Vallee’s View: Arizona Wins after Green Bay’s Prayers are Answered

Arizona 26 Packers 20
Surprisingly, Arizona and Green Bay turned out to be the best game of the Divisional Playoffs.  While there were a lot of surprises and drama that happened in the first 59 minutes, all anyone was talking about was three plays.
Play #1, 4th and 20:  Trailing 20-13 with 55 seconds left quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay offense was facing a 4th and 20 from their own 4-yard line.  The Packers three best receivers were injured and they were out of timeouts.  The game was effectively over.  There was not one person among the tens of millions watching at home who thought they had any chance of winning.  It was one of those moments where the only reason you were even still watching is because the NFL season is almost over and you are desperately trying to consume as much football as possible.  Hopeless football included.
But then something strange happened.  Aaron Rodgers, from his own end zone, threw a laser down the left side of the field and wide receiver Jeff Janis (who?!?) leaped up and made a spectacular catch for a 60-yard gain and a first down.  A very improbable first down.  A “holy shit did that just happen” first down.  Unfortunately for Green Bay this only raised their chances of winning from .00000001% to about 2%.  After a 5-yard penalty and an incomplete pass, Green Bay was still 41 yards away from tying the game and there was only 5 seconds left on the clock.  Time for just one more play…
Play #2, The Hail Mary:  Before we get into what happened on this play I want to praise Cardinals coach Bruce Arians.  For years I have been screaming that every single coach, at every single level defends the Hail Mary pass incorrectly.  Surprisingly this includes Bill Belichick.  They ALL make the same mistake of rushing just three lineman and allowing the quarterback to scramble around, buy extra time and launch a pass into the end zone.  Go on YouTube and look up any successful Hail Mary pass in NFL history and you will find that the defense almost always rushes three.  Four at the most.  And this is also true of college football.  Doug Flutie’s Hail Mary, arguably the most famous game-winning pass in football history, is a perfect example of this.  Watch the play here and notice how much time Flutie needs to throw the pass.  Even though he does end up facing some pressure from the three-man rush, it is clear that if Miami had rushed 5 or 6 defenders, Flutie most likely would have ended up on his back before he could ever thrown the game-winner to Gerard Phelan.
The exact same thing happened on Aaron Rodgers’ Hail Mary touchdown, week 13 against the Lions.  Once again the defense’s decision to only rush three made it possible for Rodgers to scramble around and create enough time to attempt the game-winning throw.  This is why for years I have been preaching to anybody that will listen, that there is only one way to defend the Hail Mary:  Blitz.  That’s right, blitz.  It takes guts and probably is counterintuitive to every instinct a coach has, but it is undoubtedly the right thing to do.  If teams had rushed more than three defenders (the sweet spot is probably 5 or 6) I am convinced 90% of the Hail Marys ever completed would have failed.
Sending more pass rushers at the quarterback also has the added bonus of not cluttering the end zone.  Another element of successful Hail Marys is an indecisive secondary.  Sending eight men into coverage causes the field to become so flooded with defensive backs that they sometimes get caught standing around because they are expecting somebody else to make a play.  More defensive backs can also cause unintended collisions, which leads to a multitude of problems from bad deflections to receivers slipping behind the defense.  Coaches are better off sending more guys at the passer and giving the DBs space to do their job.
And that is exactly what Bruce Arians did against Green Bay.
Showing that he has got a set of big giant brass ones, Arians broke away from convention and launched an all-out assault on Aaron Rodgers in the final seconds Saturday night.  He didn’t just blitz, he brought the house, sending 6 (or was it 7……it was so many I lost count) after Rodgers.  I have been waiting 30 years for a coach to have the stones to do this, and it finally happens in the NFL playoffs.  Awesome!  And Arians did this not once, but twice.  The first time it was a huge success, forcing an ugly incompletion by Rodgers.  And the second time….
Well let’s just say, sometimes even doing the smart thing does not guarantee success.
The Hail Mary started out just as Arians had hoped……with Aaron Rodgers running for his life.  The extra pass rusher sent the Packers QB desperately scrambling to the left sideline, away from his natural throwing motion.  This play was over.  This game was over.  Right?  Wrong.  Rodgers, ignoring all boundaries of science and human limitations, twisted his body around and unbelievably launched a pass 60 yards into the end zone, where it was once again caught by, you guessed it, Jeff Janis.  
Touchdown Packers!  HOLY S**T!
While I don’t want to downplay a nobody wide receiver leaping over an All-Pro cornerback (Patrick Peterson), to make a game-winning touchdown catch, this play was all about the throw.  What Rodgers did was superhuman.  It was one of those moments where an athlete does something for which there is virtually no defense.  A moment of such unbelievable athletic talent that no coach or scheme could have stopped it.  It was such a ridiculously difficult pass, one analyst speculated that Aaron Rodgers might be the only quarterback in the history of the world that could have made that throw.
Which brings us back to Bruce Arians.  Don’t blame him for this.  I know it is almost impossible to accept, but Arians absolutely did the right thing on that play.  And instead of us second-guessing him, coaches should be lining up to emulate him.  Arians not only did the gutsy thing he did the smart thing, unfortunately there was just no way to anticipate the throw that Rodgers made.
(Side note:  Blitzing on Hail Marys would also prevent teams from even attempting them.  After a few quarterbacks got drilled by blitzing linebackers, I bet you would see a lot of teams forego any pass attempts downfield at the end of the half, instead electing to take a knee.)
(Second side note:  To put Jeff Janis’ two miracle catches into perspective, he entered the game with two receptions for the entire season.)
Play #3, Fitzgerald to the rescue:  Right or wrong, Arians had to feel sick going into overtime.  Arizona had been so close to winning the game and now they faced the very real possibility of their Super Bowl hopes going up in flames.  Lucky for the Cardinals they would not have to wait long to be bailed out.  On the first play from scrimmage in overtime, Carson Palmer found a wide open Larry Fitzgerald on a deep crossing pattern, and after hauling in the pass, Fitzgerald turned up field and raced through the Packers secondary for a 75-yard gain.  Two plays later he grabbed a shuffle pass from Palmer and galloped into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown.  And just like that all was right in Arizona.
While Fitzgerald deserves some credit for the long gain, the real story of the 75-yard pass was Green Bay’s fatal decision to not cover Fitzgerald.  Whether it was a blown coverage or a bad scheme there is simply no excuse for allowing one of the most prolific receivers in playoff history to go uncovered.  This has always been the problem with Packers coach Mike McCarthy.  While he possesses a sharp offensive mind he routinely comes up short in many of the other aspects of coaching an NFL team.
(Side note:  A lot of people are using this game as an excuse to whine about the NFL’s overtime rules.  The argument is that Green Bay should have been allowed a possession in overtime.  In my opinion the new overtime rules are perfect and should never be changed.  The element of sudden death provides a sense of urgency and desperation that would not exist if you knew both teams would get the ball.)
Even in defeat, however, Green Bay deserves credit for a gallant effort.  (Did I just use the word gallant?  What am I, a 17th century nobleman?)  Saturday’s game was nothing short of a ballsy performance by the Packers.  They entered the game with a struggling offense and two of their top three receivers hurt and then lost their only remaining weapon, Randall Cobb, in the first half.  They had no business even coming close to beating the Cardinals.  That might not lessen the sting of being eliminated by overtime touchdowns in back-to-back postseasons but maybe this will:  with a healthy Jordy Nelson, Green Bay should enter 2016 as one of the favorites to win next year’s Super Bowl.  Unfortunately, until then it is going to be another long offseason in Wisconsin.