With Cardinals Looming, Packers' Aaron Rodgers Finally Gets the Help He Needs

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterJanuary 10, 2016

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers pumps his fist as he walks off the field in the closing minutes of the team's NFL wild-card playoff football game against the Washington Redskins in Landover, Md., Sunday, Jan. 10, 2016. The Packers won 35-18. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Alex Brandon/Associated Press

LANDOVER, Md.—Aaron Rodgers is still Aaron Rodgers.

He's still the same guy who has won Super Bowls, MVP awards and All-Pro nominations for years. He's still canny, resourceful, supremely athletic, experienced in every conceivable situation, but not the least bit creaky.

Maybe the hot streaks were shorter and the cold snaps a little icier this year than last year. But even at his worst, whether in the first quarter of Sunday's 35-18 win over the Redskins or in the Week 16 beating at the hands of the Cardinals team the Packers face next week, he is still obviously, emphatically Aaron Rodgers.

He just looked like he was all alone too often in the past few months.

Rodgers dragged the Packers to the playoffs by himself, his own offense appearing to work against him at times. But he would not have been able to move them an inch further without help.

The Redskins built an 11-0 early lead while the Packers got in their own way. J.C. Tretter, the second left tackle to fill in since David Bakhtiari got hurt in December, got manhandled for a first-quarter safety. Packers running backs rushed four times for five yards in the first quarter. Receivers failed to get separation and failed to make contested catches. The Packers would have fallen hopelessly behind if not for some Redskins miscues: a missed extra point, a touchdown-turned-field-goal when DeSean Jackson didn't try hard enough to definitively cross the plane of the goal line on a catch-and-run.

Rodgers looked alone. Then, suddenly, help arrived.

Tretter shook off the safety and played well the rest of the game.

"I just had to fix what I needed to fix," he said. "It was just a matter of settling down, fixing my set and just moving on from there. There was no panic or anything like that."

James Starks scored on a four-yard run in the third quarter.
James Starks scored on a four-yard run in the third quarter.Nick Wass/Associated Press

Running backs Eddie Lacy and James Starks began pounding the ball on the ground, often against a defensive line that looked a little gassed and beaten-up in pursuit. They combined for 116 rushing yards and a pair of touchdowns, with nearly all of the meaningful production in the second half.

"Things just started opening up," Starks said. "The line started pushing guys, doing a great job putting body on body and giving us holes to run through."

Receivers like Davante Adams, James Jones and Randall Cobb, who appeared incapable of getting open in the first quarter, started making plays, first on quick screens, then on longer shots down the field.

"Davante's turning into Mister January," Rodgers quipped about a receiver who had some miserable regular-season games, but caught four passes for 48 yards and a touchdown Sunday before getting hurt late in the game. "James obviously had some nice catches. Randall had a great game, moving around a lot, catching the ball and running out of the backfield."

Everything fed off everything else, allowing the Packers to play the kind of up-tempo offense that is only possible when a team is completing passes, generating positive runs and racking up first downs. When everyone is pitching in to help the quarterback, in other words.

James Jones had seven catches for 81 yards.
James Jones had seven catches for 81 yards.Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

"We got first downs," Jones said. "When you get first downs, you're allowed to get up on the ball real fast and able to play with tempo, not allow them to sub in and out defenders."

"We got the tempo up and they couldn't keep up," Rodgers said.

Tempo has been noticeably absent during Rodgers' last-man-standing routines in the second half of the season. It was invisible (or inaudible) in the Packers' 38-8 loss to the Cardinals in Week 16. It was hard to find in the first quarter on Sunday evening.

Even Rodgers was having a hard time finding his rhythm.

"Aaron played a little fast at the beginning of the game, then settled in," coach Mike McCarthy said. "That's how these games go."

But Rodgers doesn't have the luxury of being out of sync.

"It's important for him to go out there and ignite us. Not just how he plays, but the way he plays," McCarthy said, referring to Rodgers' mindset and attitude.

Rodgers struggled with wind gusts that sent passes sailing over heads and out of bounds. He dealt with shaky protection, bad field position and tough down-and-distance situations. He finally ignited the Packers by catching the Redskins defense with 12 men on the field and quick-snapping the football in the second quarter.

"That was the one that got us going," Rodgers said. "We got a free play on 3rd-and-4, and that was our first first down of the quarter. We scored on every meaningful possession after that."

Rodgers followed up the first free play, when the Packers took the penalty, with another quick snap as the Redskins substituted and frantically tried to call a timeout. While everyone looked around in confusion and flags flew, Rodgers connected with Cobb on 12-yard pass. After Mason Crosby's extra point, the score was Washington 11, Green Bay 7.

The free plays were Rodgers singlehandedly creating opportunities, something he has had to do too often this year. But free plays alone could not bring the Packers back. It was that team effort—each element of the offense helping the other click into place. The Redskins were wary of making quick substitutions, which simplified their defense, which made things easier for the Packers offensive line, which opened holes for the backs, which slowed the pass rush on Rodgers, which allowed him to find his receivers, which tired out a defense that was still wary of making quick substitutions, and everything snowballed.

From that first scoring drive of the second half on, the Packers offense we all thought was long gone was back and almost as good as ever.

The Packers themselves, as you might expect, claimed after the game to ignore the doubters.

"We don't play for them," Rodgers said. "We play for each other."

Tretter echoed the sentiment: "We have faith in ourselves, and I don't think we really wavered throughout this whole year, through the ups and downs."

Still, doubt had to seep into the locker room, if only a little. Rodgers acknowledged that the sudden, convincing offensive surge meant more than just the margin of victory in Sunday's game.

Jan 10, 2016; Landover, MD, USA; Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) throws the ball over Washington Redskins inside linebacker Mason Foster (54) during the first half in a NFC Wild Card playoff football game at FedEx Field. Mandatory Credit:
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

"It's huge for us," he said. "I talked a lot the last couple of weeks about turning it on, and a lot of you probably thought that was lip service. But we needed a game like this to get our mojo back and get our confidence going."

The Packers need it all next week: teamwork, tempo, confidence, mojo. McCarthy no longer talks about the regular season, weary of questions about the team's slumping finish after such high preseason expectations and a promising start. But what the Cardinals did to the Packers in Week 16 is not easily forgotten.

"There aren't too many times you have an opportunity to go back and have a redo," McCarthy said. "We're looking forward to having a redo."

If the Packers played the whole game the way they played in the first quarter—if they squeaked out a win based on turnovers, some isolated big plays or singlehanded feats of Rodgers brilliance—McCarthy's do-over sentiments would be worth a laugh. Aaron Rodgers cannot carry this team another inch on his shoulders, especially through Arizona.

But with Lacy and Starks running, the offensive line self-correcting, and the receivers giving Rodgers somewhere to go with the football, the Packers can march to their own beat.

And when Rodgers has real support, he can be the real Aaron Rodgers. That makes anything possible.


Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.


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