Clutch plays put Packers one win from Super Bowl

Packers TE Jimmy Graham makes a game-sealing reception late in the fourth quarter of Sunday's 28-23 victory over the Seattle Seahawks
Packers TE Jimmy Graham makes a game-sealing reception late in the fourth quarter of Sunday's 28-23 victory over the Seattle Seahawks

GREEN BAY – The Packers have made big plays in big moments all season long, and they did so again to get back to the NFC title game.

Three plays in particular were vital in closing out the Seahawks, 28-23, in an NFC Divisional playoff on Sunday at Lambeau Field.

A sack by Preston Smith thwarted Seattle's last drive, and two pinpoint throws for third-down conversions by QB Aaron Rodgers helped kill the final two minutes, 32 seconds, as Green Bay hung on for yet another down-to-the-wire win.

"That was pretty indicative of our season right there," said Head Coach Matt LaFleur, whose team will travel to San Francisco to play for a berth in the Super Bowl next Sunday at 5:40 p.m. CT.

"We made the plays when we had to."

The first key one came with just over three minutes left. The Seahawks had scored touchdowns on their first three possessions of the second half, shrinking an 18-point deficit to just five.

But on third-and-5 from the Seattle 42, Smith flew around the edge to sack Seahawks QB Russell Wilson for a 6-yard loss, forcing a punt. Smith had exited the game on Seattle's previous possession, perhaps partly from exhaustion more than anything, but he came through with the stop the defense desperately needed.

"That was huge of him to be able to go back in there," LaFleur said. "He's an elite pass rusher, and he was able to get to the quarterback, and he was able to finish on the quarterback. The previous times in the game, we were there and we couldn't finish the tackles."

That's how Wilson (21-of-31, 277 yards, one TD, 106.5 passer rating) was bringing the Seahawks back, with his extended-play, improvisational magic. The Packers sacked him five times in all, but he ducked out of countless others and had Green Bay's defense on its heels with the three straight TD drives after halftime.

Meanwhile, the Packers' offense had answered the first of those second-half TDs with one of its own but managed just two first downs over the next two possessions, with no points.

The Smith sack and subsequent punt, a touchback, put the ball on the 20 with 2:32 left, and Rodgers executed two superb third downs.

First, on third-and-8 from the 22, he lofted a pass down the right sideline for receiver Davante Adams, who hauled it in for a 32-yard gain. Three snaps later, the first play on the other side of the two-minute warning, he found tight end Jimmy Graham on a crossing route on third-and-9 to seal the win.

"It's a special feeling," said Rodgers, who finished 16-of-27 for 243 yards, two TDs (both to Adams) and a 113.7 rating. "That's what we talked about in the huddle before that last drive – these are the moments that you work for and think about in the offseason, a chance to put the game away.

"I know there's a lot of talk about the aesthetics of our wins, and it doesn't have to be pretty, but what we've done is closed out wins the right way."

The two late conversions pushed the Packers to 9-of-14 on third down in the game, their best situational performance of the season.

Rodgers said Adams made a great route adjustment on the first one, and then he had to stand in the pocket and take a shot on the second one. The spot of Graham's reception was reviewed extensively to see if he actually got the first down, and there was no definitive angle to change the call on the field. The first down stood, and the Packers kneeled out the victory.

"I didn't exactly see where he ended up," Rodgers said. "We got hosed on that first-quarter one. I was hoping we didn't get hosed again."

The earlier play Rodgers referred to was an apparent turnover on Seattle's first offensive play, when tight end Jacob Hollister was ruled down when the ball came out at the end of a reception. LaFleur challenged the play and it was ruled a fumble, but the officials said there was no "clear recovery" by the Packers to make it a turnover, even though cornerback Chandon Sullivan had the ball.

Despite the tough break, the Packers still took a 21-3 lead into halftime and were ahead 28-10 midway through the third quarter on the strength of two touchdowns apiece by running back Aaron Jones (21 carries, 62 yards) and Adams.

Lambeau Field hosted an NFC Divisional playoff game between the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks.

The big third-down catch late boosted Adams' totals to eight receptions for 160 yards, the latter a franchise single-game postseason record, one more yard than Jermichael Finley had in the 2009 wild-card game at Arizona.

It was a monster performance among many for the Packers, who also got three catches for 49 yards from Graham, two sacks each from Za'Darius and Preston Smith, and a yeoman's effort from veteran offensive lineman Jared Veldheer.

The late-season pickup, who came out of retirement to join the Packers, was a last-minute substitute for right tackle Bryan Bulaga, who got bit Sunday morning by the flu bug that had been going around the locker room lately. Bulaga tapped himself out during warmups when he realized he couldn't go, and Veldheer held his own on the edge as Rodgers was sacked just twice.

"It took everybody's best effort," LaFleur said. "It's how we've found a way all year long. All that matters is you come out on top in the end. Our guys continue to find a way in those high-pressure situations."

And now they're one game away from the Super Bowl.

"This is where it gets really fun," Rodgers said. "There are four teams left, we're one of them, and we've got a legitimate chance."