SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Aaron Rodgers clocked the football, then pumped his fist through the brisk Bay Area air. He didn’t need to see the final snap of Sunday night’s thriller. Three seconds left, Rodgers was already celebrating as he sprinted off the field, passing by his longtime kicker coming the other way.
The quarterback wasn’t the only one with a premonition of what was about to unfold. Davante Adams rose from the 33-yard line after the final catch on another routine night – a spectacular night by any other receiver’s standards – and knew he’d reached paydirt.
“In my mind,” Adams said, “the game was already over.”
On the sideline, Packers coach Matt LaFleur allowed himself to ease, if only so slightly. This game looked lost moments earlier, the Packers’ defense surrendering a lead for the first time. There were 37 seconds left and no timeouts after San Francisco 49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk plowed over the goal line, putting the Packers behind by a single point. Even with a three-time MVP quarterback, LaFleur knew his offense would cut it close.
Five plays and 42 yards later, LaFleur watched his grey-haired kicker trot onto the field, ready to add to his already impressive resume of game-winning kicks. Mason Crosby split the uprights from 51 yards as time expired, giving the Packers a stunning, 30-28 win and sending their sideline into pandemonium.
“Wow,” LaFleur said opening his postgame remarks, “what a game. That’s one I’ll never forget.”
LaFleur had clung to cautious optimism after Juszczyk’s 12-yard touchdown catch put the 49ers ahead 28-27. He estimated there was just enough time – barely – to piece together a game-winning drive.
On the sideline, his quarterback was already running the matrix through his mind.
“We needed two chunk throws,” Rodgers said. “That’s why I wasn’t dink and dunk. We didn’t have any time for that.”
The first chunk came on the drive’s opening snap.
Before leaving the sideline, Rodgers huddled with LaFleur and quarterbacks coach Luke Getsy. Rodgers has autonomy to call specific routes in plays during the two-minute drills, but LaFleur had a suggestion for how the drive should start. On Thursday, they’d adjusted a familiar play designed for the two-minute drill, altering Randall Cobb’s route in the slot.
Cobb, lined up inside Adams, would run a hard-vertical route up the right seam, clearing out a safety as he broke toward the sideline. It left Adams to run a deep post to the middle of the field, which the safety had vacated.
Rodgers said afterward the Packers needed at least 15 yards on their first play. He drilled Adams for 25, up to midfield, and the game-winning drive had a pulse.
“That play was for him,” Rodgers said. “For sure. Cobby was clearing out on that side, and we were banging both of the edges. We had ‘Quez (Valdes-Scantling) on a big-post opportunity. So if they decided to play one-high, or show two and drop one of the safeties down and tilt to one side, then Marquez became a big option.
“But based on the way they played – they played very soft Cover-4 – I was just happy to get the ball over (linebacker Fred Warner).”
It wasn’t the last time Rodgers would target Adams. After spiking the ball to stop the clock with 21 seconds left, Rodgers knew he needed another chunk. He threw behind and low to Adams in the left slot incomplete, but returned to his star receiver in the same location on the next play. Adams broke his route inward from the left seam, finding an opening in the 49ers’ zone for 17 yards.
Crosby said he felt good from 60 yards kicking to the south end zone inside Levi’s Stadium, but the Packers wanted to get closer. LaFleur set a minimum target for the 37-yard line. Rodgers thought Crosby needed to get within 55 yards, meaning the 38 would have been his kicker’s limit.
Adams picked himself up from the 33 after the last of his 12 catches for 132 yards and knew the game was over.
“‛Mas’, just continuing from what he did last year,” Adams said of Crosby. “He kicked the leather off the ball. It makes it much more comfort in knowing that we don’t have to go down and score because we have such a reliable kicker. So in my mind, once we completed that second one and spiked it, we had that one pretty much locked up.”
It was only Week 3 of this season, just their second win, but considering how this season began, the obstacles overcome Sunday night, and the memories of that 2019 NFC championship game blowout on this same field, this felt a little more significant.
Crosby sprinted to the end zone after the ball left his foot, chased by a handful of offensive linemen. “I blacked out,” Crosby said. Rodgers was delirious too, following the pack but turning toward his sideline midway and lifting both hands in triumph. The Packers circled as a team on the goal line, celebrating like they’d won a championship, not a regular-season game in September. The enthusiasm spilled into the visiting sideline at Levi’s Stadium, where Crosby said teammates dumped water on his head.
The Packers have won many games with Rodgers at quarterback. Few in the regular season have produced the postgame reaction seen Sunday night, from field to locker room. More than Crosby’s kick, there seemed to be an emotional release, pent up over a long, tumultuous offseason and embarrassing season-opening loss. With tension inside the building leaking into the public consciousness, it has been a long time since the Packers felt unbridled joy.
“It gives some legitimacy,” Rodgers said, “to some of the things we’ve been talking about, that that was kind of an aberration, and we are a talented football team.”
They were seconds from another gut punch Sunday night, more doubts and questions about the legitimacy of their title hopes. Then Rodgers worked his magic, completing his 23-for-33 night with 261 yards, two touchdowns and a 113.3 rating. His final throw went straight into the ground with three seconds left. He pumped his fist through the air, knowing this 2021 season was remarkably revived.
After it was over, the bedlam finally subsiding, Rodgers stood on the field with a football tucked under his right arm. He smiled as he did a postgame interview with NBC, scanning the scene before him.
“How,” Rodgers spoke into the cameras, “can you not be romantic about football?”