GREEN BAY, Wis. — Aaron Rodgers knows the Packers aren’t going to advance to the NFC Championship Game without him performing at the elite level he’s capable of. That’s fine by him. In fact, the star quarterback and league’s reigning Most Valuable Player embraces that role.
“Guys are counting on me to play well,” Rodgers said this week. “I take that to heart, and I know my role as a quarterback and a leader, and I try and go out and play well for my guys.”
Saturday night’s divisional round postseason matchup between Green Bay and San Francisco has a lot of important aspects to it. It’s not just about Rodgers versus 49ers second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick. But Rodgers’ playoff experience and career accomplishments at the game’s most important position cannot be overlooked.
Rodgers is two years removed from hoisting the Lombardi Trophy after beating the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV. As Rodgers was preparing for that game, Kaepernick had just completed his college career at the University of Nevada.
In Rodgers’ MVP season last year, he had 45 touchdown passes. In San Francisco, Kaepernick attempted only five passes all season.
Less than two months ago, Kaepernick got his first NFL start, replacing Alex Smith. That same weekend, Rodgers started his 72nd career regular-season game.
Now, Kaepernick is about to play in his first postseason game. When Rodgers started his first playoff game during the 2009 season, he was going through the same emotions Kaepernick likely will experience this weekend.
“I think the nerves were definitely there,” Rodgers said. “We had a lot of confidence, and I think you learn that you have to start well in the game, and you can’t make mistakes. You’ve got to make the plays that are there.”
Rodgers lost in his first playoff appearance, falling on the road in overtime to the Arizona Cardinals. But he played very well, throwing for 423 yards with four touchdown passes before fumbling the ball on a controversial play that ended in a game-winning Cardinals touchdown.
Rodgers started 32 games prior to his first playoff experience. Kaepernick has started only seven. But the Packers know they’re going to face a quarterback whose lack of in-game experience doesn’t match his high talent level.
“With this quarterback, he’s got a 98 quarterback rating, which is pretty darned good for the number of times he’s played,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “I think their scheme helps him. When you’ve got a solid running game the way he has, and they play-action pass a lot, and they run the read-option series.
‘I think they do a nice job of coaching him to where he hasn’t made the critical mistakes that you see a lot of those young guys make.”
Kaepernick has been solid in his decisions to not throw the ball into tight coverage, tossing only three interceptions in 218 pass attempts. That’s on par with Rodgers, who is one of the NFL’s best in attempts-to-interceptions rate. However, Kaepernick, who has run the ball 63 times, has fumbled the ball nine times.
One of the biggest questions for Kaepernick to answer Saturday night will be how those statistics line up with the way he performs in the biggest game of his career.
“It’s another football game to me,” Kaepernick said this week.
Except that it’s not just another football game. Quarterbacks’ legacies are defined in the postseason, and Kaepernick is about to get his first taste of that.
“If a guy hasn’t been there, you don’t know how he’s going to respond,” Capers said. “He’s obviously responded well from the time they made the switch. I think they have a lot of confidence in him, and as you watch him on tape, you can see why they do have a lot of confidence in him.
“The guy can make big plays, not only throwing, because he has a strong arm, but he’s got excellent feet and can run very well.”
Kaepernick is not relied upon in San Francisco’s offense like Rodgers is in Green Bay’s. The 49ers have the NFL’s fourth-best rushing attack, led by Frank Gore’s 1,214-yard season. The Packers have seen first-year undrafted running back DuJuan Harris improve quickly in recent weeks, but Green Bay’s offense requires Rodgers to play well in order to succeed.
“I know Aaron Rodgers clearly understands the importance of quarterback play in a game, and more importantly in playoff games,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “He’s steady. He’s been through enough now, I don’t see him overreacting or trying to put more pressure on himself. He’s a big-time preparation player as far as what he puts into each game, and that won’t change this week.
“He’ll be clutch for us like he always is.”
Whether Kaepernick can deliver an equally clutch performance could ultimately decide which team’s season continues and which team’s Super Bowl hopes end Saturday night.