Not helping matters for the Chiefs has been yet another dominant effort by Bud Dupree, Pittsburgh’s standout linebacker. The second-year player started the season on injured reserve, and did not play a snap until Week 11, but he has turned into a major disrupter on defense. He delivered a huge hit to Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith that resulted in an interception and also got into the backfield to swat a ball to the ground. Last week, in Pittsburgh’s wild-card win over Miami, it was Dupree’s huge hit to Matt Moore that briefly took the Dolphins’ quarterback out of the game.
The Green Bay Packers could not hold on to a huge early lead, but in the game’s final seconds Aaron Rodgers was given one more chance to score, and his long completion to Jared Cook set up Mason Crosby’s game-winning 51-yard field goal in a 34-31 victory over the Dallas Cowboys that earned the Packers a trip to the N.F.C. championship game next week against Atlanta.
After a string of boring playoff blowouts this season, all won by home teams, Green Bay bucked the trend in a thrilling game in which the Packers raced to a 21-3 lead only to slowly let Dallas back into the game. The Cowboys tied it up at 28-28 before the teams traded long field goals, with Crosby’s 56- and 51-yard makes beating out the 52-yarder from Dan Bailey that nearly resulted in overtime.
There were offensive fireworks on both sides, as Rodgers threw for 356 yards and 2 touchdowns while Dak Prescott, the Cowboys’ Cinderella story at quarterback, threw for 302 yards and 3 touchdowns. While Rodgers walked away with the win, Prescott showed exactly why the team confidently kept him as the team’s starter even after longtime starter Tony Romo was declared healthy.
In the end, however, Rodgers had just enough to overcome Dallas’ furious comeback. He rattled the Cowboys’ defense all game, catching them moving too slowly on substitutions, taking advantage of penalties, and deftly avoiding the pass-rush to set up passing plays. And on the final drive, when his team needed him most, he found Cook downfield for a shocking 35-yard gain that set up Crosby’s game-winner. Cook just barely got his feet down before going out of bounds, with the play requiring a review after officials disagreed about whether or not he made the catch.
Rodgers was all smiles in an on-field interview after the game, saying the game was fun. But when asked about what he was thinking as his long pass to Cook was reeled in, he gave all the credit to Cook.
“It was a great catch by Jared,” Rodgers said, adding “It’s just kind of schoolyard at times late in the game like that.”
Rodgers was forced to play the entire game without his top wide receiver, Jordy Nelson, but he was able to succeed thanks to strong games from Cook, Davante Adams and Randall Cobb. Ty Montgomery, the wide receiver-turned-running back, chipped in with 11 carries for 47 yards and 2 touchdowns, while also catching 6 passes for 34 yards.
That the game was left to Crosby’s strong right leg may have worried some Packers fans, but the veteran kicker had an incredible final four minutes of the game. His 56-yard make set a franchise playoff record, and he had to make the 51-yard attempt twice as Dallas used a timeout to erase his first attempt. While the game-winner was a fairly low kick, it easily made it over the crossbar, completing the Green Bay victory.
Green Bay has now won eight consecutive games after Rodgers vowed to “run the table” following the team’s loss to Washington in Week 11. While the quarterback’s long streak without an interception finally ended in the second half, he continued to show off the M.V.P. form that had eluded him in the first half of the season.
The loss ended what had been a remarkable season for Dallas, a team that captured the No. 1 seed in the N.F.C. despite losing Romo during the preseason and being forced to hand over the offense to Prescott, a fourth-round draft pick who few expected to play, let alone start. But Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, along with some tremendous play by the team’s offensive line, formed an offense that few could keep up with.
As the No. 4 seed in the conference, Green Bay will travel to face the No. 2-seeded Falcons in Atlanta next Sunday.
Here’s What Happened Saturday
■ Matt Ryan led the Atlanta Falcons to a 36-20 win over the Seattle Seahawks and heard choruses of “M.V.P.! M.V.P.!” which seemed justified by his 338-yard, three-touchdown performance. That his return to the playoffs was a huge success against Seattle’s Legion of Boom secondary was quite an accomplishment, though it comes with the asterisk of Earl Thomas having missed the game. Thomas, the All-Pro safety, was sorely missed, especially on a 53-yard catch-and-run by running back Devonta Freeman, who executed a fake that left Thomas’s replacement, Steven Terrell, grasping at air as he fell to the turf.
■ The Houston Texans’ defense was the only thing keeping the team together all season, and the unit did its best in a lopsided loss to the New England Patriots in which the team intercepted Tom Brady twice but also saw Dion Lewis become the first player in the Super Bowl era to score touchdowns on a run, a pass and a kickoff return in a playoff game. The top-ranked Houston defense got little help from Brock Osweiler, the team’s quarterback who seemed to change a few minds last week, then reminded everyone of his flaws with three interceptions on Saturday. Even with a 34-16 victory for the Patriots, the game showed a great number of flaws for New England going forward. Pretty or not, the Patriots are headed to the team’s 11th conference championship game in the last 16 seasons.