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What We Learned: Divisional Round, at Cowboys

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The Green Bay Packers’ unbelievable run continued in an instant classic Sunday, as the Packers and Cowboys exchanged haymakers for 59:57 before the leg of Mason Crosby sealed the deal and sent the Packers to Atlanta for Mike McCarthy’s 4th NFC Championship Game. Here’s what we learned on a heart-stopping afternoon.

(I am finding it harder and harder to write anything about Aaron Rodgers that doesn’t sound like gushing fanboy praise, so I am mostly going to leave the Rodgers-love to others this week. But seriously, have we ever seen anything like this guy?)

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What We Learned: The Packers have a kicker that they can trust in any moment.

Mason Crosby is one of the longest-tenured Packers and now stands as the club’s all-time leading scorer, but until Sunday’s heroics many Packers fans still couldn’t get past his struggles and see him for the great player that has been for almost his entire career. But after nailing two of the most clutch kicks in recent NFL history in the final 100 seconds in Arlington, there should be no doubt anywhere in Packers nation that if the Packers need a big kick, we have the right man for the job.

Seeing as Crosby has not had a huge amount of clutch field goal opportunities (much like Aaron Rodgers’ underwhelming final drive resume, this is mostly due to the fact that the Packers are rarely trailing late in the 4th quarter), it might be easy to understand why Packers fans have been hard on Crosby. Kicker is a position where fans tend to remember the bad much more clearly than the good, but even so, the one season during which he struggled was in 2012, and that should only be a distant memory now. Since then Crosby has been a machine, hitting 86 percent of his field goals.

Crosby also has one of the most powerful legs in the game, as he showed against Dallas with all 6 of his kickoffs resulting in touchbacks. His directional kicking has also been an asset in windy and cold Lambeau conditions, and he has even proved himself useful as a last-ditch defender against long returns, including causing a fumble on Cordarrelle Patterson in the Week 17 loss to the Vikings in 2015. Essentially, Crosby provides everything you look for in a Kicker.

Even so, the great Kickers are judged by their biggest kicks, and on Sunday Crosby added to his CV. Crosby never had the deer-in-headlights look you sometimes see on Kickers in big moments; instead, he simply went through his pre-snap routine and did his job, even after the Cowboys called a last-second timeout to ‘ice’ him, requiring him to make the 51-yard game-winner twice. Added to the 48-yarder he nailed to tie the 2014 NFC Championship Game in Seattle, Crosby now boasts as good of a clutch resume as all but a few Kickers in NFL history.

On Sunday we learned that Packers fans everywhere can now embrace Crosby for what he is-a great all-around Kicker who can be trusted with the biggest of kicks.

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What We Hope We Learned: Micah Hyde is becoming the type of play-maker the Packers secondary has sorely missed.

On a few occasions, I have watched an average Receiver or Tight End burn Micah Hyde for a long completion and thought, ‘the guy gives it his all, but he is just too slow.’ On Sunday, Hyde turned in his best performance in a Packer uniform and totally changed his narrative. Now instead of lamenting what Hyde is not, I see first and foremost the incredible the way he uses his limited talent to make himself not only a steady presence on the field among an inexperienced Secondary, but also a bona fide playmaker.

Hyde got off to a strong start, beating Jason Witten for a sack on the Cowboys’ first series, helping to force a FG attempt. In a game where giving up 3 points on any given possession was a win for the defense, it was an important early sign that the Packer D could at least compete. The play of the game by the Defense, however, came in the 3rd Quarter with the Cowboys driving inside the Green Bay red zone looking to cut into a 28-13 lead. Trusting something he surely noticed from film study, Hyde jumped a quickly thrown WR screen to the flat and did the impossible-intercepted Dak Prescott. If not for an uncharacteristically terrible throw by Rodgers later in the ensuing drive as the Packers looked to extend their lead, that might have been the moment we looked back on as the turning point of the game.

Given the combination of injuries and horrible play the Packers have dealt with all year at the Cornerback position, Hyde now stands as one of the most important players on the roster. Hyde will also have the added motivation these next two games of playing for his livelihood, as he will be a Free Agent this off-season. It was assumed that Hyde would not be retained in favor of younger players, but that now looks to be up for debate, as the Packers do not have anything close to a ‘sure thing’ on the roster at the position. After a game-changing performance against the Cowboys, Hyde might have made himself indispensable for the Packers this year and shown that he can be a valuable nickel back moving forward.

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What We Hope Isn’t True: Injuries will finally catch up to this team.

Sunday was truly a glorious day for the Green Bay Packers, and even though the Defense gave up a ton of big plays, that was to be expected given the circumstances. Overall, the D did just enough to get the win. Following a victory that sweet, it is not easy parsing through the aftermath looking for a negative storyline. Even so, with a new round of faces headed to the training table following a physical showdown, injuries threaten to derail the Packers’ storybook run to a 14th NFL Championship.

Kentrell Brice’s name rang out all over Cowboys stadium following Morgan Burnett’s early departure, and that is not always a good thing for a Safety. It was not all bad for Brice-his hit on Cole Beasley, even though it was on a relatively long gain, was a tone-setter for a defense that many feared would be physically dominated by the Cowboys offense. Still, he was picked on over and over again by Prescott, as he simply couldn’t be expected to provide the steady presence that Burnett provides. If Burnett is unable to play in Atlanta, expect Matt Ryan and co. to look to exploit him all game.

Injuries also threaten to limit the offense, as both Davante Adams and David Bakhtiari looked to have avoided serious injury but will nonetheless likely be nursing sore legs all week. Especially if Nelson can’t go again, the Packers will need the 2016 version of Adams, not the 2015 version who was also hampered by an ankle injury. Bakhtiari figures to be among the most important Packers on Sunday, because if he can help to slow down the ultra-quick Vic Beasley Jr., the Packers offense has a chance to put up some huge numbers.

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Unless Aaron Rodgers goes down, there is nothing this team cannot achieve. His play of late has been so tremendous that he is pulling the rest of the team up near his level. Nonetheless, as injuries slowly weaken the rest of the roster, Rodgers’ room for error grows ever smaller. If anyone can carry this team to a Super Bowl LI title, it is Rodgers, but if the rest of the team can get healthy and avoid further injury, they can make his job a bit easier.

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By Mark Darnieder

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