incredible competitor. He always plays with great poise and composure. He makes everyone around him better. He’s just a great, great football player.”
Rodgers is known for his ability to keep plays alive. He has the ability to escape the pocket and buy his receivers extra time to get open.
That’s what happened on the third-and-20 play that ended the Cowboys’ chances. Rodgers rolled to his left, allowing Cook to get behind safety Byron Jones and fire a perfect pass down the sidelines.
“That play, it was just good execution by (left guard and Arlington Martin product Lane Taylor) getting out front and blocking Justin (Durant) and then guys just continuing to come from the backside, and obviously Jared made a fantastic catch on the sideline,” Rodgers said. “Those are things we’ve repped, maybe not that exact play, we kind of put that play together there in the huddle, but similar situations over the years, and like I said you try and lock away muscle memory about how to be accurate on all types of different throws.”
For the Cowboys, it’s a play they’d like to forget, even though it received national recognition as the 2017 ESPY Play of the Year.
“For us, it’s over with,” Jones said.
Asked what went through his mind when the ball was in the air, Jones said: “Just disbelief the way he threw it, how he threw it, how long he held onto the ball and just the catch and the throw. You don’t see that often. That’s just a big-time player making a big-time play.”
Said Durant, “That should never happen. Just got to be smart.”
Garrett said he’s watched the play “a few times,” although didn’t want to get into a lengthy discussion on it.
Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said with a wry smile all he remembered was that the Packers “completed it.”
“They did a great job of sprinting out to his left, brought a lineman out to pin us, did a terrific job, bought some time, and that’s when stuff breaks down in the back row when he starts buying time,” Marinelli said. “We’ve got to control him in the pocket. His arm is unbelievable.”
In his past four games against the Cowboys, Rodgers has thrown for 1,183 yards with eight touchdowns and two interceptions.
Defensive tackle Stephen Paea wasn’t with the team last year, but knows Rodgers well after spending his first four years in the NFL with the Chicago Bears, the Packers’ NFC North rival.
“I don’t like Aaron Rodgers, you know? He’s really good and that’s why,” Paea said. “I have a lot of respect for him. He beats you with his arm, beats you with his feet. The goal this week is to stop the run and make Aaron Rodgers throw from within the pocket.
“We’ve got to get to him.”