The fear in the stands and even the concern in the press box at Lambeau Field was palpable as the extent of Aaron Rodgers’ immobility because of his calf injury came into focus last week against the Cowboys.
And even though the presumptive league MVP was able to work through the pain and guide the Packers to a 26-21 victory over Dallas in the divisional playoff game, an ominous cloud of impending doom still hovered over the Packers and their faithful: If he’s that gimpy against the vicious, frothing Seahawks’ defense, Rodgers and the Packers will never survive.
That scenario might very well ensue when Mike McCarthy’s Packers face Pete Carroll’s Seahawks in an anticipated NFC Championship Game on Sunday at CenturyLink Field (noon, Fox-32). Even when Rodgers was much healthier and the Seahawks were in a formative stage in 2012, Rodgers was sacked eight times in the first half of the “Fail Mary” game at CenturyLink Field. It was brutal.
But while the demonstrative enthusiasm of Carroll, Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, et al. makes the Seahawks’ suffocating defense appear larger than life, there’s something about Aaron Rodgers that can’t be ignored. He’s got a knack for finding a way to raise his game to the necessary level at the necessary time. As immobile as he was early against the Cowboys, by the end it seemed as if he was pacing himself; that he knew just how many bullets he had in his gun, and he used them wisely. He always does.
Therein lies the pivotal factor in a game between two playoff-tested teams with coaches and players who know how to win the big one. The Seahawks are defending Super Bowl champions, attempting to become the first team to repeat since the Patriots in 2004-05. The Packers have 15 players and eight starters remaining from their Super Bowl winning, including the one player who counts the most.
If Rodgers is well protected and on his game, he can keep the Seahawks’ defense on its heels and off balance like Clayton Kershaw or Adam Wainwright frustrating the best hitting team in baseball. But if Rodgers can’t move like he needs to, you can bet Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett and Bruce Irvin and Co. will be teeing off on him from start to finish.
(And while protecting Rodgers is a big if, the Packers have one factor in their favor — offensive line continuity. Their five starting linemen have missed a total of one game this season. Left tackle David Bakhtiari, left guard Josh Sitton, rookie center Corey Linsley and right guard T.J. Lang have started every game. Right tackle Bryan Bulaga missed Week 2 after suffering an injury in the first Seahawks game. The other three teams in the conference championship games have a combined four offensive linemen who have started every game. The Seahawks have two — right guard J.R. Sweezy and rookie right tackle Justin Britt.)
So how is Rodgers?
“Doing good,” Rodgers, clearly tired of talking about his calf, said Friday. “It’ll be good to get home, get ready and head out [to Seattle].”
Though the injury has altered Rodgers practice routine, McCarthy did not belabor its potential impact this week. “Aaron is getting ready to play. Looks good,” McCarthy said Friday. “Everything’s on schedule.”
Rodgers isn’t hiding the severity of the injury. He just doesn’t seem as worried about it as Packers fans. “It’s just dealing with the pain and being smart about it,” he said. “There weren’t a lot of explosive movements last week so…we’ll see how it goes Sunday. It’s been something that I’ve dealt with for the past couple weeks. It’s painful. There’s stiffness involved. [But] there’s constant around-the-clock treatment so it’ll be good Sunday.”
The Seahawks are anticipating the best quarterback in the game at his best. They know what they’re up against.
“I’m not really concerned about his wobbly calf. I’m concerned about Aaron Rodgers,” Chancellor said. “If he’s in that game, no matter how he’s feeling, he’s still Aaron Rodgers. No matter what’s wrong, you can’t doubt him.”
The last time Rodgers played in the NFC Championship Game, he was intercepted by Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, did not throw a touchdown pass and had a 55.4 passer rating in a 21-14 victory over the Bears at Soldier Field. That’s his worst passer rating in 10 career playoff games and nearly half his career playoff average of 105.3. It’s the only playoff game in which Rodgers has failed to throw a touchdown pass.
And this test is a little tougher than that one.
“I’d like to play better than the last one,” Rodgers said. “My best play was a tackle that day [preventing a potential 94-yard touchdown by Urlacher]. I had a pick to Urlacher and then they had a shoe interception [by Briggs, on a deflection off Donald Driver’s shoe].
“Other than that, it was about the way our defense played. I thought they played excellent that day; good enough to make up for some of the offensive struggles. Hopefully it’s a little different from the offensive side of the ball this week.”