If winning a playoff game as a starter was solely dependent on his golden right arm, Rodgers wouldn’t have arrived in Philadelphia without prior postseason success. But thanks to support from a swarming defense and surprising running game, Rodgers finally has notched the kind of victory the Green Bay Packers have lacked since Brett Favre left three seasons ago.
Mind you, the Packers wouldn’t have bested the Eagles without Rodgers’ three touchdown passes. Yet it was a yeoman’s rushing effort from an obscure rookie and a last-minute defensive stand that secured Sunday’s 21-16 win at chilly Lincoln Financial Field.
Rodgers said so himself.
"When you’ve got James Starks rushing for 123 yards, that takes some pressure off the passing game," Rodgers said after his efficient 18-of-27, 180-yard effort. "That’s unexpected. The defense playing as well as they have, you don’t want to take it for granted but it’s kind of been expected the past few weeks. They played excellent and kept us in the game.
"We’re moving on."
And now, so can Rodgers.
Since replacing Favre in 2008, everything Rodgers has done is compared to his future Hall of Fame predecessor. Despite gaudy passing statistics, Rodgers didn’t have a signature victory on his resume until finally topping Favre and the Minnesota Vikings in late October.
Once that deed was done, the next step was winning a playoff contest. Rodgers fell just short in last year’s 51-45 first-round overtime loss to Arizona, having his fumble returned by then-Cardinals linebacker Karlos Dansby for the game-winning score. Rodgers had helped dig the Packers out of 17-0 and 31-10 deficits in a 424-yard passing effort. Rodgers, though, received scant support from Green Bay’s ground game and even less from a defense butchered for 531 yards and 30 first downs.
"In all my time being a football fan, I’ve never seen one player win a game all by himself," Rodgers said when asked to reflect upon the personal importance of Sunday’s win. "It’s a good team win for us. I’ll let you guys write what you want on that."
Rodgers provided plenty of quality material through the first three quarters. In some ways, he looked like a poor man’s version of Philadelphia quarterback Michael Vick with how effectively Rodgers eluded pocket pressure.
A prime example came on first-and-goal from the Eagles’ 9-yard line in the second quarter. Rodgers took the snap from center and looked to his left for a screen pass only to find it covered. He made a quick pump-fake while rolling to his right hoping to freeze Eagles defenders. Rodgers then had to dodge defensive end Juqua Parker like on his first-quarter touchdown pass to tight end Tom Crabbtree. Finally, Rodgers fired a low pass that wide receiver James Jones scooped for another score that gave Green Bay a 14-0 lead.
"I’m obviously biased, but Aaron Rodgers is probably as good an in-and-out-of-the-pocket quarterback as there is in football today," said Packers head coach Mike McCarthy, who also doubles as Rodgers’ quarterback guru. "His ability to play in the pocket, trust in his footwork, bide time, that’s Aaron’s strength. On top of that, he has the arm strength to make all the throws. He gives you a lot of versatility as a play-caller and offensive schemer. Now that he has experience and is playing as well as he is, he’s a special player."
Philadelphia (10-7) has a special quarterback in his own right, too. That’s why it was so important for Green Bay (11-6) to control the clock and not risk its defenders getting fatigued chasing Vick around the field. The Packers kept possessions alive by converting 8 of 13 third-down attempts. Plus, all three of Green Bay’s scoring drives lasted for 10-plus plays and consumed at least 5:38 off the clock.
The third series was most critical. Rodgers —- who had a sure touchdown pass dropped by wide receiver James Jones at the end of the second quarter — committed his own error when he was sacked and stripped by Eagles end Darryl Tapp. Vick only needed two plays to convert the turnover into a touchdown, hitting wide receiver James Avant for a 24-yard score that cut Green Bay’s lead to 14-10.
The Packers then methodically quashed Philadelphia’s momentum. Rodgers hit wide receiver Donald Driver for a 20-yard gain on third-and-10. Starks — a 2010 sixth-round pick who appeared in only three games this season because of injuries — bulled for 32 yards on five carries. And then another running back sealed the deal thanks to patience on a slow-developing screen pass. Brandon Jackson followed three offensive linemen into the end zone for a 16-yard touchdown.
"That was the most important drive of the game," Rodgers said of an 11-play, 80-yard march that consumed 6:17. "The crowd was just getting back into it and we needed to give our defense a bit of a break by making it back to a two-score game. We did that."
That was all Green Bay’s offense did scoring-wise for the rest of the game. But the points ultimately didn’t matter. The Packers had possession for 7:05 of the fourth quarter and didn’t implode in the same fashion as the Eagles. Philadelphia kicker David Akers missed his second field goal of the game early in the quarter and the Eagles failed to convert a 2-point conversion with 4:02 remaining. Philadelphia’s final hurrah came when Packers cornerback Tramon Williams intercepted an overthrown Vick pass in the end zone with 33 seconds left.
After running out the clock, Green Bay was assured of a Saturday night road rematch with an opponent that did defeat the Packers 20-17 in the final seconds earlier this season: The top-seeded Atlanta Falcons.
"There was a lot of relief," Rodgers said. "It’s a tough position being on the sideline and not being able to have an impact on that play. You’re just hoping the defense comes up with a stop."
Some of the outside pressure on Rodgers can stop now that he has a playoff victory to his credit. Having grown tired of the topic, McCarthy bristled when asked by a reporter whether this was a milestone Rodgers win.
"Milestone?!?" said McCarthy, invoking memories of Jim Mora’s legendary "Playoffs?!?" response while coaching the Indianapolis Colts. "We don’t look at it that way. I don’t want to talk about that today. We’re just getting started.
"Aaron’s got a lot of football left in front of him. He’s going to be playing for a long time."
And from now on, Rodgers will be playing with one less burden to carry.