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The explosive plays that powered the Colts, Packers to playoff wins

Aaron Rodgers and Andrew Luck came up big Sunday in the NFL playoffs, powering their teams to wins.

The NFL Divisional round is in the rear-view mirror and the Packers and Colts emerged victorious Sunday to move forward to the conference championship games. Here's a quick snapshot of some of the most important happenings from Sunday.

Aaron Rodgers overcomes calf injury to ball out in second half

The saga surrounding Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers' calf injury was Packers' fans primary concern all week. He managed to make it to gameday without aggravating it and some of that worry may have been alleviated after Green Bay's first possession. After forcing a Dallas punt to start the game, the Packers came back with a 10-play drive that ended with a Rodgers' touchdown pass to Andrew Quarless.

(via @Jose8BS)

Rodgers made a hell of a throw after briefly considering running it in himself, but you could see him really favor his left leg as he limped up through the pocket and after he made the throw.

"As I moved forward in the pocket, I realized I couldn't do a whole lot," Rodgers related after the game, and as Quarless came open, "The pain in my calf helped me make that decision [to throw] very easy."

In the freezing temperatures at Lambeau Field, the Packers' early momentum quickly iced over, and Dallas scored two touchdowns in reply. The normally raucous Lambeau faithful were briefly silenced, and at the half, after adding a field goal to make it 14-10 Dallas, Green Bay had just 90 yards passing as Rodgers tried to get it done on one leg.

Whatever it was the Green Bay training staff did at halftime seemed to do the job, though.

"I've got to give a lot of credit to our training staff," Rodgers said after the game. "They spent a lot of hours with me this week. They did a great job of getting me ready. My acupuncturist as well. She really helps. I'd like to say thanks to all of the fans and medical people out there who sent in ideas over the hotline*. There was some really interesting ones. Kind of wish at some point we could release some of the emails and messages we got, but I know they're all in good faith there, so I appreciate the ideas. But, ultimately, it came down to our training staff, and they helped me get through this one."

*please comment below if you were one of the weirdos that emailed the team with some weirdo crackpot healing idea.

Rodgers, after looking slow and hobbled in the first half, came out in the second half and -- well, he still looked hobbled, but he managed to put together a few brilliant plays [like the one below] to propel Green Bay to the second half comeback win.

Rodgers has an absolute cannon for an arm, has one of the most absurdly compact and quick deliveries of any quarterback, ever, and can be deadly accurate even moving around or not fully set.

One aspect of his game that might be underrated, if it's possible that anything about Rodgers is underrated, is his ability to move and make throws on the run. He's such a dangerous player -- and nearly impossible to game plan for -- because of his ability to avoid the pass rush, climb the pocket, strafe left or right and then release a sling-shot throw 40 yards downfield with precision accuracy. With that part of his game missing, the Cowboys did a good job early on of limiting him to the pocket and some of that dynamism that he possesses was lacking.

The second half was another story and Rodgers made some great throws despite the bum leg. His receivers did an amazing job for him as well -- Davante Adams scored a touchdown after catching the ball over the middle and making several defenders miss, then later went over a defender to reel in a pass on a crucial third down as the Packers tried to run the clock out. Randall Cobb, not to be outdone, caught a deflected pass a subsequent third down play to seal the deal.

Very, very tough loss for the Cowboys

Green Bay's big-time heroics in this game were as amazing as this game was traumatic for the visiting Cowboys. Apart from the two absurdly excellent third down plays on the Packers' game-sealing drive late in the fourth quarter, Dallas will be looking back at this game and hoping to have a few plays back.

Leading 14-10 early in the third quarter, NFL rushing champion DeMarco Murray had a clear opening for what would've been a 60-yard touchdown run:


But Packers linebacker Julius Peppers was somehow able to get through a block, dive -- like, full on dive -- and swipe the ball out of Murray's hands.



The Packers would recover the ball, drive down the field, and instead of the game being fully in Dallas' hands 21-10 following an enormous jailbreak run, it was 14-13 and Green Bay had new life.

The fourth quarter would not be any easier to stomach. On a key 4th-and-2 play, trailing 26-21 with 4:42 remaining, the Cowboys channeled the "fortune favors the bold" motto and went downfield to Dez Bryant with a gusto. He went up over Sam Shields, elevated, and made the catch, coming down and outstretching to try to break the plane of the end zone. As he hit the ground, the ball came out, and it was, on review, ruled incomplete. Packers' ball. They'd run the clock out from there.

Now, we're already seeing Zapruder-level film analysis of this play so I'll spare you that, but I think that Dez Bryant said it best:

Some will probably call this poetic justice because of the call that helped the Cowboys beat the Lions last week, but regardless, it's a rule that needs to be amended. You can quote the rulebook to defend the call, but there's no way that should not be considered a "catch."

Changing of the guard?

I could've gone with "passing of the torch," too, I guess, but either works. Whatever you want to call it, Andrew Luck shined in Sunday's AFC Divisional round game. Peyton Manning struggled, and the Colts, the team that let Manning go so they could build with their first overall pick in Luck, move on the AFC Championship.

Manning got the day going nicely when he connected with Demaryius Thomas for the game's first points -- and it was a damn fine throw -- but it would go downhill from there. The future Hall of Famer finished just 26-of-46 for 211 yards, including just 6-of-21 on passes greater than 5 yards. He consistently missed his receivers deep downfield:

And when forced to dink and dump over the middle, the Colts were there to wrap up and hit ball carriers for minimal gains. It ultimately doomed the Broncos.

After the game, Manning declined to confirm whether or not he'll be back next season. "My mindset right now is just disappointment after today's game," he said. "I kind of need to process this game and we'll meet tomorrow, kind of need to process this game, so I'm disappointed right now."

When asked again if he'll return to the Broncos in 2015, he replied, "I guess I just can't give that simple answer. I'm processing it. I can't say that. I could not say that."

If this is the last we'll see of Peyton Manning on the field in uniform, that's seriously a strange, sad thought for any football fan. Manning has been one of the best in the game -- if not the best -- for a long, long time. The NFL will be a weird place without him.

For now though, we'll focus on the winners, who move to the AFC Championship. Luck's stat line wasn't a whole hell of a lot better than Manning's, but the eye test showed a player that was poised and in control, and his combination of athleticism and arm-strength showed up. Like Aaron Rodgers, one of Luck's best characteristics is that if a designed play breaks down, he's more than capable of moving out of the pocket, keeping his eyes downfield and making a stick throw.

The game wasn't just a passing of the torch from Manning to Luck, though. Indy left Trench Richardson on the sideline as a healthy scratch and targeted Reggie Wayne just once, signaling a changing of the guard (yes, I said it) to some of the Colts' talented young playmakers. Dan Herron filled in as the bellcow, rushing for 63 yards, including a touchdown from 6 yards out, and added eight catches out of the backfield. T.Y. Hilton, Donte Moncrief, Dwayne Allen, Coby Fleener, and Hakeem Nicks picked up the slack for Wayne. The defense got a strong performance from their pass rush and secondary, and they look like a team poised to make a run at knocking Tom Brady and the Patriots off next week.