"Last team with the ball wins" is a cliche, but sometimes cliches are the best way to get across the central narrative of an important game. If you like great quarterback play, you have to watch the NFC Championship Game.
02 Jan 2014
by Cian Fahey
Ever since the Pittsburgh Steelers won the Super Bowl back in 2005, the distribution of seeds of Super Bowl champions has changed. Before the Steelers won that year, an incredible 12 of the previous 14 winners had entered the playoffs as either a one or a two seed. The Steelers were the first six seed in NFL history to lift the Lombardi trophy. Since then a lower seed winning the Super Bowl has occurred frequently
In 2010, the Green Bay Packers became only the second six seed in NFL history to win the Super Bowl. Since the Steelers in 2005, only twice has a one or two seed won the Super Bowl. This dramatic change has affected our anticipation of the postseason.
Recent playoff runs from lesser teams have given lower seeds more to believe in. No matter how much a team has struggled during the regular season, they still feel that they can win in January and February. Even teams that are decimated with injuries have plenty of evidence that suggests they can step up against healthier opposition.
Last season, the Baltimore Ravens defied the odds and lifted the Lombardi trophy. The Ravens had plenty of injuries and weaknesses that were exploited during the regular season, but they still overcome the Colts, Broncos, Patriots and 49ers in the playoffs. Joe Flacco rightfully got a huge amount of credit for the playoff run, but he was just he was just one of many Ravens to perform at a much higher level in the playoffs than they did during the regular season.
The sample size is so small in the playoffs that it doesn't take much to build momentum. One big performance or one emotional event can push a team to unforeseen heights. When that team has a quarterback playing to his potential, then you've got the makings of an upset.
Flacco's performances from last year are fresh in the mind. As are Eli Manning's performances in both of the Giants' Super Bowl runs. While Ben Rothlisberger’s Super Bowl performance in 2005 was sub-par, his play during the remainder of the playoffs was exemplary.
That all being said, the level of Aaron Rogers' play during the Packers 2010 Super Bowl run is unrivaled.
The Packers endured a horrible season in 2010. They lost many key players to injury for the season and entered Week 17 still fighting to make the playoffs. Victory over the Chicago Bears got them a six seed. From there, Rodgers enjoyed one of the most impressive stretches of quarterback play in NFL history. He routinely cut defenses apart with perfect poise and execution. Even when the opposition played him perfectly, he still was successful. It was Rodgers' way of announcing himself as one of the NFL's elite quarterbacks.
Rodgers has continued to be an elite quarterback since then and he was enjoying an excellent season this year until he was injured in Week 9. He broke his collarbone on his non-throwing shoulder and was kept out until Week 17. In Week 17, the Packers needed a victory against the division-rival Bears to make the playoffs. It was a familiar situation for all involved.
The Packers shouldn't have even been in that position. Just as in their last Super Bowl-winning season, injuries to key players on both sides of the ball have really hurt them. Key players such as Jermichael Finley, Bryan Bulaga and Casey Hayward were all ruled out for the season early on, while Clay Matthews has been in and out of the lineup and isn't expected to be back for the postseason.
Yes, the Packers did beat the Bears and won the NFC North, but that's not really notable. What's notable is whether Rodgers looked like the player who could take over the playoffs and turn the Packers into this season's surprise underdog. Before Rodgers broke his collarbone, he was enjoying a very impressive season. It wasn't his greatest, as inconsistency in his mechanics was affecting his accuracy, but he was still covering up for a poor offensive line and executing a well-crafted offense from Mike McCarthy.
These charts do not include throwaways, spikes, balls tipped at the line of scrimmage or passes that are interpreted as wide receiver-quarterback miscommunications.
As the above chart shows, Rogers was very accurate though his accuracy wavered on some of his deep throws. Typically throughout his career Rodgers has been an outstanding deep passer. He was still a very good deep passer before his injury, but just not up to his usual standards. Instead, he established the offense with shorter throws that fit into the quick passing offense that McCarthy appeared to be encouraging.
With such dangerous weapons as Jordy Nelson, James Jones, Randall Cobb, and Finley on the field, Rodgers didn't need to force the ball down the field for the Packers to enjoy big plays. After the injury, neither Matt Flynn or Scott Tolzien could really replicate what Rodgers had been doing on the field. With some luck and great effort from the rest of the team, the Packers survived without Rodgers, but just barely. Expectations for his return in Week 17 were ambiguous. He had been out longer than expected, so there was genuine concern whether he was fully healthy or not.
Rodgers had two questions to answer in Week 17. Could he get the team to the playoffs? How optimistic should they be once they got there? The first is easily answered: he got them to the playoffs. The second requires closer attention.
There was clearly some rust. However, if you were looking for reasons to be optimistic as a Packers fan in Week 17, Rodgers gave you plenty. McCarthy continued to focus on quicker passes to the outside to set up the offense. As you'd expect, Rodgers could easily make those throws and he did so with routine effort. However, it was his downfield throwing that really stood out.
There were some passes that could have been placed slightly better, but it would still be a stretch to call them inaccurate. He did miss his receivers on occasion, once notably when Nelson was open in the end zone and Rodgers pushed the ball too high for him to go and get it. But on the whole, Rodgers showed the velocity and accuracy that is his norm.
For all of the positive plays he made, the negatives must be addressed first. Rodgers threw two interceptions early. That must have had onlookers worried in the first half, but in a sense they would inevitably be blessings in disguise because they showed that Rodgers wasn't doubting himself when he rebounded.
Early in the first quarter, Rodgers had driven the offense down the field to the red zone. At the goal line, the Bears had a free rusher off the edge so the veteran quarterback was quickly flushed into the right flat. As he extended the play across the field, tight end Andrew Quarless extended his route from a curl over the middle so that it worked back to the pylon. As Rodgers let the ball go to where he was running, Quarless stopped to move back inside again. That allowed the defender to catch an uncontested pass.
The first interception was definitely not on the quarterback, but the second appeared to be his fault.
There was some evidence of rust in Rogers’ play. Rodgers has proven his accuracy over many seasons. One of the strongest aspects of his accuracy is his ball placement. Rodgers routinely puts the ball in perfect spots for his receivers to make hands catches without breaking stride. It is a huge contributing factor that allows his receivers to create yards after the catch.
On the second interception, the pass does hit Nelson's hands, but it is high, hard and behind in a situation that didn't call for that kind of pass. Nelson was running into huge space and Rodgers wasn't under much pressure in the pocket. His timing was off and he rushed the throw in a situation when he didn't need to rush the throw. That is the kind of play a player who hasn't been playing regularly makes.
Even though there were some negative plays, Rodgers had many more impressive plays that highlighted why the Packers are going to be a dangerous team to face this weekend.
On just his second pass attempt of the game, Rodgers diagnoses a blitz before the snap. He initially gets the defense to show their intentions with a hard-count early in the play-clock. That hard-count makes the slot cornerback jump forward and he eventually moves down so he is next to the defensive line. When the slot cornerback does that, the safety to his side of the field rotates down towards the line of scrimmage and the other safety rotates to the middle of the field.
Rodgers walks up to his center and points out the new blocking assignment before turning to Eddie Lacy and instructing him on what his new assignment is. This isn't the type of play that Tolzien or Flynn would have made in his absence.
After the snap, Rodgers shows off outstanding poise and awareness as he goes through his progressions despite the incoming pass-rush. He trusts his blockers to handle their assignments, and he complements their work with subtle movements in the pocket. Rodgers initially looks to his left where Quarless is running in-field, however he sees that Julius Peppers drops into space so the quick throw won't be available. After working to the other side of the field and finding no pass he felt comfortable with, he came back to Quarless who kept working in his route to find space by the sideline for a nine-yard completion.
Throughout the game, Rodgers showed off his mental aptitude and physical prowess. He didn't appear to be as comfortable as he normally is, but he was almost as effective.
He should only get better with more time on the field. Considering just how talented he is and how talented the Packers offense is around him, that could be terrifying for the rest of the field in the NFC. From Weeks 1-8, the Packers had 46.0% passing DVOA, which ranked fourth in the NFL during that period. With Rodgers out during Weeks 9-16, that dropped to -15.0%, which ranked 26th. And yet, over the course of the year, Eddie Lacy has helped the Packers' run offense to rank third in DVOA. Rodgers has never had a running game as good as the one he has now. Over the past three seasons, the Packers have ranked 13th, seventh, and 10th in rushing DVOA, but the Packers' efficiency running the ball came in part because teams were focused on stopping Rodgers and all of his weapons. This year, Lacy has proven that he can be the focal point of the offense and still have huge success.
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