Aaron Rodgers is the last quarterback any playoff team in the NFC is looking forward to facing.
This was a veritable doomsday scenario for the conference, as Rodgers represents one of the best passers not only in the league today, but also in recent memory. His ability to extend plays was on display in crunch time of the winner-take-all Week 17 contest against the Chicago Bears, and there's little reason to suggest that he won't have more success as he continues to shake rust off and get even healthier in the coming weeks.
Against the Bears—in his first action since early November—Rodgers went 25-of-39 for 318 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. Altogether, it equated to only a 85.2 QB Rating—one of his worst outings of the year. However, his last drive was a beauty, as Chicago sold out with a heavy blitz on the last play, and Rodgers eluded the pressure for a 48-yard touchdown to wide receiver Randall Cobb (just off the short-term IR).
Counting the successful two-point conversion attempt, Rodgers was six for nine on that last drive, and the team converted three fourth-down conversions.
Team of destiny? Maybe, but more importantly, it shows that the Packers are "ready for prime time," as it were, and have the wherewithal to get it done not only in clutch, but also when the chips are stacked against them.
What a difference Rodgers makes.
Rodgers Covers Up a Whole Bunch of Flaws
The Packers are a much more complete team than the previous eight games may have shown.
In that span, and including the game in which Rodgers was injured, the Packers went 2-5-1 and looked lost (at times) on both sides of the ball. Rodgers, of course, wasn't the only injured player, as it seemed the entire team was taking turns on the triage table for much of the season. Yet Rodgers—yes, singlehandedly—fixes much of that.
No, Rodgers isn't going to play defense, coordinate the defense, block for himself on the offensive line, run down kicks or shovel show out of the stadium, but he plays the quarterback position (spoiler alert?), and that's the most important position in sports for a reason.
During Rodgers' absence, the Packers only had a 100-yard rusher twice. Eddie Lacy in Weeks 12 and 15 against the Minnesota Vikings and Dallas Cowboys—ranked 18th and 27th, respectively, against the run heading into Week 17.
While Lacy has been stellar this season since transitioning into a fuller role thanks to teammates' injuries, and while he has a great shot at Rookie of the Year honors, it's no surprise to state that Rodgers helps the run game. Without the defense's ability to sell out against the run, the Packers ran early, often and effectively against the Bears' moribund run defense.
In the playoffs, whether it's the San Francisco 49ers on Wild Card Weekend or beyond, the moral of the story is going to be that well-balanced teams win football games.
Of course, balance also means defense, and Rodgers isn't going to start playing safety, is he?
No, but it's important to remember that football is a team game full of give and take. While Rodgers will not play defense, he can definitely make life easier for his defense as he makes things difficult for their peers in the opposing jersey. Things like field position, winning the turnover battle, ball control and simply putting up a bunch of points can help shape the way a defense plays—all from the offensive side of the ball.
Consider this: If the score is 24-20 in the middle of the fourth quarter, the Packers defense has to play with a well-rounded attack. Even with seconds ticking off the clock late in the game, it's important for defenses to keep from giving up large chunks of ground by "forgetting" to defend the run.
Now, in that same scenario but with the score 34-20, what can a defense do? It can pin its ears back and go after a quarterback with reckless abandon. It's not only a schematic advantage, but a psychological advantage as well.
If you need one look at the opposite kind of effect a poor defense can have on a quarterback, see Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo.
Rodgers' ability to keep pressure off of his defense by threatening to score as often as he does is habitually underrated by those who dismiss his return by reminding all of the world (as if we needed it) that the Packers don't have an amazing defense.
Packers fans remember well just how effective Rodgers can be with a disappointing defense, because the team has lived with those parameters for some time.
Actually, the Team Around Rodgers Isn't Nearly As Bad As Many Might Think
The defense has talent.
Statistically speaking, we can look at their 26th ranking in yardage allowed and start to tell ourselves that the number tells the whole story. Yet the front seven has some talent in guys like linebacker Clay Matthews (who sat out Week 17 after re-injuring his thumb), tackle B.J. Raji, defensive end Mike Daniels, linebacker A.J. Hawk and others. The defensive backfield could use a boost, but cornerbacks Sam Shields and Tramon Williams have both proven capable for much of the season.
Is it a great defense? No...no one is saying that (or at least they shouldn't be).
Is it a terrible, no-good, really bad defense that can't possibly be part of an otherwise successful season for the Packers? Absolutely not. This is a defense that held Detroit to nine points and Philadelphia to 27, which is more than respectable against that high-flying squad.
No one is saying the Packers should (or even could) lean on the defense to win games for them, but with Rodgers back, that doesn't have to be the narrative.
With that side of the ball out of the way, our eyes turn to an offense that is about to reintroduce itself to the world with its trigger man back in action.
The rushing back tandem of Lacy and James Starks seems more like a bigger battering ram than the traditional "thunder and lightning" tandem most teams look for. They have the ability to wear defenders out with even the shortest of runs and then break off a huge plan when teams least expect it.
With Cobb now back, the receiving corps is complete with Jordy Nelson, James Jones and Jarrett Boykin already in the fold.
Even the much-maligned offensive line has overcome its early season injury issues thanks to fantastic seasons by linemen like Josh Sitton, T.J. Lang and Evan Dietrich-Smith.
It's important to note these other talented players on the Packers, as the story needs to be that Rodgers completes the puzzle. He may be the best, biggest and most important piece of everything Green Bay has put together, but the supporting cast is there for a deep playoff run.