What began with a rookie’s legacy ended with the leg of a seasoned veteran.
Green Bay kicker Mason Crosby stole the show Sunday from first-year Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott, making two clutch field goals in the final two minutes to lift the Packers to a 34-31 divisional playoff victory before a stunned and sullen AT&T Stadium crowd.
The Packers are moving on to play at Atlanta in the NFC championship game — the Falcons handled Seattle, 36-20, on Saturday — and the dream season of the top-seeded Cowboys is over.
Meanwhile, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has another one for the scrapbook, directing a winning drive in the final 35 seconds, with the game ending on a 51-yard field goal by Crosby as the clock expired. The signature play of that drive was a scrambling 36-yard completion to Jared Cook on the sideline, a brilliant throw and an even better catch and toe-tap as the tight end fell out of bounds at the Dallas 32 with three seconds left, setting up the field goal.
“I feel confident any time I’m out there, game on the line or not,” Rodgers said. “But we’ve made those throws before in practice. It’s a matter of trusting your muscle memory and your training, and thinking about a positive picture when you break the huddle, and executing it right away.”
As for Crosby’s view? Well, he didn’t even watch the play to completion
“I didn’t get to see it, because as soon as [Rodgers] let that ball go, I started locking in,” said Crosby, in his 10th season. “I knew what was happening. If it was a catch, I knew I was going to have a chance.”
Not much surprises these Packers when it comes to Rodgers, who has led them to eight consecutive victories. He is so accurate, so cool under pressure, it looks like he should have a pint in his other hand as he’s effortlessly throwing those darts.
“Aaron called the play, man,” Cook said of his spectacular catch, which belongs in the do-not-erase folder in the DVR. “I just worked with him. I saw him rolling, and I knew if I got on top of the coverage that Aaron would put the ball in the right place. He put it right on the sideline with enough room for me to get my feet down. It was a heck of a throw by him rolling to his left.”
With that fantastic finish, the Packers shed the yoke of three consecutive heartbreaking playoff losses at the end of regulation or in overtime, to San Francisco, Seattle and Arizona.
“We weathered the storm,” Green Bay linebacker Clay Matthews said. “Fortunately, Aaron was Aaron, and made that play, and Mason knocked it through for us.”
For the Cowboys, the darlings of the 2017 season with rookies Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, a streak of futility continued. The storied franchise that advanced to 16 conference championship games in 30 seasons between 1966 and ’95 has gone 21 seasons since getting back to that final four.
“It was complete disappointment by every person involved here after the effort everybody put out there,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said of the somber pall in the home locker room. “This was a good group. I saw that in that second half out there, what we need to compete at that level that we’ve gotten to.”
Prescott came oh-so-close to pulling off a Cowboys classic. After his team fell behind by 18 points in the first half — having never trailed by more than 14 during the regular season — he threw a pair of touchdown passes in the fourth quarter to forge a 28-28 tie with 4:08 left.
The crowd of 93,396 swirled white Cowboys towels overhead and bellowed to the heavens. The teams traded field goals down the stretch, a 56-yarder by Crosby followed by a 52-yarder by Dan Bailey with 35 seconds left, setting up the fateful final drive.
“It was a great game all the way around,” Prescott said. “Just hate to be on the losing end. But these are games that I dreamed as a little kid of playing in. Plan on playing in many more of them.”
After six consecutive postseason blowouts, this game looked to be heading the same way at the end of the third quarter, as the Packers moved into Cowboys territory looking to build on a 28-13 lead.
But late in the third, an overthrown Rodgers pass was intercepted by a diving Jeff Heath at the 14 — the first time since Nov. 13 that the Green Bay quarterback had been picked off — and suddenly Dallas had a pulse again. The Cowboys turned that into a touchdown drive and were right back in the game.
Green Bay stalled on its next possession.
Then Prescott, who could have been elected mayor of Dallas in a landslide, directed another touchdown drive, capping it with a seven-yard pass to Dez Bryant. The rookie then tied the game with a two-point conversion, pushing his way across on a quarterback draw.
It didn’t help their pass defense, of course, that the Packers were without safety Morgan Burnett, who left the game in the first half with a quadriceps injury.
“Nobody flinched,” said fellow Packers defensive back Micah Hyde, who had a key interception of Prescott. “People stepped in. Young guys stepped in. We had some rookies out there making plays. . . . That’s just the adversity he have dealt with the whole season. It’s paying off in the long run.”
About an hour after the team buses had pulled out of the stadium, as lightning cracked overhead, a severe storm warning was issued — an omen, perhaps, with two powerful NFC systems due to collide in Atlanta.
Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer