GREEN BAY — As it turned out, Aaron Rodgers was right. Just not the way most who heard what he said might’ve expected.
Three days after his team’s 37-8 blowout loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Nov. 24 — the Green Bay Packers’ last loss this season — Rodgers stood at his locker and explained what he thought his team would need to do to rebound and set itself up for a playoff run.
“Offensively,” Rodgers said in part that Wednesday afternoon, “I’ve got to take the lead and get hot.”
His Packers won their next six games — their final five regular-season matchups, then last Sunday’s 28-23 NFC Divisional playoff victory over the Seattle Seahawks at Lambeau Field. As a result, they’re one game — this Sunday’s NFC Championship Game and rematch with the 49ers back at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California — away from a berth in Super Bowl LIV in Miami and getting Rodgers back to the big game for the first time since he led the 2010 team to the Super Bowl XLV title.
At age 36 and nine years removed from his last trip, Rodgers seemed amused Wednesday that many of his younger teammates have taken up a win-one-for-the-old-guy mantra on his behalf.
“I haven’t really heard a lot of that,” said Rodgers, adding that he took a similar tack in 2010 for Charles Woodson and Donald Driver and in 2014 for Julius Peppers. “But I do appreciate that.”
Following that loss to the 49ers and Rodgers’ remarks, just about everyone focused on the second half of Rodgers’ assertion — the “get hot” part. Statistically, that didn’t really happen during the final five regular-season games, as Rodgers completed 108 of 189 passes (57.1%) for 1,180 yards with eight touchdowns, two interceptions and nine sacks for a passer rating of 85.4.
“I was hot in a couple of ‘em,” Rodgers said with a self-deprecating chuckle Wednesday.
That rating was not only 17 points lower than his NFL-record career rating of 102.4, but it was many degrees cooler than how hot he’d been down the stretch of the 2016 season, when the Packers won six straight games to end the regular season and Rodgers played perhaps the best football of his career, completing 142 of 200 passes (71%) for 1,667 yards with 15 touchdowns and zero interceptions for a 121.0 rating.
“I think what happens in the media a lot of times is people pull up stats. They pull up statistics and while they tell part of the story, they don’t tell the whole story,” explained ex-Packers backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who played 17 NFL seasons and is now an NFL analyst for ESPN. “I think that’s happened with Aaron Rodgers this year.
“I basically was told (by ESPN), ‘Hey, Aaron Rodgers is having a down year. Can you tell us why?’ So I turned on the tape and really studied the tape. The game that I watched when that happened, he had three drops, six throwaways and all his other incompletions were shot plays — 1-on-1s downfield, 50/50 balls. If I was the quarterback coach grading him, he would have had no incompletions I’d have put on him. And this was a game where people were writing about him struggling.”
“I just think their offense is a work in progress. But I think he could end up having one of the best finishes to this season that you could put up against any other year of his career if they’re able to finish this thing and end up in Miami.”
Whether Rodgers underestimated the challenges of righting an up-and-down first-year offense or overestimated his ability to overcome those challenges depends on your perspective. Nonetheless, he was undeniably hot against the Seahawks, going 16 of 27 for 243 yards with two touchdowns, no interceptions and two sacks for a 113.7 rating (his fourth-highest of the season) with a host of clutch throws with the game on the line.
“I just think when you look at all the clutch throws he’s made, especially in those crunch-time situations, he hit two on the last drive last week,” said Packers coach Matt LaFleur, referring to Rodgers’ high-pressure third-down strikes to Davante Adams and Jimmy Graham to close out the game and keep the ball away from the Seahawks and quarterback Russell Wilson. “It’s been just his ability to make those plays in those critical situations.”
Said 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan: “There’s a reason they haven’t lost a game since they lost to us. There’s certain things that quarterbacks can do to win games and it’s not always having the stats that are really good for fantasy. I think Aaron’s been finding that fine line on it. Even last week, those two plays he made on third down at the end to not give it back to Russell and the Seahawks, those were unbelievable plays that not many people can do. And that was the difference in winning and losing to me.
“Aaron’s capable of doing that all the time. It’s just, what type of game is it?”
And that’s why Rodgers insists it’s about the other half of his remark — about “taking the lead” — that matters most. He still has to be brilliant at times, as he was against the Seahawks, but with a productive run game and strong defense, he doesn’t need to be the guy he was in 2016 when he willed that talent-challenged and injury-riddled Packers to that NFC title game.
“My job is different year to year,” Rodgers said. “It’s about being efficient and taking care of the football and making the right checks (this year). Those are so important for us, getting in the right plays.
“I think there’s been times where I’ve felt super locked in in games and maybe not as locked in — based on the week of preparation. The last six weeks I’ve felt really locked in on the preparation, and I think that’s helped us on offense to really be on the same page.”
Or, as veteran center Corey Linsley put it Wednesday, “For these past couple weeks, he’s just done such an excellent job of communicating, executing the game plan. Not that he wasn’t before, but I think that’s where he’s taken his heightened level of football and awareness and everything. It might not show up on the stat sheet, but for us, he’s increased his leadership – and then still made those clutch, sick throws. His focus and rallying this team has been at a high, high level.”
Given that LaFleur and multiple players have acknowledged that the offensive game plan was not very good for their first meeting with the 49ers, it will be interesting to see how the Packers attack San Francisco’s defense after getting dominated in the first meeting.
“I feel good about the stretch we’ve been on. I think, again, a big key to these six weeks were the confidence we gained kind of those first two games after that loss (beating the New York Giants and Washington Redskins) and then winning those three division games (over the Chicago Bears, Minnesota Vikings and Detroit Lions),” Rodgers continued. “I just think we’ve learned a lot about ourselves in the process, of how we go about our week.
“I’m not going to get into significant detail on that, but I feel like the process of our Monday-to-Saturday improved during that time. And as a direct correlation, I feel like the mental mistakes decreased. What that allowed us to do is play a little quicker, a little faster, and we just had less busts (on assignments). I feel like we just had too many over the first 10 or 11 games and I don’t know if it’s simplifying things in the install or the weekly practice, but I feel like there was a concerted effort to really get on the same page.
“Because of that – even though it wasn’t the prettiest of six wins – our mental focus has been a lot better those six weeks.”
Right tackle Bryan Bulaga, who missed Sunday’s win over the Seahawks when he fell victim to the illness that has permeated the Packers’ locker room, practiced Wednesday and said he’s good to go for the game. “It was a rough 48 hours,” said Bulaga, who dressed for the game but watched it from the training rom. “I woke up at 3 a.m. on Sunday and it was the downfall from there. We did everything we possibly could to try to get my body back for the game and it just wasn’t happening. Went through a lot of IVs. I wasn’t able to eat anything. It just wasn’t possible.” … Apparently the sickness hasn’t been eradicated from Lambeau Field just yet, as wide receiver Geronimo Allison didn’t practice because of illness. Receiver Ryan Grant was excused for a personal matter and tight end Jimmy Graham had a veteran rest day. … The Packers signed ex-CFL cornerback DaShaun Amos to a reserve/future contract Wednesday. The 6-foot, 190-pound Amos had five interceptions for the Calgary Stampeders this past season and is the second CFL player to be signed to a futures deal for next year. The other? Amos’ teammate, wide receiver Reggie Begelton, who caught 102 passes for the Stampeders last season.
Photos: Packers hold off Seahawks to advance to NFC title game