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Aaron Rodgers' clutch play sends Packers to NFC title game

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- He stood on the sideline biting down amid the bitter winter cold, the outcome of his first playoff game as an NFL head coach hanging in the balance. At that tense moment, as 40-year-old Matt LaFleur waited for center Corey Linsley to flip a shotgun snap into the hands of his 36-year-old quarterback on a frigid Sunday night at Lambeau Field, the rookie coach of the Green Bay Packers was anything but chill.

The Pack had withstood a furious Seattle Seahawks second-half rally fueled by the improvisational majesty of quarterback Russell Wilson, and now, with Green Bay clinging to a five-point lead and facing a third-and-8 from its own 22-yard-line with 2:19 remaining, LaFleur had no intention of being passive; the thought of giving Wilson another shot at a game-winning drive was not appealing. He was going to put the Packers' fate in this Divisional Round playoff game in the sublime right hand of Aaron Rodgers, and that was that.

As LaFleur watched, Rodgers receive the snap and look briefly to his left, the coach noticed something wholly unexpected on the other side of the play: Star receiver Davante Adams, who had already burned the Seahawks for a pair of touchdowns, broke off of a slant route from the slot toward the middle of the field and faded back to his right, drifting diagonally toward the Packers' sideline.

Rodgers -- gasp -- had called an audible, and now, with four Seattle pass rushers collapsing the pocket and safety Ugo Amadi trailing Adams, it was going to take a pinpoint throw with a high degree of difficulty to keep the Pack from punting the ball back to the 'Hawks.

As Rodgers would tell me as he stood at his locker following the Packers' 28-23 victory, which propelled them into Sunday's NFC Championship Game against the San Francisco 49ers in what figures to be a far more temperate Northern California setting, "I had a pretty good feeling about it before I let it go. It was my kind of night -- cool and crisp -- and the ball was coming off my hand pretty good."

On this play, Rodgers summoned sheer perfection: Leaning slightly backward, he uncorked a glorious spiral, and 78,998 frozen fans skipped a heartbeat, and everything converged on LaFleur and crystallized in his field of vision: The ball; Adams; Amadi; safety Delano Hill, who was closing from the middle of the field; and the fate of a flawed but flourishing football team looking to obliterate a few unfriendly narratives and reach its first NFC title game in three seasons.

"Yeah, it was actually an audible," LaFleur told me an hour after the game as we sat in his private office across the hallway from the Packers' locker room. "I didn't know that, until I saw the ball in the air. I looked up and saw Davante running past his defender, and I thought, 'Oh, he must have called the pump (fake).'

"That was a hell of a call by Aaron. I called a quick-game play, and he saw a man-coverage situation and called the double-move off of it. Matter of fact, it was the same play we scored on two weeks ago vs. Detroit. And that's what's so great about a guy like this, he sees so much -- he's seen so much throughout his career -- and I totally trust that he's gonna get us in the right spot."

For a couple of seconds, LaFleur and I both started laughing, given how much the audible thing had triggered people back in June. Shortly after I'd arrived in Green Bay to work on a story about the rookie coach and the legendary quarterback to whom he was trying to teach a new offense, we'd sat in his Lambeau office and discussed an important element of the transition: "One thing we have to work through is the audible thing," LaFleur told me, explaining that in his offense -- a derivative of the one designed by Niners coach Kyle Shanahan, LaFleur's close friend and coaching mentor -- the quarterback traditionally hadn't been given freedom to make wholesale play changes at the line of scrimmage.

The following day, Rodgers weighed in with his perspective, saying: "I don't think you want to ask me to turn off 11 years (of recognizing defenses) ... It's just the other stuff that really not many people in this league can do. That's not like a humblebrag or anything; that's just a fact."

After the story dropped, a significant portion of a football-starved populace spent several months handwringing and bracing for a season's worth of conflict. Instead, the partnership stayed solid, and the Packers rolled to a 13-3 regular season that earned them an NFC North title and a first-round bye while ending a two-season playoff drought.

Yet even as the wins piled up, the quarterback's typically lofty statistical standing suffered, and some cynics marginalized Green Bay as a team still seeking an offensive identity. In fairness, Rodgers fueled that storyline shortly after the end of the regular season by conceding to reporters, "I think the timing's been off a lot of the year. I don't know if that's going to get fixed."

On Sunday, against a fifth-seeded Seahawks team that had gone 11-2 in one-score games, including the previous Sunday's first-round playoff triumph over the Philadelphia Eagles, Rodgers channeled Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder. "The Fixer" completed 16 of 27 passes for 243 yards and two touchdowns without throwing an interception, and he was hot from the jump, guiding the Pack on an eight-play, 75-yard touchdown drive on the game's first possession and pushing the lead to 21-3 by halftime.

"Honestly," said David Bakhtiari, the Packers' Pro Bowl left tackle, "when I saw him make a couple of throws early on, I said, 'Yeah, he's on one tonight.' "

Said LaFleur: "I thought he played outstanding. Those throws he made on third down were absolutely incredible. We probably should have given him more opportunities to stand back there and throw the football, because he was on fire. He just made so many big plays."

After Wilson (21 for 31, 277 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions; seven carries for 64 yards) guided the Seahawks on a 10-play, 69-yard scoring drive to start the second half, with recently unretired running back Marshawn Lynch blasting in for the first of his two 1-yard touchdowns to cut the lead to 21-10, Rodgers responded in a big way. Two plays after zipping a crisp, pinpoint pass to veteran tight end Jimmy Graham (three catches, 49 yards) for a 27-yard gain on third-and-6, Rodgers connected with Adams (eight catches, 160 yards) on a 40-yard scoring pass, freezing the Seahawks' secondary with a cold play-fake.

Trailing 28-10, the Seahawks scored on their next two drives to pull within five points with 9:33 remaining. The Packers' defense rallied and forced a punt with 2:41 to go, after outside linebacker Preston Smith's third-down sack of Wilson, but the idea of having to stop Seattle a second time was not overly appealing.

"Russell Wilson is very, very hard to catch," Smith said afterward, as fellow edge rusher Za'Darius Smith (no relation) nodded his agreement. "It felt like we were chasing a chicken in the field with no fence."

And so, confronted with the possibility of having to subdue Wilson one last time, LaFleur chose to be proactive on third-and-8.

"That's what you want to see, especially a young guy like that -- you want him to be aggressive," veteran cornerback Tramon Williams said of LaFleur. "Coach has been doing that all year long. We're in it to win it."

Said LaFleur: "I thought our defense battled, and I thought they were tired there in the second half. I think when you chase Russell Wilson around for an entire game, that gets exhausting. You've gotta give him a ton of credit. His ability to get out of some of those sacks -- there were a bunch of shoulda-been, woulda-been, coulda-been sacks ... but that's why he's so special. He's got a way of dipping underneath tackles and extending plays.

"I didn't want to give him an opportunity to finish with the ball in his hands, and thankfully our players went out there and made us right."

After the Rodgers audible produced the clutch completion to Adams, the Packers still needed one more first down to seal the deal. Following the two-minute warning, Green Bay faced a third-and-9 from the Seahawks' 45, and Seattle still had a timeout remaining.

This time, Rodgers took a shotgun snap and hung in against a blitz. With All-Pro middle linebacker Bobby Wagner bearing down as the pocket collapsed, Rodgers backed up, braced for contact and somehow got the ball to his tight end Jimmy Graham, who was running a shallow cross.

"I held it as long as I could," Rodgers said. "I was waiting for [Graham] to turn so he could see me, and I finally had to throw it and just trust that he'd turn and that he'd be there. I threw it in the dirt, but he went down and made a great catch."

Graham caught the ball at the Seattle 40 and lunged forward as Hill took him to the turf. The ball was spotted at the 36, just enough for a first down, and Graham stood up and made the peace sign -- as in, "Peace out, Seahawks."

After a long replay review to assess the spot, the first down stood, and the Packers could begin to celebrate as snow started to fall on the soon-to-be-frozen tundra.

Their short-term joy will surely be tempered by the stiff matchup awaiting them in the NFC title game: The Packers must now head back to Levi's Stadium to face a top-seeded Niners team which, back in late November, swallowed them up in a 37-8 victory.

Waiting for LaFleur will be a daunting defense against which Rodgers and the Packers had little success two months ago. Oh, and the innovative offensive attack conceived by Shanahan and buoyed by LaFleur's younger brother, Mike, who is San Francisco's passing-game coordinator.

"Certainly it's a big challenge," LaFleur said, shortly before leaving the stadium. "They embarrassed us. We know they're an elite football team. They're one of the best, obviously, in the National Football League. In order for us to beat them, we are gonna have to play our best, and it's gonna take everybody on every play playing to the best of their ability."

Left unstated is that Rodgers, one of the best quarterbacks ever to play the game, will have to perform at an exceedingly high level if he hopes to have a shot at his second Lombardi Trophy, nine years after he won MVP honors in Super Bowl XLV.

Bakhtiari, for one, hopes some skeptics will continue to describe Rodgers as a quarterback past his prime.

"I mean, just please, keep it up," Bakhtiari said. "I hope that people keep saying it. If you've got a great player, and especially if he feels like he's got something to prove, that's scary."

As Rodgers dressed at his locker following Sunday's game, he already had Northern California on his mind.

"Is 'Money,' gonna keep playing?" Rodgers asked me, in reference to Lynch, his former Cal teammate.

A few seconds later, Lynch, still wearing his Seahawks uniform, appeared near the entrance to the Packers' locker room.

"Gimme your f-----' jersey!" Lynch yelled, laughing.

"Hey," Rodgers said, "gimme your f-----' jersey!"

As they prepared for the swap, I asked Lynch, 33, what he thought of his own performance in his third game since coming out of retirement.

"Man, I look old," he said. Then, turning to Rodgers, Lynch exclaimed, "Dude, how you still do this? How you still? You've been cheating, man."

Rodgers laughed, but he didn't try to argue. He had no need to brag, humble or otherwise.

In the Packers' biggest game of the season, he'd come up huge -- that was just a fact.

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter at @MikeSilver.

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