Aaron Rodgers starts his first playoff game and, really, his legacy Sunday against the Cardinals. The postseason is where careers are cemented; Peyton Manning was seen as merely a good quarterback because he fell apart in big games before finally winning the Super Bowl. Dan Marino is quickly fading because of his lack of success.
Which is why I would love to have Rodgers win his first playoff game. It would start his career off with a bang, instilling "We've been here before" attitude and confidence for the next few years. While his first two seasons need no extra spice to validate currently being a top 10 quarterback, a playoff win would be special.
So Sunday may be Rodgers' first game where, if he loses he goes home. But it is far from the first of being in the spotlight. Hell, his first game ever as a starter was on Monday Night Football against a conference rival; with everyone tuning in and gushing about how he would (or could) replace You-Know-Who.
Rodgers completed 18 of 22 that night, threw for one touchdown and ran for another.
Has any other player started eight games and endured the scrutiny, either on Monday, Thursday, or Sunday Night Football in their first two years? Throw in the Cowboys game when he came in relief for He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, and that makes nine times in his career playing on prime time.
Arizona may be just the third most hyped up game of his career, behind "The Return" and Rodgers' first start.
The one criticism Rodgers had coming into the season was that he couldn't close games, that he couldn't muster a fourth quarter comeback. I'll be the first to defend him on this front as Crosby and the run defense should have held the brunt of the attack in 2008. Anyway, Rodgers said screw it, led the Packers from behind in the fourth quarter in the opener, then did it to the Bears again 13 weeks later.
For those who haven't followed Rodgers, or seen him play, watch Sunday night. He is as fearless as his predecessor (I'm running out of substitutes) without the recklessness. Rodgers will bomb it on third and short, refuse to let a defensive lineman make him throw it away, and still only toss seven interceptions on over 540 attempts.
There was much criticism of Rodgers for holding the ball too long earlier in the season; which was somewhat justified, especially since those sacks killed the Packers. But now that he actually has an average offensive line in front of him, those plays will turn into big gains.
In fact, Rodgers probably learned more from the offensive sucking the first half (beyond the fact that a 300 lineman hurts when they crush you at full speed) than he did when they had a decent line. He knows the longevity of plays, and reacts better to the blitz. Of course, it's nice to say that now because Rodgers can still stand.
But watch him. He plays with an absolute coolness.
(Side-note: This "championship belt" celebration Rodgers has, which can be seen here at 1:10, is definitely not cool. It's incredibly dorky, to say the least. That being said, I wouldn't mind seeing it a couple of times Sunday.)
By far, the best kept secret Rodgers has is that he tears apart defenses with his legs. Rodgers has rushed for five touchdowns and only David Garrard rushed for more yards this season, slightly edging him out 323 to 316. Rodgers sustained drives and rushed for 25 first downs, with a 43% first down rate! No one ever talks about this.
Perhaps most importantly, he doesn't give the ball away. Mike McCarthy constantly preaches about turnovers on both sides of the ball, and Rodgers adheres to it. His seven interceptions are the fewest in the league, which is partly due to his decision making and partly due to his excellent arm.
Best of all, Packer fans have embraced the man. You'd think it wouldn't be too hard considering the unprecedented numbers he has put up in the last two seasons, but we all know Green Bay loved Brett (There. I said it.). We loved him for bringing back the Lombardi trophy and later for his personality. As of now, Rodgers has the latter down.
If you watch Rodgers in any interview, he has a sly grin half of the time. He is soft-spoken, very calm, and jokes around with reporters. It has been a relatively smooth transition (did I really just say that?) from Favre to Rodgers as far as the likability factor.
There was a link over at CheeseheadTV, documenting Rodgers' humorous quest of making the captain's photo before each game.
Could you imagine Philip Rivers or even Tom Brady in Green Bay? They would be way too serious for Green Bay. We would love the numbers, but Brady's robot personality doesn't hold a flame to Favre or Rodgers.
So far, Rodgers has carried the offense for the past two seasons. He has been instrumental in turning the players with a 6-10 record into an 11-5 playoff team.
Sunday, Rodgers can close the healing process a little further.