EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Aaron Rodgers and his slew of receivers have made scoring and winning look effortless at times this season.
So why would it be any different when, for the first time in this unbeaten season, they had to do it at the very end, with the ball their own 20 in a tie game with 58 seconds remaining against the tough New York Giants?
Bing, bing, bing, and there was Mason Crosby punching through the winning 30-yard field goal as time ran out to keep the Packers undefeated through 12 games with a 38-35 win Sunday at MetLife Stadium.
"It was a perfect scenario with the type of players we have on offense and the type of leader we have at quarterback," defensive lineman B.J. Raji said. "I was fully confident Aaron would do the job. He, quite frankly, made it look pretty easy. He just continued to prove why he's the best quarterback on this league and is on his way to an MVP season."
The win clinched a playoff spot for the 12-0 Packers, who clinched the NFC North Division title thanks to the Detroit Lions' loss to New Orleans on Sunday night.
Now that the division race is settled, what remains is the battle with 10-2 San Francisco for home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs, and then a shot at NFL history to become only the third team to go unbeaten and untied in the regular season.
The talented Giants loomed as one of the most difficult games on the Packers' schedule since the season started, and after pulling out this game in a hostile setting, the Packers are painfully close to an unbeaten regular season with three home games (Oakland, Chicago, Detroit) and only one on the road (Kansas City) remaining.
"I clearly understand the 16-0 gig and the importance of it," coach Mike McCarthy said, but "38-35, that's why you stay focused on what's at hand, because every week it's going to be a challenge. We're 12-0 and we need to get to 13-0. We have other goals that are in front of us before we can even attain (16-0). I hope we're in position to talk about it, but right now we really aren't."
For all Rodgers has done in blossoming into an elite player over the past couple of seasons, the one thing he hasn't done much in his career is pull out late victories. This year, there simply hasn't been the need, because he and the Packers have been so good they hadn't even been tied, let alone trailed, in the fourth quarter of any game this season going into Sunday.
Pure numbers don't tell the whole story, but the facts were, going into this season Rodgers' record was 2-12 in games he finished that were decided by four points or less, though it bears noting six of those defeats were in 2008 - his first season as a starter.
The more recent issue was that in two games early in 2010, the Packers lost back-to-back to Washington and Miami after they had the ball and failed to score in overtime.
But that was 14 months ago. Since then, the Packers are 23-1 in games Rodgers has finished, playoffs included, and it's almost a given their quarterback will be the league's 2011 MVP. As for pulling out games in the fourth quarter, going into Sunday, Rodgers took the Packers on five game-winning drives - that is, he put up points when they were tied or behind in the fourth quarter of wins: against Chicago twice in 2009 and again in the regular-season finale last year, and in two wins over Detroit in 2008.
But this one couldn't have been more clear-cut. Quarterback Eli Manning had just taken the Giants 69 yards for the tying 2-yard touchdown pass to receiver Hakeem Nicks on a fade over cornerback Sam Shields, followed by running back D.J. Ware's two-point conversion run that tied the game at 35.
With 58 seconds left, return man Randall Cobb then followed orders to conserve time and down the kickoff 1 yard deep in the end zone. So the Packers had the ball at their 20 with just less than a minute to play.
Rodgers needed only four snaps to set up the chip-shot winner. On the first play, he hit Jermichael Finley on an out pattern the tight end turned into 24-yard gain. Finley also got out of bounds, so in only seven seconds, the Packers were at their 44 with the clock stopped at 51 seconds.
"The first play was the most important play, obviously," Rodgers said. "That kind of determines the drive. If we had an incomplete pass or maybe a five-yard gain, you're probably on the ball and by the time you get another play off, you're looking at under 45 seconds and it's probably less likely that you're going to get a chance to get in range. We talked about on the sideline, about the 40-yard line being kind of the cutoff. To be honest, you're thinking, unless we get some yards on the first couple of plays, you're probably going to look to overtime."
On the next play, Rodgers hit receiver Jordy Nelson on a back-shoulder fade for a 27-yard gain, with Nelson making a spectacular leaping, turning catch over former teammate and cornerback Will Blackmon. Nelson tapped both feet inbounds, and the Packers were in field-goal range at the Giants' 29 without having spent their lone remaining timeout.
After a swing pass to halfback Brandon Saine lost a yard, Rodgers went no-huddle and hit receiver Greg Jennings on a short stick route Jennings turned into an 18-yard catch and run. Timeout was called with three seconds left, and Crosby knocked home the second last-second winner of his NFL career.
And just like that, the Packers were 12-0 on a day when they weren't as sharp as they've been most weeks. Among other things, Rodgers made perhaps only his second blatantly bad decision of the season and threw an interception right to linebacker Chase Blackburn that set up a short Giants touchdown drive in the second quarter. His teammates dropped at least six passes, including Finley's two.
The Packers also played defensively as they have much of the season by giving up big yards and making big plays, in this case giving up 447 yards but also getting linebacker Clay Matthews' 38-yard interception return for a touchdown that put them up 14-10. The difference between this game and most others, though, was the Packers failed to get the late stop that would have sealed the game.
"I definitely thinks it helps us in the long run," receiver Greg Jennings said. "We haven't had a game like this all year, down to the wire, last drive, it's pretty much on us, kind of do or die, because you never want to go to overtime and give them a chance, they had momentum, give them a chance to get the ball back and see what happens. It was a great overall win, tested our poise and resiliency."