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‘No way he caught the ball’: How Aaron Rodgers rolled left and ended the Cowboys’ 2016 season

FRISCO, Texas — In the 2016 season, Dak Prescott was a rookie quarterback leading the Dallas Cowboys to an NFC-best 13-3 record and home-field advantage in the divisional round of the playoffs when he first experienced postseason heartbreak.

On the other sideline that day were the Green Bay Packers, coached by current Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy and quarterbacked by Aaron Rodgers. After an underwhelming start, Prescott rallied the Cowboys to a 31-31 tie with 35 seconds left.

Then third-and-20 happened.

The Cowboys host the Packers Sunday at AT&T Stadium (4:30 p.m. ET, Fox) for the ninth time in the playoffs, bringing back fond memories for Dallas fans of three straight playoff wins over Green Bay from 1993 to 1995.

But those games are sandwiched by Packers postseason victories over the Cowboys: Bart Starr’s touchdown to win the 1967 NFL Championship Game, better known as the Ice Bowl; the 2014 divisional round, when Dez Bryant‘s fourth-down catch was overturned by replay — and the 2016 divisional round, when Mason Crosby turned Rodgers’ third-and-20 heroics into a game-winning field goal with no time left on the clock.

“I mean as a rookie, thought we were just going to go and wipe them off the field, and that didn’t happen,” said Prescott, who is making his fifth playoff appearance Sunday. “Started off down 21-3, able to come back and make a play, and then just thinking … ‘Oh, that was just a lucky play [by Rodgers].'”

All the Cowboys needed to do was stop the Packers on third-and-20 and run the final 12 seconds off the clock to force overtime. Instead, rolling to his left, Rodgers found tight end Jared Cook for a 35-yard catch that pushed them to the Dallas 33 and set up Crosby’s winning kick.

Prescott called it “the Michael Jackson catch” with how Cook went up on his toes to make the grab, but he no longer calls it a lucky play.

“Eight years later, having Mike as my coach, understanding that was a play that they practiced time and time again — because we’ve practiced those situations time and time again. It just shows the importance of practice, of the details, of the communication, being on the same page, what to expect in those crucial moments.”

The Cowboys have four players remaining from that game on their 53-man roster: Prescott, Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and DeMarcus Lawrence. The Packers have one: Kenny Clark. They also have three coaches. In addition to McCarthy, the Cowboys have four assistant coaches who were then on the Packers’ staff.

Third-and-20 will be among the backdrops of this week’s wild-card matchup. Here is an oral history, from those involved, that was originally published in 2017:

The situation: With 12 seconds left in regulation, the Packers face third-and-20 at their 32 after Jeff Heath sacked Rodgers for a 10-yard loss on first down. Overtime seems almost certain.

Rodgers AaronRodgers: “A lot went into that play and it’s one that you’re going to look back on for a long time and feel good about.”

Except it wasn’t really even a play.

Cobb RandallPackers receiver Randall Cobb: “He gave Jared and Davante [Adams] routes, and then he was running out of time, so he told me and [Trevor Davis] just to run out left. It’s not the first time it’s happened. It’s the first time it’s happened in that kind of moment.”

Cook JaredCook: “We knew it was crunch time and this was probably our last play to get into field goal position. Aaron just kind of gets in the huddle and just pretty much calls up a play out of the air. It was a play we had designed, but he said everybody just end up on the left side of the field.”

One of the main tenets of the Cowboys’ game plan was to keep Rodgers inside the pocket. They aren’t successful on this play. At the snap, right defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence jumps inside, which allows left tackle David Bakhtiari to push him farther inside.

Marinelli RodCowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli: “We have what we call a ‘shark’ on him. It would’ve helped if [Lawrence is] there but we had a ‘shark’ [linebacker Justin Durant] and they did a great job of pulling a lineman on the sprint out. They adjusted because we were having some success with that package. When he extends a play laterally, it’s hard.”

Through the course of the season, the Cowboys’ defense had faced third-and-20 or more only two other times. They allowed a dump pass to Cincinnati on third-and-27 in Week 5 and a run on third-and-21 against Philadelphia in Week 17. Both led to punts.

Using their “Deacon” package with three defensive linemen, Durant works as a spy on the quarterback. As soon as Rodgers spins to his left, Durant charges up the field with left guard Lane Taylor between him and Rodgers.

Rodgers AaronRodgers: “The fact that Lane Taylor did his job so well gave me a little extra time.”

Durant JustinCowboys linebacker Justin Durant: “It was a great design on the play. They knew, probably, what we were going to do because we’ve been having success with that for a few snaps. They rolled them out. I was like, ‘I’ve got to try to get around him to make a play.’ I tried. I just saw a step slow. I couldn’t get to him in time.”

Taylor LanePackers guard Lane Taylor: Once he rolled out left, I was like, ‘All right, it’s just me out here.’ Then I was like, ‘Here comes the linebacker. Oh crap, here we go, I’ve got to make this block, that’s for sure.’ I was able to basketball him, stay in front of him, and then right at the end I was just nervous about going over the line [of scrimmage], so I gave him one last shove and Aaron dropped a dime.”

As Rodgers rolls left, Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee passes Cook underneath to safety Byron Jones, with Cobb running the same route but a little deeper. Adams, who was the single receiver to Rodgers’ left, runs straight up the field while covered by cornerback Brandon Carr.

Jones hesitates ever so briefly as Rodgers rolls to the left. He throws it off the wrong foot from the Packers’ 29, but the pass is almost effortless. Cook is with Jones at the time of the throw, but 5 yards deeper.

Rodgers AaronRodgers: “I think I’ve made more difficult throws as far as body angles and speed on the roll and prettier throws. That was accurate, but it didn’t get there the prettiest way, spiral-wise.”

Prescott DakCowboys quarterback Dak Prescott: “No way. No way he caught the ball and no way Aaron Rodgers made that play.”

Heath JeffCowboys safety Jeff Heath: “It was just like you can’t believe he made the throw. I think the throw was probably the most impressive part. Rolling to his left, he’s a right-handed quarterback and throwing all the way across his body and in a really tight window.”

Cook JaredCook: “I’m running my route, and I’m getting depth, and the defense is kind of in a prevent, guard the sidelines, guard deep, don’t let them get too deep. I see there’s a guy in the underneath coverage and there’s room for Aaron to fit the ball in between, but I had to wait. I was like, if I get on the other side of this guy, he’s probably going to throw it. He pumps it and the guy underneath sat, and Aaron kept working to the sideline, so I kept working with him and he just rips it right down the sideline perfectly.”

Jones ByronJones: “Disbelief the way he threw it, how he threw it, how long he held onto the ball. And just the catch and throw, you don’t see that often. That’s just a great player making a big-time play. … I didn’t know [Cook] was there.”

At first, there is confusion as to whether Cook is in bounds. Almost in unison, the Cowboys’ sideline waves off the reception. One official is about to signal an incomplete pass, but side judge Rob Vernatchi emphatically declares it a catch.

After further review, the call is confirmed.

Nelson JordyNelson: “You look up and all their sideline is saying incomplete, and then they said it was a catch and you still don’t know until it goes through replay. Even if we watched it today, it’s still crazy to see that it actually worked. For him to run all the way across the field like that, for Aaron to put the ball on the spot and for him to be able to stop and still catch it, there’s so much that goes on and to be able to set it up and then obviously finish it off with a field goal, it’s one for the ages, I guess.”

Carr BrandonCarr: “As soon as he caught it [I knew]. Immediately. I was about 10 yards away from it. It was a good catch and throw. He put it on the money.”

Cobb RandallCobb: “I couldn’t tell from my angle, but I saw that the ref called it a catch, so it was a catch.”

Crawford TyroneCowboys defensive end Tyrone Crawford: “Definitely thought he was out of bounds. I mean, it was an amazing catch, obviously, because the guy kept his feet in bounds, but it was definitely heartbreaking to find out his feet were still in.”

With three seconds left, Crosby kicks a 51-yard field goal to win the game and send the Packers to the NFC Championship Game and end the Cowboys’ season. (The Packers went on to lose 44-21 to the Falcons in the NFC Championship Game.)

Cook JaredCook: “I just try to hold on for as long as I can before I hit the ground so they know it’s a catch. The rest is history, baby.”

Carr BrandonCarr: “We felt like we had the team. That was our year to make our run and do our thing. That was the biggest letdown that I felt in my career thus far. I knew we had everything we needed to do what we had to do.”

NFL Nation reporters Jamison Hensley and Paul Gutierrez contributed to this story.

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