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GLENDALE, Ariz. – Aaron Rodgers(notes) walked up to the line of scrimmage, his back to the end zone, as most of the 61,926 fans at University of Phoenix Stadium screamed for his demise. Less than six minutes into his first career playoff start, the Green Bay Packers quarterback was living a nightmare.
Thanks to a Rodgers interception, a Donald Driver(notes) fumble and the pinpoint brilliance of Kurt Warner(notes), his Arizona Cardinals counterpart, the Packers already trailed by 14 points as they began their third drive on their own 8-yard-line. The clock read 9:11 – and in a strictly football sense, Sunday's opening sequence was indeed a calamity in the making.
"I was so disappointed," Rodgers said four hours later as he walked to the Packers' team bus following a 51-45 overtime defeat to the Cardinals in the first round of the NFC playoffs – one of the most thrilling postseason games in NFL history. "It was uncharacteristic of the way we played all season; we'd done such a good job of taking care of the ball. It was a terrible start, but we knew we couldn't dwell on it. We had to just keep fighting and find a way to stay in the game."
What Rodgers did over the next few hours was the stuff of which Titletown legends are made. His cool, gritty performance cemented the first-time Pro Bowl selection as one of the league's emerging stars and, once and for all, validated the Packers' decision to stake the franchise's immediate future on the young passer as the Brett Favre(notes) era reached a tumultuous end. In an effort that was equal parts inspirational and sensational, Rodgers led the Pack back from deficits of 17-0 and 31-10 to push Green Bay to the brink of an epic victory.
In his 33rd career start, the fifth-year veteran looked like a wily old pro, completing 28 of 42 passes for 422 yards and four touchdowns. He led the Packers on three fourth-quarter scoring drives, finally tying the game at 38-38 with 10:57 remaining and forcing overtime with an 11-yard scoring pass to tight end Spencer Havner(notes).
Rodgers was a foot or two away from winning the game on the first play of OT, overthrowing Greg Jennings(notes) on a deep ball. Two plays later, Rodgers lost the football on a hit from blitzing cornerback Michael Adams(notes). After it bounced up off the quarterback's foot, Arizona linebacker Karlos Dansby(notes) snatched it out of the air and ran it back 17 yards for the game-winning score.
It was a stunning end to an effort that blew the minds of the players who competed against him.
The victory puts the Cardinals into next Saturday's divisional-round matchup against the top-seeded New Orleans Saints at the Louisiana Superdome, where they'll have to deal with another prolific passer, Drew Brees(notes), and coach Sean Payton's high-flying offense. Yet after what Rodgers did to the Cardinals defense on Sunday, some of Arizona's players think they've already confronted the most formidable foe imaginable.
"Let me tell you something – that dude is scary," Arizona free safety Antrel Rolle(notes) said of Rodgers. "We have a great defense, and we were up on him and ready to pounce, and he found ways to tear us apart.
"I don't ever want to face him again in my life. I am dead serious. I'll face Drew Brees any day of the week before I face him again."
Added Pro Bowl strong safety Adrian Wilson(notes): "Hey, nobody ever said the guy was a bad player. But to have him actually do what he did to us in the second half was unbelievable. He was on fire. The whole half. The guy was just amazing."
The Cardinals' star wideout, Larry Fitzgerald(notes), was equally impressed. "Aaron Rodgers threw for about, what, 700 yards today?" he asked, laughing. "You've got to tip your hat to the Packers. Those guys – let's just say we wouldn't want to play them again. And he is a special, special, special talent."
Yet for all of the prolific things he accomplished this season, Rodgers, in his three biggest games, fell short against two of the most special players of his generation. In a pair of tough defeats to their NFC North rivals, the Minnesota Vikings, Rodgers played valiantly but came up short against Favre, who was outstanding in both outings. On Sunday, Warner had one of the greatest games of his decorated career, completing 29 of 33 passes for 379 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions.
In other words, Rodgers was 0-3 against future Hall of Famers playing transcendent football, something that made him chuckle as it was brought to his attention while he walked down the hallway toward the Packers' buses Sunday evening.
"We ran into a hot quarterback," Rodgers said. "I'll call him this week for sure and congratulate him. He played his butt off. Kurt's a great player and a great person. It was a fun game, but it's truly fun only when you're ahead when the game is over."
When Rodgers' quick handoff to fullback John Kuhn(notes) for a 1-yard touchdown and Mason Crosby's(notes) extra point tied the game at 38-38 with 10:57 remaining, he pumped his fist emphatically, having brought the Pack back from the abyss.
"I thought we were going to win," he said. "We had all the momentum. I was just praying for one stop. They couldn't stop us."
Rodgers finally got his wish when, after tying the game at 45-45 just inside the two-minute warning, he watched Warner drive the Cardinals into position for a game-winning field goal, only to have kicker Neil Rackers(notes) miss a 34-yarder with nine seconds remaining.
When the Packers won the coin toss at the start of overtime, Rodgers figured victory was near. After the Cardinals' fifth sack and Dansby's runback produced a swift and sudden ending, the second-year starter reflected back on a season that included a remarkable second-half rally in its own right.
After the second defeat to the Vikings, the Packers were stunned by the previously winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers to fall to 4-4, and a collapse seemed imminent. Instead, Rodgers rallied the team to seven victories in eight games, losing only to the Steelers on Ben Roethlisberger's(notes) last-second touchdown pass (OK, it's possible he was 0-4 against future Hall of Famers) as Green Bay claimed a wild-card berth following a disappointing 6-10 season in '08.
"I'm proud of these guys," Rodgers said of his teammates just before exiting the stadium. "They have a lot of heart, a lot of resilience. I love those guys, man. I love going to battle with them every week. That's why it hurts so much that we couldn't get it done."
On this memorable Sunday in the desert, however, one thing was abundantly clear: Rodgers, under some extremely adverse conditions, had done almost everything he could to extend the Packers' season.