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Packers start hot on frozen night, hold off Russell Wilson’s late charge to win 28-23

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This was no ugly win. The stars stepped up to punch the Packers ticket to the NFC Championship Game, with Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams leading the way.

Divisional Round - Seattle Seahawks v Green Bay Packers Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Green Bay, WI — Davante Adams sped in motion, then zipped back. Aaron Rodgers, under center, hiked the ball, pivoted to his left to hand it to Aaron Jones. Cutting left, Jones sliced off left tackle, eating up 23 yards to match the game time temperature and electrifying a frigid Lambeau Field crowd. On the next play, Rodgers found Adams for 14 yards. Five plays later, facing a 3rd-and-7, Matt LaFleur dialed up a diabolical play, faking the slant with Adams, crossing up the cornerbacks, freeing Adams for a 20-yard touchdown on the opening drive, setting the stage for a 28-23 win in which the Green Bay Packers’ best players met the intensity of the moment with ferocity.

Seahawks defenders looked around helplessly as Adams ran around and through them with impunity. The route on his 40-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter left Seattle cornerback Tre Flowers dizzy and he was one of many who Adams left grasping at air en route to an eight-catch day with 160 yards and two touchdowns. His corner route from the slot on 3rd-and-8 just ahead of the two minute warning in the fourth quarter set the Packers record for receiving yards in a game and kept the ball out of Russell Wilson’s hands. The throw also happened to be vintage Rodgers.

“We put the world on our shoulders. It’s something that we came into this game knowing it would have to be a 12-to-17 type game,” Adams said after the game, adding he reminded Rodgers the last time he got a first-round bye, he lit up the Cowboys. He smiled and said his quarterback remembered and was going to remind him of the same thing.

Speaking of Rodgers, with LaFleur calling a magnificent offensive game, the two-time MVP who never quite caught a rhythm much of the season, relied heavily on Adams. But he also found seven different Packers, including three passes to Jimmy Graham, each on beautiful touch throws cutting across the middle of the field. Their connection on 3rd-and-9 with two minutes left put the dagger in the hearts of a familiar playoff foe.

“You would think — what are we? 14-3 now — that we’re not still learning but we are,” Graham said after the game in a rare scrum at his locker.

“We’ve got a lot of young guys on this team and now they’ve got a taste of the playoffs. So now we’ve got to take that experience and go win on Sunday.”

No, Green Bay no longer relies on magic from Rodgers the way Seattle does from Wilson, but Rodgers delivered more than a few vintage dimes for his biggest game since the 2016 NFC Championship Game. If he doesn’t play the way he did, Wilson showed he’s more than capable of shouldering the entire burden of carrying a team to a playoff win.

Jones, Green Bay’s offensive engine all season, followed his nose for the end zone to paydirt twice, including a short plunge on 3rd-and-goal late in the first half to stake the Packers to a 21-3 halftime lead. Aside from the first play of the game, Jones didn’t find many major creases, but consistently drew attention from Seattle defenders, opening up the play-action game Rodgers and Co. utilized to perfection.

And just like in the Pro Bowl and All-Pro voting, waiting this long to mention Za’Darius Smith will no doubt be taken as a slight from the star Packers defender who busted out a “Snubbed” t-shirt after a first-half sack of Wilson.

“When we first signed here, I talked to P (Preston Smith) and every free agent that was here, and said ‘Man, we have the opportunity to do something great around here,’” Za’Darius said after the game.

Smith, much like his dominating performance against the Vikings following his Pro Bowl snub, took the fight to the Seattle offensive line with two first-half sacks and myriad more pressures. For what he does for this defense, he takes second billing to no one on the Packers.

That’s not to say he was alone making plays. With 4:54 left in the fourth and the Packers clinging to a 28-23 lead, a red-hot Wilson got the ball back. Three plays later, facing a 3rd-and-5, Preston Smith swooped around the corner to track down Wilson for the sack, ending a potential game-winning drive. This is what Brian Gutekunst envisioned when he signed the Smith Brothers to mega-deals this offseason. Too many times in the playoffs, the Green Bay defense lacked the difference makers to get clutch stops late.

After the game, Preston referred to chasing Wilson around like trying to chase a chicken around a field with no fence.

“On the sideline, he kept saying ‘I need to make a play. I need to make a play’ and it came down to the last play. And that was a big play for the team,” Za’Darius relayed after the game, turning to his ‘brother’ and adding, “I appreciate you man.”

It wouldn’t have been a Packers-Seahawks playoff game without heart-in-your-throat moments. Wilson wheeled out of sacks, finding open receivers for big gains when he looked dead to rights. His 64 yards on the ground represented the most consistent offense Seattle could generate and in the second half he used his legs to set up throwing lanes, mounting a furious second-half comeback. With all the scar tissue from the 2014 NFC Championship Game, needing a late set of stops and a clock-killing drive sent blood pressures spiking around Wisconsin, but only before the Miller Lites could flow in celebration.

This wasn’t an ugly win. Green Bay’s offense clicked in ways we hadn’t seen, particularly in the play-action game. Rodgers and Adams controlled the offense and got what they wanted when they needed it. Jones and Graham did their part in crucial moments, and the stars of the defense did the rest.

It was a recipe the Packers couldn’t follow in that fateful Seattle collapse. This time, the offense stayed aggressive late, Rodgers delivered, and the big-money defenders got the one stop that ‘14 team couldn’t get. They didn’t need Rodgers to do it all, but he did more than enough, throwing strikes all over a frigid field. This version of the Packers can play with the 49ers or any team they face the rest of the way. That’s the position every team hopes to be in come January and only four teams are still alive. When the Packers’ stars lead, the team follows, and they showed they can be as good as any team in football.

Green Bay will need them to be great, but they proved Sunday night, they’re more than capable of providing that spark. Two more games like that, and they’ll be shining even brighter, in the reflection of a Lombardi Trophy.