A good thing to do is to listen to Aaron Rodgers.
Two years ago, amid a slow start, he urged Green Bay fans to “R-E-L-A-X,” and then the Packers went and won the division and made it to within a fluky disaster of the Super Bowl. This season, back when the Packers had lost four straight, were 4-6, and were trailing two different teams in the NFC North, Rodgers said, “I feel like we can run the table.” Well, the Packers ran the table, winning six straight, including games over three eventual playoff teams. And now the division is theirs.
“That’s what you have to do sometimes as a leader,” Rodgers said. “You have to exude confidence, even in a situation where it seems to the outside world that confidence shouldn’t exist. That’s kind of what I did. I believed in myself and my abilities, but I also believed in this team. This wasn’t a shot in the dark. It was an optimistic belief in my teammates that we were going to start handling adversity better.”
It was a team accomplishment; these things necessarily are. (Mike McCarthy became just the fourth coach in NFL history to make the playoffs eight straight years with the same team, following Tom Landry, Chuck Noll, and Bill Belichick.) But it’s hard to heap enough individual praise on Rodgers, who led the league in touchdown passes for the first time in his career. Over the 6-0 run to close the season, Rodgers threw 15 TDs, and not a single interception.
He put up four of those TDs last night, in a 31-24 win in Detroit that lost some of its stakes before kickoff, when Washington burped up the second wild card spot and clinched the playoffs for both NFC North teams. But the division and home-field advantage in the wild-card round were still on the line, and Rodgers was masterful, never more so than on this fourth-quarter scramble and strike to Geronimo Allison.
That’s the quintessential Rodgers play. He’s willing to bail out of the pocket earlier than most other QBs, some of whom would rather throw the ball away, or force a throw and court disaster. But Rodgers likes to move before his protection breaks down completely, ideally to reset, but he’s content throwing off-balance—and his arm strength and accuracy don’t seem to suffer for it. (This might be the most perfect pass I’ve ever seen; this is close; both throws came from less-than-ideal angles.)
You’d never draw up a broken play like the TD to Allison last night, but I can’t think of anything more impossible to defend than a five-wide set, with those five receivers getting nearly nine seconds for one of them to wriggle open. Allison eventually got a step on his defender, and Rodgers put the ball—as he so consistently does—where only his receiver could reach it.
“I just saw Geronimo,” Rodgers said, “and tried to put it in a place where he could make a good catch. I didn’t see the catch. I was on my back. I just looked to the sideline – our sideline – and I could tell he caught it. So it must’ve been a good catch.”
For their victory, the Packers get a home date with the Giants, their familiar playoff nemesis. In 2007 and 2011 the Giants rolled through Green Bay en route to championships, knocking off favored Packers teams each time. While those Giants terrorized the Packers with incredible pass rushes, especially from their front four, this year’s Giants are a little different. They’re still carried by their D, but their real strengths are their run defense and their secondary. Aaron Rodgers should get a real challenge, but he should also have some time to make things happen.