CHICAGO — The NFL's biggest play of the 2013 regular season, a regular school lot deal that might as well have been drawn up in the dirt-hued Soldier Field grass, came down to crucial plays from two injured players in their first games back, and an unsung hero just doing his job.
On its own, it's not shocking that Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was the one doing the throwing or that Randall Cobb was the one on the receiving end of a 48-yard touchdown bomb against a suspect Chicago Bears defense on a busted coverage to win the NFC North crown.
But given that Rodgers was playing his first contest after seven games on the shelf with a broken collarbone and that Cobb was returning for the first time since mid-October, the play was that much more exceptional.
The play, however, also likely doesn't happen without the quick thinking, hard work and team-first effort of fullback John Kuhn.
The Packers trailed the Bears, 28-27, from the Chicago 48-yard line, having just converted two improbable fourth downs. Head coach Mike McCarthy originally started to send out the punt team with just over five minutes left but was coaxed into going for it on fourth-and-1 from their own 22-yard line. Kuhn plowed forward for the all-important yard.
Seven plays later, the Packers were inching their way down the field and there was no turning back now — they were going for it again on fourth-and-1, this time from their own 43. Rodgers hit Jordy Nelson, his security blanket all game, for 6 crucial yards and a first.
"It was crazy. I missed a couple of passes on that drive, but character drive there for sure," Rodgers said.
After Rodgers couldn't find Nelson deep on third-and-8, that set up The Play.
"Fourth down, I think in situations like this, it’s always good to highlight the unsung heroes on the play, and it was definitely John Kuhn," Rodgers said. "As usual."
With Rodgers in the shotgun and Kuhn his one back, the Bears pulled a surprise: a seven-man blitz. They were not going to sit back here.
"They brought empty pressure; they checked to it late," Rodgers said. "I was trying to hit Jordy right away. Safety rolled down quickly. As I looked outside, I felt Julius [Peppers] was coming free. I was trying to elude him, which … the chances of that are pretty slim."
Kuhn had been screaming at Rodgers to change protections — Rodgers didn't hear him initially, but Kuhn is the rare fullback who has that responsibility and that power. Apparently, neither did rookie left tackle David Bakhtiari, who made a blocking adjustment based on the initial call and the Bears' blitz look.
So Kuhn had no option but to throw his body in front of harm's way.
"John comes out of nowhere and cuts [Peppers]," Rodgers said.
"They brought a seven-up blitz, and we made an adjustment," Kuhn said. "The line did a good job sealing everybody off, leaving one for me and I just tried to get as much of Peppers as I could."
Kuhn derailed Peppers, and Rodgers got free of pressure with room to throw. By this point, the defense had broken down. Safety Chris Conte got flat-footed at the first-down marker and might have been in a different defense than his teammates. That's when Cobb threw up his hand and turned his route vertical.
"I was able to get the edge, and saw Randall running wide open," Rodgers said.
"When I came off the ball, I had a hook route about 10 to 12 yards, and I saw the safety was flat-footed," Cobb said. "So I just threw my hand up and stayed on the move, and he was able to find me."
So here's where's it's interesting. Rodgers said Cobb, the third option on the play, was running a vertical route the whole time. Cobb says he was running a "locked route" and that he went deep only because of the way that safety Chris Conte came down hard to the first-down marker and had no chance of flipping his hips and running with the much-speedier Cobb.
At this point, it's looking like a sure six points with Rodgers in the open and Cobb running free. But the throw has to be on point. And Cobb has to catch it. Easier said than done.
"Peripherally, I looked outside to make sure that we had a big play there, and from the throw I had missed Andrew Quarless on earlier in the drive, I knew I had to get a little bit more on it so I didn’t way underthrow him," Rodgers said. "When the ball came down and it landed in his hands, it was just pandemonium."
For Cobb, the ball seemingly hung in the air for an eternity.
"Oh my gosh, it was in the air for so long," Cobb said. "So many thoughts going through my head: You better not drop it. If you drop it, they will kill you. You better catch it. Body catch it if you have to. Do whatever you have to do to catch it."
Cobb looked through the ball suspended in the air and saw cornerback Zack Bowman steaming toward him in a last-ditch effort to make a play.
"I could feel him," Cobb said. "I was just hoping the ball got there before he did."
It did. Cobb scored. Rodgers leaped and fist-pumped in the air. Packers fans found out a few real-time minutes later, and the Bears couldn't score in the 38 seconds remaining, that they'd be going to the playoffs, hosting the team — the San Francisco 49ers — that has been their kryptonite the past few seasons.
But for just a few minutes after the mayhem, Rodgers, Cobb and Kuhn refused to look too far forward and instead chose to reflect on the craziness that was fourth-and-8. But as improbable as the play might have been, all things considered, on its elemental level the play was about the little things: namely, making sure everyone did their jobs, even if it wasn't the prettiest execution in the world.
Rodgers, having had the past seven weeks to reflect on what it means to be at this point here, in the postseason, had the perfect way to encapsulate the play, and the Packers' season to date.
"I think when you’re sitting on the sidelines watching, it’s not always the incredible passes or the incredible scheme that gets the job done," Rodgers said. "It’s the simple plays done well. Throw the ball on time, throw it accurately and good things happen."
For a team that has started four quarterbacks this season and scored a touchdown Sunday on its own sack fumble, simple, it would seem, would be appreciated.
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