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The plan against Aaron Rodgers was battle-tested shortly before the 2010 playoffs started. The Atlanta Falcons kept Rodgers under control in the regular season, containing the Packers offense during a 20-17 victory six weeks prior to their rematch in the postseason.
Sure, this would be tough, the Falcons figured, but not impossible. Put in the same game plan, play better on offense and victory would be theirs.
Not so much.
"He knew everything we were doing and he was three steps ahead of us," Falcons coach Mike Smith said in looking back at the 48-21 loss. "When you look at the game film, it wasn't that we played that badly. Aaron took it to this next level."
Or as Rodgers put it, simply: "They played the exact same defense."
The San Francisco 49ers, who opened the season with a 30-22 victory in Green Bay, would be wise to consider that situation as they get ready to host Rodgers and Green Bay on Saturday night in the second round of the NFC playoffs at Candlestick Park.
"If there's one problem with the 49ers, it's that they're not multiple enough on defense," said former NFL quarterback and ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer, who as a Northern California native, Bay Area resident and former 49ers player is a thinly veiled 49ers fan. "The defense they were in the first week of the season is the same defense they are now. Don't get me wrong, they're great, but it's the same looks."
Meanwhile, Rodgers is in the midst of one of the greatest quarterback runs in the history of the NFL. In his first five seasons as a starter, Rodgers has compiled a quarterback rating of 100.0 or better in the past four, including an NFL-record 122.5 in 2011 and 108.0 this season.
For comparison, four-time league MVP Peyton Manning has four seasons of a 100 or better rating … in his career. Two-time MVP Tom Brady has three.
Just as impressively, if not subtly, Rodgers is working on an incredible streak of minimizing mistakes. He has not thrown more than one interception in a game since the 2010 NFC championship game at Chicago. That's a streak of 34 consecutive games, playoffs included, starting with the Super Bowl against Pittsburgh that year.
If you include only regular-season games, the streak is actually 39. Either way, it's the longest streak since the beginning of the Super Bowl era, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The next longest streak had been 27 by Neil O'Donnell.
But here's where that streak gets real perspective. Of the five other quarterbacks to win a Super Bowl over the past nine years (Brady, Manning, Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Drew Brees), none of them has ever gone even a full season without throwing more than one interception in a game. Roethlisberger did it in his suspension-shortened 2010 season in which he missed four games and had an overall streak of 18 games from '09 through the '10 playoffs.
Rodgers, in contrast, is essentially at two full seasons and counting.
"There are four ways a quarterback can beat you," Dilfer said. "He can beat you with his brain by knowing better where the defense is going to be. He can beat you with his release, by getting the ball there faster than the defense can react. He can beat you with location by being so accurate that your guy is the only one who can catch it. Or he can beat you with his feet by extending the play until the defense breaks down.
"Aaron is the only guy in the league who can do all four things. He's the best quarterback in the league and I don't think it's even close. He has the most dimensions to his game. Don't get me wrong. Peyton and Tom are awesome, but Aaron is the most dominant of all of them."
The importance of that combination of talents is critical in this regard: Trying to defend Rodgers in one way all the time is dangerous because he has the ability to quickly adapt.
"He may have trouble with a certain look from time to time," Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy said. "That's natural. You throw something at somebody that they're not expecting and they're going to hesitate a little. But Aaron is going to dissect it pretty fast and figure it out."
Atlanta in 2010 is the prime example. Rodgers went from having a good game against the Falcons (26-of-35 for 344 yards, one touchdown and zero interceptions) in a loss to having a great one (31-of-36 for 366 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions) in the playoff rout.
"He was ready for everything we did," Smith said. "We'd rush and he'd step out of the way and kill us. We played soft and he threw it quick to the exact right guy. He was a machine."
After dispatching Minnesota in last weekend's wild-card matchup, Rodgers considered the question of how it might work out to once again face a team he'd lost to earlier in the season.
"Defenses take awhile to figure out their identity over a season, how they like to play in certain situations, what personnel they use at given times," Rodgers said. "What helped with Atlanta is that we played them pretty recently that season [in 2010] and came back against them and they really hadn't changed much in personnel. We'll see what the 49ers are at this point. It's been awhile."
The 49ers did a solid job of taking away the Packers' running game (45 yards allowed) in the opener at Green Bay and keeping Rodgers (30-of-44, 303 yards, two touchdowns, one interception) under control.
The tendency would be to believe that by now playing host to the Packers, the 49ers would only add to their advantage. Playing the same defense might seem prudent, if not even smart.
"It's easy to convince yourself of that," Dilfer said. "But it's deadly."
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