PHILADELPHIA – Aaron Rodgers(notes) began his stint as the Green Bay Packers' starting quarterback amid a storm of skepticism, at one point being informed that he sucked during a training camp practice – by a 6-year-old.
Rodgers, even as he has developed into a bona-fide star, has largely been defined during his three seasons in the Frozen Tundra Hot Seat as legendary passer Brett Favre's(notes) successor by his perceived shortcomings, perpetually praised in a "Yeah, but …" kind of way.
On Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field, in a taut first-round playoff game against a tough opponent with a potent quarterback of its own, Rodgers took another huge step out of Favre's shadow and into the figurative arms of Packer Nation. In leading the sixth-seeded Pack to a 21-16 victory over Michael Vick(notes) and the third-seeded, NFC East-champion Eagles, Rodgers recorded his first career postseason victory and whisked a few more perfect spirals into the windpipes of his remaining detractors.
More than an hour after Sunday's triumph, as he stopped for a security screening in the cold, dark bowels of The Linc before boarding the Packers' team bus, Rodgers correctly pointed out that no one man has ever single-handedly won a playoff game. In this case, a stunning 123-yard performance by untested rookie halfback James Starks(notes) and a brilliant defensive effort capped by cornerback Tramon Williams'(notes) end-zone interception of a Vick pass with 33 seconds remaining underscored that message.
"It's always something," he said. "The first year, they said I was injury-prone. The second year, I held onto the ball too long. This year it was, 'He can't win a playoff game.' I'm sure some people still have their checklists, but I've kind of put those three to bed."
Though Rodgers didn't put up the eye-catching numbers that have typified his terrific 2010 season, he and his teammates will sleep soundly this week as they prepare to face a Falcons team that narrowly defeated them in the Georgia Dome six weeks ago. In that 20-17 Atlanta victory, Rodgers summoned a sensational effort despite Green Bay's complete absence of a ground game – and Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy didn't even bother trying to create the illusion of balance.
The following week Starks, who'd spent the entire season on the physically unable to perform list while recovering from a hamstring injury (after having sat out his senior campaign at the University of Buffalo because of a shoulder ailment), made his debut in a victory over the San Francisco 49ers, gaining 73 yards on 18 carries. However, his lack of preparation in practice limited him to just 11 carries over the regular season's final four games, making Sunday's breakout effort all the more improbable.
"The guy had the game of his life," Rodgers said of Starks. "When the line is opening up holes and James is running it like that, it takes a lot of pressure off of me."
Or as wideout Greg Jennings(notes) put it in the Packers' locker room, his eyes getting big: "If we can run it – oh my gosh. It opens up a lot of things, obviously. If we can establish a run and keep it going for 60 minutes, with the way our defense is playing, we're a team that can't be beat."
Though they finished a somewhat disappointing 10-6 and needed home victories over the New York Giants and Chicago Bears in the final two games to sneak into the postseason, the Packers have good reason to consider themselves a legitimate title contender.
Their defense, led by All-Pro outside linebacker Clay Matthews(notes) and the vastly underrated Williams, is playing at a championship-caliber level. That wasn't the case a year ago, when the Pack was repeatedly torched by Kurt Warner(notes) in a 51-45 first-round playoff defeat to the Arizona Cardinals, wasting a sublime comeback performance from Rodgers in his postseason debut.
Equally important is the fact the 2010 Packers have demonstrated an uncanny ability to overcome adversity. No team has suffered as many significant injuries as Green Bay, which lost starting halfback Ryan Grant(notes) in the season-opening victory over the Eagles at The Linc – the game in which Vick commenced his stunning professional rebirth – and ended up with 15 players on injured reserve, including talented tight end Jermichael Finley(notes), fiery inside linebacker Nick Barnett(notes) and three other starters.
"I think it's made us stronger," veteran cornerback Charles Woodson(notes) said. "We've had to overcome a lot, and a lot of different guys have had to step up. And when you get contributions from so many people, that's what makes you a complete team."
Said Rodgers: "This was a team victory. It was very fulfilling. The thing I love about this team is that there are a number of guys who were not counted on to do anything, and they've been put in positions where they have to contribute. And they've come through. And it's made us stronger – no doubt about it. We have a lot of very hungry guys, guys who have been cut, who've been inactive on game day, who've been backups, playing big roles for us."
The starting quarterback, of course, has played the starring role. He completed 65.7 percent of his passes during the regular season, throwing for 3,922 yards and 28 touchdowns, with only 11 interceptions. His 101.2 passer rating was hardly a fluke; he's currently the highest-rated passer in NFL history with a 97.2 career mark.
On Sunday, Rodgers (18 for 27, 180 yards, three TDs, no interceptions) had his entire skill set on display, showcasing his strong arm on a variety of throws, sliding away from pressure in the pocket to keep plays alive and spreading the ball to nine receivers. He sold his first touchdown pass, a seven-yarder to backup tight end Tom (Don't Call Me Michael) Crabtree late in the first quarter, with a wicked play fake to running back John Kuhn(notes). On his second scoring toss, which gave Green Bay a 14-0 lead with 5:21 left in the first half, Rodgers rolled to his right and perfectly placed his low pass to wideout James Jones(notes) in the front right corner of the end zone.
After Vick drove the Eagles into position for David Akers'(notes) 29-yard field goal, Rodgers threw a glorious deep ball to Jones down the right sideline that should have staked the Packers to an 18-point halftime lead, but the receiver dropped it as cornerback Asante Samuel(notes) gave futile pursuit.
The quarterback's lone miscue – a fumble at his own 19-yard line after being sacked by defensive end Darryl Tapp(notes) on the third play of the third quarter – set up Vick's 24-yard TD strike to Jason Avant(notes). Rodgers, however, atoned by driving Green Bay 80 yards on 11 plays, ending with a well-executed screen that halfback Brandon Jackson(notes) patiently turned into a 16-yard touchdown reception.
Those were the Pack's last points, however, and when Vick scored on a one-yard sneak with 4:02 remaining, then got the ball at his 34 with 1:45 to go, Rodgers stood on the sidelines with a pit in his stomach like everyone else in Packer Nation.
Lose this game, and Rodgers would've been subjected to at least another year's worth of rebuke from the Favre-o-philes who've never considered him worthy of his legendary predecessor's legacy.
Rodgers had to hear all about it in 2008 when, despite putting up big numbers in his first season as a starter, the Pack went 6-10 and lost a maddening succession of close games. In '09 he played even better but suffered the indignity of two heartbreaking defeats to the rival Minnesota Vikings, the team Favre had joined after a single season with the New York Jets. The fact that Favre put up near-MVP numbers and brought the Vikes to the brink of a conference championship further empowered the anti-Rodgers crowd.
This season, Rodgers got the upper hand: Favre and the Vikings endured a nightmarish unraveling, and the Packers swept Minnesota. And while Rodgers was surprisingly left off the NFC's Pro Bowl roster, another Green Bay player who fits that description – Williams, a fourth-year cornerback who is quietly one of the league's best – made sure the Pack's Super Bowl dreams survived past Sunday:
On first-and-10 from the Green Bay 27, Vick lofted a high pass for wideout Riley Cooper(notes) in the left corner of the end zone, and Williams leapt in front of him to intercept it and give his quarterback a final, sweet kneel-down to end the game.
When Rodgers, now 1-1 in the postseason, reached his locker after showering, Jennings yelled sarcastically, "Heeeyyyyy, first playoff win! It's about time! What's it been, like, 10 years?"
Later, in regard to the same subject, McCarthy said, "Why don't we wait till the guy's done playing? We're just getting started. He's going to be doing this for another decade.
"I think he's special. I don't know how much credit he gets, but it's not enough. He has total command. If there's something we don't do, it ain't because of Aaron Rodgers."
Whatever Rodgers does in Atlanta next Saturday, and perhaps in the NFC championship game and Super Bowl, the chill he once experienced in Titletown seems to have thawed irrevocably. Last Monday morning, after the regular-season-ending victory over the NFC North champion Bears that put Green Bay into the playoffs, Rodgers went out to breakfast with his friend and fellow Cal alum Adam Duritz, and a middle-aged woman came by the table to ask for an autograph.
Rodgers pointed to Duritz, the lead singer for Counting Crows, and told the woman, "You should ask for his autograph. He's a rock star, man. He's much bigger than me."
Duritz shook his head, his trademark dreadlocks covering up a smile, and said, "Not in this town."
Especially not after Sunday, when Rodgers got his first taste of postseason success. And while it might not have been as momentous for the quarterback as his critics made it out to be, it definitely didn't suck.
THE HIGH FIVE …
• When I sat down with Marshawn Lynch in San Francisco last May, he talked about putting his past problems behind him and trying to carve out a fruitful future. With one furious, relentless and epic 67-yard touchdown run that clinched the Seattle Seahawks' stunning 41-36 upset of the defending champion New Orleans Saints at Qwest Field Saturday night, Lynch did all of that – simultaneously validating the October trade that pried him from the Buffalo Bills and providing fans with a signature moment for which he'll now be known. To mature viewers, Lynch looked a lot like Hall of Famer Earl Campbell, which is not a sentence I write cavalierly. To those of who watched him closely at Cal – and to Rodgers, his former college teammate – he looked a lot like he did in leading the Bears to a blowout victory over Stanford in 2004. "Only there were more broken tackles on this one," Rodgers said.
• What a huge, redemptive moment for Matt Hasselbeck, who threw for 272 yards and four touchdowns in Seattle's victory: The 35-year-old struggled through a lousy season, and when I visited the team's facility late last month, there were locker-room rumblings that he might not have been fighting as hard as he should have to play through a muscle injury to his rear/hip area suffered in a Week 16 defeat to the Bucs. Hasselbeck, who stood on the sidelines and watched backup Charlie Whitehurst lead the Seahawks into the playoffs with a season-ending victory over the Rams, returned against the Saints to start what many assumed was his final game at Qwest Field, given his age and the fact that his contract expires after this season. That may well be the case – and if so, at least he went out on a resounding note – but I have to believe that Saturday's performance will make coach Pete Carroll think about bringing Hasselbeck back.
• As for the NFC West team that expected to host a first-round game as division champs, the 49ers were awash in the afterglow of Jim Harbaugh's hiring as head coach Friday, an impressive achievement for owner Jed York and his newly promoted general manager, Trent Baalke. Given the frenzied attempts of the Miami Dolphins and University of Michigan to hire Harbaugh – both offered him more than the $25 million over five years he received from the 49ers, according to a source familiar with the process – and Stanford's attempts to convince him to stay following star quarterback Andrew Luck's surprising announcement Thursday that he'll put off the NFL draft and return for the 2011 season, this was cause for celebration. Now all Harbaugh has to do is make the transition to coaching in the NFL, find and develop a quarterback and break a playoff drought that dates back to 2002, and he'll be worth every penny. In the meantime, my three-word reaction to the delicious notion of former Pac-10 rivals Harbaugh and Carroll going at it twice a year: What's your deal?
• As much as the Baltimore Ravens worried me at times this season, they cranked up their collective game to a much higher level for Sunday's playoff opener, rolling to a 30-7 victory over the AFC West-champion Chiefs in Kansas City. They are absolutely a threat to win it all, though Saturday's showdown with their AFC North rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers, at Heinz Field will be a physically taxing battle that will take a toll on the winner. In forcing five turnovers and holding the Chiefs to just 25 second-half yards, the Ravens' defense was driven by its fiercest and most accomplished players: middle linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed. Playing two days after his younger brother was believed to have disappeared in the Mississippi River while attempting to elude police, Reed was presented with a game ball in an emotional locker room after the win. Make no mistake: If Baltimore loses in Pittsburgh, or at any point in the postseason, it won't be for lack of passion.
• I know Vick threw a pick to end the Eagles' season, and he struggled in the December defeat to the Vikings that killed Philly's chance for a first-round bye, but anyone who tries to paint Sunday's defeat as a failure is totally off-base. For one thing, even without top weapon DeSean Jackson for a decent portion of the game, he was pretty damned good against a tough defense. Secondly, and more important, the man was responsible for one of the more stunning and remarkable comeback stories I've witnessed in pro sports, one that captivated opponents like Rodgers and Woodson (who told me, "To come back after everything he's been through, to put his team in the playoffs and play the way he has, it's remarkable. He's a strong guy") and, for the most part, every athlete with whom I've discussed it for the past several months. Look for Vick to finish second to Tom Brady in the MVP voting, to be the Pro Bowl MVP (Might as well!! he wrote via text early Monday morning) and to continue performing at an insanely high level for Philly in 2011 and beyond.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. The attempted assassination of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the killing of six others (including the 9-year-old granddaughter of former Philadelphia Phillies manager Dallas Green) at a political event outside a Tucson supermarket on Saturday. In a culture with increasingly vitriolic partisan rhetoric – including former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's placing of Giffords in crosshair targets on a map she posted on her Facebook page – this was a terrifying reminder that our society is in need of a heavy dose of decency and perspective. Instead of arguing about whether there's a basis for claiming a correlation, I hope that we'll all take a step back and consider toning down the inflammatory extremism and address our disagreements with grace and mutual respect. And I ask that you join me in extending thoughts and prayers to the victims and their families.
2. What Colts coach Jim Caldwell was thinking when he called timeout with 29 seconds remaining and his team clinging to a two-point lead over the Jets in Saturday night's first-round game at Lucas Oil Stadium. LaDainian Tomlinson had just run two yards to the Indy 32-yard line, meaning kicker Nick Folk (5-of-11 on attempts of 40 yards or more in 2010) was staring at a 50-yard field goal if New York failed to advance the ball. After the timeout, the Jets regrouped, quarterback Mark Sanchez connected with Braylon Edwards on an 18-yard pass, and Folk drilled a 32-yarder as time expired for a 17-16 victory and a rematch with the Pats in Foxborough next Sunday. Caldwell is a smart man who has done a commendable job in his two seasons as Tony Dungy's successor, but his postgame explanation – "I didn't care … Make them snap the ball. They were in field-goal range" – was nonsensical. Throw in star wideout Reggie Wayne's legitimate beef that he was targeted only once in the game, and thus left stranded on Revis Island, and Caldwell should probably do some self-evaluating over the offseason.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
Given his obsession with celebrity, glitz and branding, how ridiculous is Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross’ explanation that, in making an unsuccessful run at Harbaugh last week, “I never thought it would be national news”? Riiiiiiiigggghhhhtttt. Next we’ll hear that when minority owner Jennifer Lopez attends a game at Sun Life Stadium, Ross is stunned that numerous fans stare at her derriere. If Ross is merely “naïve,” which was his contention to reporters on Saturday, that’s a troubling sign for the franchise. I suspect, however, that he knew exactly how much he was disrespecting coach Tony Sparano as he flew to California to meet with Harbaugh (after reportedly having put out feelers toward Bill Cowher through a third party), and that he didn’t bother to consider the consequences. And that would also be a troubling sign. Either way, there was Ross on Saturday at the team’s training facility, sitting at a table with Sparano and general manager Jeff Ireland (who reportedly had been on-board with a potential coaching change), trying to convince us that he’s firmly in his coach’s corner. Awkward. Though the owner tried to make it up to Sparano with a contract extension through 2013, I expect that Ross’ wandering eye will return at the first sign of a team struggle next season, and it’s going to be very tough for the coach to command authority in the locker room or to repair his working relationship with Ireland.
Meanwhile, beyond bringing celebs into his ownership group, does Ross have a realistic plan for success? Uh, negative. Example: Had he successfully wooed Harbaugh, what would Ross have done about the Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate for coaching vacancies? Since Sparano hadn’t actually been fired, and since the news of his Harbaugh pursuit had leaked so conspicuously (and even nationally), wouldn’t Ross have had a hard time convincing a minority coach to sit through a sham of an interview, given that the coach would know that he was a pawn? And while we’re on the subject of the Rooney Rule, which I’ve always supported in principle but which has created some maddening circumstances in recent years, did you see what went down in Dallas this weekend? Before announcing that interim coach Jason Garrett had been signed to a four-year deal on Thursday, owner Jerry Jones interviewed two minority candidates, including Ray Sherman, the Cowboys’ receivers coach since 2007. Sherman’s reward for doing his boss a solid? He’s history. Maybe he forgot to brush his teeth before the interview, or he addressed Jones as “Jimmy.” Uh, yeah. Even Ross isn’t naïve enough to buy that.
TEXT/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"Yes we goin c them"
– Text Sunday night from Lynch, noting former Cal teammate Rodgers' performance and anticipating a possible NFC championship game meeting with the Packers.
"Here we go"
– Text Sunday afternoon from Ray Lewis.
– Text Saturday night from Seahawks safety Lawyer Milloy.
- Green Bay