They're hitting the road, but with Aaron Rodgers at the wheel they could drive all the way to XLV
Greg Jennings believes that Aaron Rodgers will one day accomplish the unimaginable. "He can be the first guy to go through a season without throwing an interception," says Jennings, Green Bay's fifth-year wideout. "He's that good. If there was a quarterback who could do it, it would be A-Rod."
Rodgers didn't have to be perfect in leading his team to its first back-to-back playoff appearances since 2003 and '04, but in his third year as a starter the Cal product had to carry a heavy load. He lost his No. 1 running back, Ryan Grant, to a season-ending ankle injury in Week 1. He lost his starting tight end, Jermichael Finley, to a season-ending knee injury in Week 5. He even lost playing time himself, sustaining two concussions that cost him a game, threatening his rhythm and Green Bay's playoff chances. Despite the setbacks, Rodgers has put up his usual winning numbers (3,922 yards, 28 TDs, a 101.2 rating) and kept Green Bay on the short list of Super Bowl contenders, even as the NFC's sixth seed.
While Rodgers's superior play has come to be expected, a crucial question facing the Packers as they head to Philly this week is whether they can run the ball and lure the Eagles' safeties closer to the line of scrimmage. Since losing Grant, Green Bay's running game has been choppy at best (Rodgers twice led the team in rushing), and Rodgers has faced tighter throwing windows than ever. Still, he has also made adjustments. During a key five-game stretch from Halloween to Dec. 5 he didn't throw an interception, and the Packers went 4--1.
"He can put the ball on a spot and back-shoulder a guy, but he's disciplined enough to take the check-down, which has been a big part of his development," says offensive coordinator Joe Philbin. "He'll take the completion, and when the opportunity presents itself, he has the confidence and the accuracy to make big-time throws."
Along with Rodgers, the Packers' defense has carried the team. In last year's 51--45 wild-card loss to Arizona, the 3--4 D was ripped apart. No one is doing that now, not with the emergence of second-year linebacker Clay Matthews III as a dominant pass rusher (13½ sacks), the consistent brilliance of veteran cornerback Charles Woodson, and the steady improvement of linebacker A.J. Hawk and cornerback Tramon Williams. Another year in Dom Capers's system has made the Pack more cohesive and dangerous. In a three-week stretch of victories over the Jets (9--0), Cowboys (45--7) and Vikings (31--3), the defense shut out a purported Super Bowl contender and helped get two head coaches fired.
A Super Bowl title? That might elevate Rodgers into the realm occupied by Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees. "Fundamentally sound and genetically gifted," Packers coach Mike McCarthy says of Rodgers. "He can make every throw in the book."
HOW TO BEAT THE PACKERS
There was a theme that opposing defenses followed in wins over the Packers: Stop the run, keep Aaron Rodgers in the pocket and in third-and-long situations, and eke out a victory. The Falcons, Bears and Dolphins followed that script. Many of Rodgers's best throws this season came when he was on the run. If pass rushers push too far upfield and lose sight of him, he'll make them pay.
Dom Capers's unit applies pressure and sows confusion; the Falcons and the Dolphins countered that strategy by slowing the game down and sticking to the run. In effect, those teams got physical with the Packers' D and offset Green Bay's blitzes with their ground games, which also kept them out of third-and-long.
How NFC sixth seeds have fared since 1990
0 Won Super Bowl
0 Lost Super Bowl
1 Lost conference championship game
9 Lost in divisional round
10 Lost in wild-card round
44 DECISIVE MOMENTS IN SUPER BOWL HISTORY GATEFOLD
ON THE BALL Despite a lack of run support, Rodgers completed 65% of his passes.