In Arlington, Texas, inside AT&T Stadium, it has been and always will be about the star. And the stars of the Dallas Cowboys were shinning bright in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs. Dez Bryant had his best game in two years, Ezekiel Elliott averaged almost 6 yards a carry, Jason Witten caught the first postseason touchdown of his career, and the unflappable Dak Prescott overcame an ugly interception on a screen pass that was read like a book to lead an inspiring comeback.
However, no star shined brighter than that of Aaron Rodgers.
The numbers weren’t Rodgers’ best. He finished with a passer rating of less than 100—worse than Prescott—and his 2-month interception-less streak came to an end when an erred pass ended up in the hands of safety Jeff Heath. But he spent almost the entire game firing bullets into the hands seemingly blanketed receivers. And like any legend, when it mattered the most, he was sensational.
A back-and-forth fourth quarter ended when Rodgers decided to draw up his favorite play, a roll-out to the right and a deep pass toward the boundary, in the turf like a fourth grader at recess. The 35-yard pass to Jared Cook was one for the ages and set Green Bay up for the go-ahead 50-yard field goal, which snuck inside the right upright in the most heartbreaking fashion imaginable.
Make no mistake; the Cowboys could have won this game. But a slow start, costly penalties and a controversial decision to spike the ball with a timeout to spare allowed the greatest player on the field an opportunity to win the game, and he did.
The only way to match greatness is with greatness. While Dallas saw fantastic play from its best players, the team as a whole played far from its best football. Now that the 2016-17 chapter of the Dallas Cowboys has ended, the time to start thinking about what’s next has begun.
In truth, this defense was susceptible to this kind of quarterback performance all season. Even if they would have slayed one giant, other fantastic passers would be waiting for them in the following rounds. If everything is left in tact, Dallas will be good for years to come, but improvements need to be made if the Super Bowl is an aspiration.
The NFL is a quarterback’s league. Controlling time of possession and stopping the run doesn’t mean much when the opposing quarterback is carving you up. Prescott said he learned a lot from watching Aaron Rodgers’ Olympus-worthy performance. Hopefully, Jason Garrett, Rod Marinelli, Jerry Jones and the rest of the front office did, too. The road to the Super Bowl goes through the leagues best quarterbacks, and a stronger pass rush and a more experienced secondary is the only way to navigate those detours.