Over the past two months, they had become experts in how excruciatingly slow time can feel.
Waiting for their cracked bones to heal. Waiting for their rehabilitation programs to net some incremental progress. Waiting for the medical staff to deliver some encouraging news. Waiting for clearance to start doing again what they had been born to do.
Waiting, waiting, waiting.
And so, as the ball arched its way on its game-winning trajectory downfield late Sunday afternoon, Aaron Rodgers’ and Randall Cobb’s lives were once again in slo-mo. After how long the pair had waited to return to the field – Cobb 11 weeks from a small fracture at the top of the tibia in his lower right leg suffered Oct. 13, Rodgers seven weeks and six days from a fractured left collarbone sustained Nov. 4 – it was only fitting that the Green Bay Packers quarterback and wide receiver had to wait some more.
But just like their returns to game action Sunday at Soldier Field, the wait proved worth it.
“Oh my gosh, it was in the air for so long,” a beaming Cobb recounted after his 48-yard touchdown catch gave the Packers a 33-28 victory over the archrival Chicago Bears and a berth in the NFC playoffs. “I had so many thoughts going through my head. ‘You better not drop it,’ ‘If you drop it, they’re going to kill you.’ ‘You better catch it.’ ‘Just catch the ball.’ ‘Body catch it if you have to.’ ‘Do whatever you have to do.’
“And I was able to make the catch.”
In reality, the NFL-logo embossed leather Wilson traveled through the gray, dingy Chicago sky for a mere 2.4 seconds. It just felt longer to the two men at each end of the season-saving, NFC North championship-winning pass. And they weren’t the only ones.
“It felt like the ball was in the air for about two hours,” said linebacker A.J. Hawk, who was tracking the arc of the ball from the Packers’ sideline. “I think that’ll go down as one of the best plays ever, I’m sure, in Packers history.”
“Aaron and Randall just made a phenomenal play,” added Packers coach Mike McCarthy, whose team converted three fourth-down plays during the final 87-yard, 15-play, 5 1/2-minute drive. “Two guys making a great, great play that'll be running on the highlights now for the rest of my time on this Earth.
“What a great finish."
Except, the Packers (8-7-1) are just getting started. And while the triumph sent them into the postseason as a flawed-but-jelling, depleted-but-dangerous No. 4 seed, the Bears finished 8-8 and will clean out their lockers at Halas Hall Monday.
“That’s a tough one to swallow,” said Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, who fell to 1-9 all-time (and 1-8 with the Bears) against the Packers, despite playing well – completing 15 of 24 passes for 226 yards with two touchdowns, one interception (on the game’s final play) and a 103.8 passer rating. An impending unrestricted free agent, he may have played his last game in Chicago.
“You’d love to predict the future. I’m not really going to get into what’s going to happen. It always works out how it’s supposed to.”
It’s worked out beautifully for the Packers, who next Sunday at Lambeau Field will face the San Francisco 49ers, the same team that embarrassed them in the NFC Divisional Playoffs last Jan. 12.
Which, speaking of time, they’ll have waited 357 days for an opportunity to avenge that defeat.
“This was just our first playoff game. We knew that it was win or go home,” said veteran fullback John Kuhn, whose got-just-enough-of-him block of Bears defensive end Julius Peppers allowed Rodgers to escape the pocket and hit the wide-open Cobb downfield. “So now, we're in a playoff mode.
“You’ve seen in the past that teams that get in late have been dangerous. We did it before (en route to the Super Bowl XLV title in 2010). I believe that we’re a tough out for anybody.”
But first, they had to get in, and after watching their team sputter without them for entirely too long, both Rodgers and Cobb got the chance to help their team do just that. Rodgers, after weeks of getting his hopes up about playing only to have them dashed at week’s end, was initially given good news last Tuesday but didn’t learn that he had been given the go-ahead to play until Thursday morning’s team meeting.
Cobb, who’d been placed on injured reserve Oct. 15 with the designation to return but with no guarantee he would, practiced all week and was added back onto the 53-man roster just before the team’s charter flight to O’Hare went wheels-up on Saturday afternoon.
“I’m just grateful to be back on the field, be back playing with my brothers. You see the heart [of] this team,” said Cobb, whose only two receptions in the game were the 48-yard game-winner and a 7-yard touchdown that gave the Packers a 20-14 lead early in the third quarter. “To go through what we went through all season, and still have a chance to be in the playoffs, to have a game like we had tonight, find a way to win the game, I think it speaks a lot about our team. Hopefully we can make a playoff run now.”
With Rodgers back, anything seems possible. While he was sidelined, he saw the team go 0-4-1 in its first five games without him, including the Nov. 4 loss to the Bears in which he was injured; then earn back-to-back hard-fought, one-point, come-from-behind victories over Atlanta and Dallas with Matt Flynn under center; then get the requisite help it needed from the Baltimore Ravens (in a Dec. 16 victory over Detroit) and Philadelphia Eagles (who rendered the Packers’ loss to Pittsburgh meaningless by blowing out the Bears a few hours later) to make Sunday’s regular-season finale for all the marbles.
And while Rodgers got off to a slow start in his return – throwing a pair of uncharacteristic interceptions, although don’t try to tell him he was rusty – he was heads-up on the Packers’ bizarre first touchdown (Jarrett Boykin’s 15-yard fumble recovery on which almost everyone else stopped playing) and looked more and more like himself as the game wore on, crescendo-ing in the game-winning play.
”This is a special group of guys who’ve been through a lot,” said Rodgers, who finished the game having completed 25 of 39 passes for 318 yards with two touchdowns, two interceptions, three sacks, a fumble and a passer rating of 85.2. “It’s been a rollercoaster – losing two of the first three, then winning four in a row, and then I get hurt. We have a rough stretch there where we don’t win for five weeks. Then we win a couple one-point games. A tough one last week. So it’s been a rollercoaster season
“I think there could have been multiple times where guys could have fractioned off or said, ‘To heck with this season, its’ not going to happen.’ But guys kept believing in each other, and we’re just fortunate – myself, and Randall – to be able to be back out there and be able to hook up a couple times.”
It was the final hook-up that won the game. Having already converted a pair of fourth-and-1s earlier in the drive – with a 1-yard Kuhn dive and a 6-yard Rodgers-to-Jordy Nelson completion – the Packers faced fourth-and-8 from the Chicago 48-yard line. Gambling, Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker sent what’s called a zero blitz or empty pressure, with seven rushers coming after Rodgers. The one who got through was Peppers, from Rodgers left, but Kuhn dove across the backfield to chip him, buying Rodgers the split-second he needed to escape. Moving right, he saw Cobb astonishingly wide open down the left seam, having blown past safety Chris Conte at the first-down marker. From there, it was simply a matter of Rodgers not missing Cobb, and Cobb not letting victory slip through his fingers.
“They brought empty pressure, checked to it late, and I was trying to hit Jordy right away, (but) the safety rolled down quickly,” explained Rodgers, who called the touchdown drive a “character drive” and gave Kuhn most of the credit for the game-winning play.
“As I looked outside, I felt Julius was coming free. I was going to try to elude him – which, the chances of that are pretty slim – and John comes out of nowhere and cuts him. I was able to get the edge and saw Randall running wide open. In peripheral, I looked outside to make sure that we had a big play there, [and] I knew I had to get a little bit on it just to make sure that I didn’t way under-throw him.
“When that ball came down, it was just pandemonium.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.