It's time for the NFL's most efficient passer to throw the regular season out the window. "The hottest team in the playoffs," says Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, "is the one that's going to be the last one standing."
He can still feel the sizzle from last season. As a lowly No. 6 seed in the postseason, Green Bay caught fire and went on to defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers 31—25 for Rodgers' first Super Bowl ring. This year the Pack has the NFC's No. 1 seed. They will play the winner of Sunday's wild card game between the Atlanta Falcons and New York Giants next weekend in the Divisional round.
"If you look at the history of the NFC the last 10 years, there hasn't been a repeat Super Bowl attendee," Rodgers says. "That in itself shows you how difficult it is to just get back to the game." The Packers carried a six-game winning streak into the uncertainty of the 18-and-a-half-week NFL lockout. Once the season began, they went 13—0 before falling to the Kansas City Chiefs 19—14 on December 18. The next week, Rodgers, 28, had the first five-touchdown game of his career while walloping the Chicago Bears 35—21. And he did it behind a makeshift offensive line that's been decimated by injuries.
The banged-up line could be Green Bay's Achilles' heel, says NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth, who will call the Super Bowl (Feb. 5 at 6:30/5:30c, in Indianapolis). However, he adds, "I still think they're going to be the team to beat as long as Aaron Rodgers is standing upright and healthy and can throw the ball. The season he had has really been better than anything we've ever seen in the history of the game...that's saying a lot." Tom Brady's 2007 season with the New England Patriots was on par, Collinsworth says—maybe a little better in some statistics—but Rodgers and his receivers have made it look fun: "It's just a show."
Rodgers' signature is the "back shoulder throw" that frustrates defenders. "There's so much precision there," says Fox analyst Jimmy Johnson. En route to a 14—1 record at press time, Rodgers had thrown 45 touchdowns with only six interceptions due to "a strong desire to not throw the ball to the other team," says the former Cal-Berkeley quarterback, who replaced 1997 Super Bowl champ Brett Favre as the starter in 2008. Of the lingering comparisons, Rodgers says, "When you're compared to a future Hall of Famer, that's not a bad thing."
Green Bay's defense has not been quite as effective. "It has been suspect all year long," Johnson says, "but I think that's mainly because there's been no sense of urgency. They're depending on offense to score a lot of points. If pressed, their defense can play better."
Both Johnson and Collinsworth believe the New Orleans Saints, who have their own outstanding quarterback in Drew Brees, have the best chance of stopping the Packers. "Especially now that they've got a running game, they're going to put points on the board," Johnson says.
But with the No. 1 seed comes home-field advantage, meaning the Saints, who play at home in a dome, could potentially be marching into Mr. Rodgers' Neighborhood, Lambeau Field in wintry Wisconsin, for the NFC Championship (Jan. 22, 6:30/5:30c, on Fox). "I like to think that we can do some good things in what others would consider inclement weather," Rodgers says. "You almost enjoy snow knowing that it's not going to be as bad as rain would be, but just the cold itself is not going to keep us from throwing the football."
Especially not if you're hot.
This weekend's wild card playoff games:
Cincinnati Bengals at Houston Texans (Saturday, 4:30/3:30c, NBC)
Detroit Lions at New Orleans Saints (Saturday, 8/7c, NBC)
Atlanta Falcons at New York Giants (Sunday, 1/noon c, Fox)
Pittsburgh Steelers at Denver Broncos (Sunday, 4:30/3:30c, CBS)