Aaron Rodgers Stares Down Fate
PHILADELPHIA — This city can be an unfriendly place for visiting NFL teams. It can be even less kind toward those who leave with a win. Moments after the Packers’ 27-13 victory over the Eagles on Monday night, Aaron Rodgers was headed back to the locker room when the voice of one relentless heckler rose above the crowd at Lincoln Financial Field, baiting Rodgers with a jeer about his personal life.
Without breaking stride, Rodgers turned his head back toward the stands. The fan may have been out of earshot by that point, but the quarterback, in essence, told him to shut the hell up. Then, steely-faced, he entered the locker room having silenced all of his critics.
After a four-game losing streak, and after being out-dueled by Kirk Cousins and Marcus Mariota, and after much speculation about why Aaron Rodgers hasn’t been playing like Aaron Rodgers, the 32-year-old quarterback delivered a gem of a performance in Green Bay’s must-win Week 12 game. With a loss, the Packers would have fallen three games back in the NFC North—and 2.5 games back in the conference wild-card race—with only five left to play.
“It’s a big difference between 4-7 and 5-6, for sure,” said Rodgers, who last week declared that this team could “run the table.” He backed up those words on Monday night, completing 30 of 39 attempts for 313 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. He hadn’t been that efficient since September 2015, when people were calling him the best player in football, not washed up. For the second straight game, his QB rating was a starry 115 or higher (115.0 last week at Washington, 116.7 against Philly), and he commanded his team in vintage form, knowing when to flee the pocket and run, and knowing when to hang in and make late and accurate throws. He orchestrated an offense that put together four scoring drives of 75 yards or longer, converted 10 of 14 third-down attempts, and bested Philadelphia by nearly 11 minutes in time of possession.
His second touchdown pass was the most telling play.
Early in the second quarter, Rodgers hit Davante Adams on a 20-yard route down the left sideline. Adams was well-covered by Eagles cornerback Nolan Carroll, and Rodgers admitted later the window was even tighter than he thought it would be when he released the ball. Adams lost track of the ball in the stadium lights, but when he blindly put his hands out for the pass, it landed precisely where it needed to be.
Few QBs would ever attempt that throw. Fewer still would ever complete it. “That’s what he does,” Adams said simply. “I’m not surprised he threw it.”
That touchdown gave Green Bay a 14-7 lead over a defense that hadn’t surrendered more than 15 points at home to any opponent this season—and the Packers, most important, never looked back.
Their six losses this season have been a brutal mix of slow starts, blown saves and failed rallies—and their four-game skid going into Monday night had taken a toll on the locker room’s confidence. “It has been a rough stretch,” Rodgers said. “You know, we are human. You lose a few in a row and that doubt does creep in about whether or not you can actually finish one of those games off.” So when the Packers, finally, were able to salt out the win in the fourth quarter, Rodgers called it “one of the most gratifying drives that we’ve had here in a long time.” It was a 17-play, 78-yard march—extended by a fourth-and-5 sideline throw to Jordy Nelson and capped by Mason Crosby’s 32-yard field goal—that drained 13:03 off the clock and stymied any chance of a Philadelphia comeback.
“You have to believe in yourself, and believe in your teammates,” Rodgers said, “and not let that doubt or fear of failure cripple you.”
Doubt? Fear of failure? At times this season, it looked like those very things had been hindering the Packers and their franchise QB. Rodgers, a connoisseur of quick, anticipatory throws, had at times looked hesitant as a passer. As theories flew about what ailed the one-time MVP, Rodgers incurred scrutiny not only on the field but off of it as well—in a way that a quarterback in another era would never have experienced. His younger brother Jordan’s appearance on the reality TV show The Bachelorette and a recent Bleacher Report article painted a picture of a quarterback who is estranged from his immediate family. Rodgers has not addressed his personal life publicly, but that narrative hangs over him, providing fodder for hecklers to get under his skin.
The Packers have a short week going into Sunday’s game against Houston, and all eyes will be on Rodgers’ left hamstring. After making plays with his legs all night, he danced too long on a third down and got tripped up by linebacker Jordan Hicks as he awkwardly threw the ball away in the third quarter. On the sideline, the team medical staff hovered around Rodgers as he bent and stretched his left leg; then they took him into a small sideline tent for a tape job. For the remainder of the game, Rodgers took snaps out of the shotgun and pistol, just as he did during the 2015 playoffs when he had a calf injury. Though he seemed to pass on a few chances when he had wide-open lanes to run, Rodgers said of next week’s game: “I’ll be good to go.”
Can this underachieving 5-6 actually team run the table? The Packers have made seven consecutive appearances in the playoffs—a run matched only by the Patriots—and that success has made this season’s struggles stand out more starkly. Veterans had to rewind back several years to remember a time when they’d faced similar adversity. Last week, Nelson referenced the 2010 season, when the Packers sat at 8-6 before going on their Super Bowl run. But when he later checked the roster, he counted only 10 players who are still left from that season and realized the reference might be too dated.
In football, one thing is very rarely the problem—nor is one thing ever the solution. But we might look back on Monday night and view it as a turning point. The Packers’ defense, which had surrendered more than 40 points in each of the last two losses, tightened up and allowed only one touchdown despite being undermanned due to injuries. In the fourth quarter, for the first time this season, a Packers player other than Rodgers (fullback Aaron Ripkowski) scored a rushing touchdown.
But no matter how the rest of the Packers’ season plays out in the standings, Monday night was proof that Aaron Rodgers is still Aaron Rodgers.
THE FINE FIFTEEN
1. Dallas (10-1). LW: 1. The Cowboys won on Thanksgiving and then got to sit back and enjoy dessert: a Seahawks loss. With five games to play, that gives them a 2.5 game lead for home-field advantage in the NFC, a very pretty spot to be sitting.
2. New England (9-2). LW: 3. It was clear on Sunday that Tom Brady’s mysterious knee injury was bothering him to some degree. We all know the Patriots are notoriously tight-lipped on injuries, so it’s hard to know how serious it is, but does it have the potential to linger into January?
3. Oakland (9-2). LW: 4. The Raiders have survived a lot of thrillers, and that’s because they have a great pair of closers in Derek Carr and Khalil Mack.
4. Seattle (7-3-1). LW: 2. The Seahawks are a much better team with Earl Thomas and Michael Bennett, but most teams can say that about their star players. After a few weeks of looking dominant, the loss to the Bucs was a clunker of a game.
5. Kansas City (8-3). LW: 6. I think Alex Smith is perennially underappreciated, and maybe that’s why the Chiefs have been overlooked as contenders. Yes, he and the offense have had some struggles the past three weeks, a span during which he’s also been without top receiver Jeremy Maclin. But when he had to on Sunday night, he led three scoring drives in the fourth quarter and overtime.
6. Denver (7-4). LW: 5. The bad news for the Broncos was, well, the outcome. The good news was how well Trevor Siemian played. Gary Kubiak has indicated over the last few weeks that they’re going to throw everything they have into coaching Siemian, but you have to figure that a lot depends on how he finishes this season. The throws he was asked to make Sunday night—and made—said a lot.
7. Atlanta (7-4). LW: 7. The Browns must really regret cutting Taylor Gabriel. And Taylor Gabriel must really relish playing with Matt Ryan.
8. Detroit (7-4). LW: 8. This is certainly not the NFC North race anyone expected. The Lions are on top because they can do what their division foes can’t: Close out games in the fourth quarter.
9. New York Giants (8-3). LW: 10. The Giants are in very good position in the NFC wild-card race, though they have a tough schedule ahead: at Pittsburgh, vs. Dallas, vs. Detroit, at Philadelphia, at Washington.
10. Washington (6-4-1). LW: 8. They have some winnable NFC games in the home stretch of their schedule (Cardinals, Panthers, Bears). Jumping way ahead here, but that New Year’s Day home game against the Giants could be a big one.
11. Miami (7-4). LW: 12. Adam Gase is a fiery coach, and that’s been a great thing for the Dolphins. He also might be the least content coach on a six-game winning streak, and that’s also been a great thing. After starting the season 1-4, Gase has his team in the playoff picture.
12. Pittsburgh (6-5). LW: 11. It’s a two-team race in the AFC North. The Steelers need more defense. The Ravens need more offense. They don’t play head to head for four more weeks, Dec. 25 at Pittsburgh.
13. Baltimore (6-5). LW: 14. As streaky as the offense has been, it’s certainly a comfort to know you really only have to get to midfield or so to score (not hyperbole). The NFL’s only perfect kicker is worth every penny of that $16.8 million contract.
14. Tampa Bay (6-5). LW: 17. With back-to-back wins against two of the NFL’s top five teams, Kansas City and Seattle, the Bucs are keeping things interesting in the NFC South while looking like a team that’s headed in the right direction. It’s been a while since they could say that.
15. Green Bay (5-6). LW: UR. The Packers saved their season on Monday night. They will also have to save it every week from here on out.
Also receiving consideration:
16. Minnesota (6-5). LW: 13.
17. Buffalo (6-5). LW: 18.
18. Philadelphia (5-6). LW: 15.
19. Tennessee (6-6). LW: UR.
20. San Diego (5-6). LW: UR.
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