GREEN BAY, Wisconsin (Reuters) - There were no Arctic-like temperatures or an epic final drive to clinch an NFL title, but there certainly was a similar spirit of overcoming adversity in a game that was hyped as Ice Bowl II.
Aaron Rodgers, hobbled by a painful calf injury that limited his mobility, threw two second-half touchdowns to help the Green Bay Packers beat the Dallas Cowboys 26-21 on Sunday and reach the Jan. 18 NFC Championship game at Seattle.
And like the 1967 Ice Bowl between the same teams, this game was decided on the one-yard line. But whereas in the epic clash from the Vince Lombardi era it was a quarterback sneak from Bart Starr that won the game, this time it was an officiating call that determined the outcome.
A controversial game-changing reversal of an apparent catch by Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant, which likely would have set up a go-ahead touchdown for Dallas, robbed viewers of what could have been a remarkable finish.
If football is America’s secular religion, then Lambeau Field is its Sistine Chapel, and the stadium which dominates this small Wisconsin town of barely 100,000 residents, attracts fans who arrive expecting inspiration.
They weren’t let down on Sunday as Rodgers, a rather unassuming hero, in pain, adjusted his game to his restricted movement and led his team to victory.
There are no signs that Rodgers’s injury will heal before facing the defending Super Bowl champions and it will require something even more special if he is to take his team to the Super Bowl for the second time in five seasons.
Seattle’s defense is clearly the best in the league as they demonstrated again in their 31-17 win over the Carolina Panthers on Saturday and their quarterback Russell Wilson continues to mature into a true member of the elite in that pivotal position.
The AFC divisional round also lived up to expectations, indeed it surpassed them.
The clash between the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens was expected to be close but it turned into a thrilling shootout as Tom Brady twice led the Patriots back twice from 14-point deficits.
A trick play that saw Brady pass back to receiver Julian Edelman before the former college quarterback threw a 51-yard touchdown strike to Danny Amendola, was one of the highlights of the weekend and a reminder of the imaginative talent of New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
Brady’s stature was emphasized by him overtaking Joe Montana for the most playoff touchdown passes in NFL history, but on Saturday he will duel with a young quarterback who looks set to be the next to join such elite company.
Andrew Luck was chosen by the Indianapolis Colts to replace Peyton Manning in 2012 and on Sunday he made that decision look an inspired one as he guided the Colts to a 24-13 win over Manning’s Denver Broncos.
The 38-year-old Manning has had a wonderful career but Sunday’s loss felt like the final curtain had fallen on it.
Having lost in the Super Bowl heavily last year to Seattle and then failing to get out of the divisional round this time, Manning, non-committal post-game, may decide his legacy doesn’t need another season like this one.
Editing by Frank Pingue