LET US BEGIN ... TO ENUMERATE THE WAYS IN WHICH AARON RODGERS HAS BEGUN TO ENTER THE G.O.A.T. DISCUSSION THIS POSTSEASON
AARON RODGERS just sat there, unmoved and unruffled, as AT&T Stadium descended into chaos around him on Sunday night. Phones pinged with flash-flood and tornado warnings. Fans took shelter and scrambled for their cars. Thunder boomed. Rain came in torrents. Meanwhile, inside the visitors' locker room, cameramen dashed from stall to stall while Drake rapped through the speakers about greatness and Packers players responded to questions about their quarterback in a manner that seemed to mirror the lyrics: If I die, all I know is I'm a motherf------ legend....
That legend, Rodgers, had returned to Jerry Jones's football palace for the first time since he hoisted the Lombardi Trophy after Super Bowl XLV, six years ago, and he watched the locker room scene with an expression that appeared somewhere between disinterested and bemused. With a signal-caller who defies easy description, we are left to call him "Mr. I Feel Like We Can Run the Table"—which is what Rodgers predicted eight victories ago, adding prognosticator to his résumé, next to Jeopardy! champion and league MVP.
Behind the 33-year-old Rodgers, Green Bay's pregame schedule hung on the wall, color coded in green and gold:
3:39 PLAYERS TAKE THE FIELD
3:40 KICKOFF—BEAT THE COWBOYS
Apparently this franchise is football's psychic hotline, a team that speaks, writes and wills events into existence. On the road without their No. 1 receiver—the injured Jordy Nelson (ribs)—against the top-seeded and favored Cowboys, the Packers jumped out to an 18-point lead on Sunday and withstood a furious rally to advance to the NFC championship against the Falcons with a 34--31 victory.
Afterward players fielded questions about destiny and luck, which was rich, really, given that their last three campaigns ended in epic postseason defeats. Let us not forget the overtime soul-crusher against the Cardinals last season, the improbable 16-point comeback by the Seahawks in 2015, or the last-second field goal by the 49ers one year before that.
As Dallas stormed back in the fourth quarter on Sunday, Green Bay president Mark Murphy admits he couldn't help but think, Oh, no, not again. Still, he had Rodgers. After Cowboys kicker Dan Bailey's 52-yard field goal tied the game at 31 with 35 seconds left, the QB thought: Too much time left. Too much for the Cowboys, anyway.
The Packers started the ensuing drive at their own 25-yard line and in the huddle, says wideout Davante Adams, Rodgers exuded calm. But the quarterback says he was concentrating on his breathing, "trying to steady that." After four plays netted only seven yards, Rodgers did what Rodgers does, scrambling from pressure, throwing on the move and delivering a football into a window, 36 yards downfield, the size of an iPad. Tight end Jared Cook snared the impeccably placed laser and stabbed both feet inbounds with three seconds showing on the clock. He wasn't Rodgers's first option on the play, but, as Cook mused later, "With 12, anything can happen."
Moments later Mason Crosby knuckled the winning 51-yarder through the uprights, the ball wobbling left, then drifting back between the goalposts like a fade in golf. In the locker room Crosby called the kick "special," as a priest patted him on the back.
Those 35 divine seconds were a microcosm of a Packers postseason in which, a week earlier against the Giants, Rodgers had connected on a Hail Mary pass, his third in 13 months. After the game on Sunday someone asked Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy how it feels to have a QB savant on his side when hearts are palpitating and magic is required. "It feels great," he said. "Feels good in the first quarter too."
From the Packers' last loss, on Nov. 20 against the Redskins, until the third quarter against the Cowboys, Rodgers went more than 522 game minutes without throwing an interception. He tossed 24 touchdowns in that stretch, the second most in NFL history without a pick, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, after Tom Brady's 26 straight in 2010.
Writers, haters and panicky Packers fans may have buried Rodgers after that loss to Washington, when Green Bay fell to 4--6. But Rodgers & Co. did run the table, and on Sunday, Jerry Jones said he'd never seen "an individual dictate how [a] game came out" like Rodgers had against his Cowboys. Dallas coach Jason Garrett chimed in, saying Rodgers will go down as "one of the top three quarterbacks to ever lace them up."
Rodgers is a football historian who plays for a historic franchise on the cusp of another historic season. He has sought advice from an astronaut, Mark Kelly (about the trajectory of a Hail Mary pass, among other things); he makes what he calls "quick mathematical equations" on the field in a split second; he devours books each off-season. One year he dived into the concept of "earthing," whose devotees find health by connecting to the planet's natural energy. Or something.
The Packers are pinning their winning streak on maintaining an energy—natural, earthbound or otherwise—that started with Rodgers's postgame missive about running the table. His backup, Brett Hundley, was taking a shower at the time. Ten minutes and some soap and water later, Hundley recalls, that one sentence was national news.
For Rodgers's prognostication to come true, Cook needed to return from a high-ankle sprain in Week 11; Ty Montgomery needed to switch from receiver to running back, juicing the ground game (the Dallas native scored twice against the Cowboys); and Rodgers needed to turn predictions into touchdowns. "We're getting to the point," pass rush specialist Julius Peppers said on Sunday, "where we feel unstoppable."
Inside the Packers' locker room last week, Cook tried to explain why, after seven seasons with the Titans and the Rams, he walked into his new place of employment on Day One and felt an entirely different vibe. Maybe, he ventured, strolling past all those trophies, banners and retired jerseys on the way into the office—maybe that affects a man. Perhaps outsized expectations help a locker room retain its focus. Whatever it is, the last few months have crystallized for Cook why, in a league noted for parity, some teams—the Patriots, the Steelers, the Packers—always seem to be in the playoff mix.
That's not an accident, Cook said as he shrugged and then turned toward a more obvious explanation for his team's sustained success. "Look, man, we've got number 12," he said. "I don't know what other explanation you need."
JAN. 22; 3:05 P.M. ET
PACKERS AT FALCONS
GREG A. BEDARD PICKS THE NFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
HERE'S HOPING the Georgia Dome's scoreboard operator has a strong button-pushing finger; it's going to get one last rigorous workout when the NFL's No. 1 scoring offense (33.8 points per game) hosts No. 4 (27.0). Both offenses have actually been even better in the postseason (exactly 36.0 apiece), and each defense ranked among the league's bottom half in points allowed. Much like their Week 8 meeting at the same venue (33--32, Atlanta), this one will come down to, Which defense can force the most punts? But the conditions aren't entirely the same. Packers linebacker Clay Matthews missed that game with a hamstring injury; his presence on Sunday alongside Mike Daniels, Nick Perry and Julius Peppers means the Packers have more play disrupters on defense. (Also missing in Round 1: Randall Cobb, Jared Cook and Ty Montgomery.) The Falcons' edge rushers, Vic Beasley and Dwight Freeney, will have a much more difficult assignment, trying to evade Green Bay's excellent pass protection while affecting the unaffectable, scorching Aaron Rodgers, who frustrated Atlanta in October with 60 yards on scrambles. One injury to watch this time: Falcons receiver Julio Jones (toe) did not look like himself against the Seahawks last Saturday, and he'd be a far bigger loss than Jordy Nelson would be to the Packers. (As of Monday, Nelson was hopeful about playing through broken ribs.) Atlanta offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan will bring a strong game plan, likely one that has Matt Ryan (left) exploiting the Packers' inside linebackers, who are weak in coverage, while attacking the voids in the deep zones. But Rodgers is in such a groove right now, it's difficult to see a middling defense like the Falcons' getting enough stops.
Packers 38, Falcons 32