Posted: Sunday January 16, 2011 1:42AM ; Updated: Sunday January 16, 2011 2:47AM
Tim Layden
Tim Layden>INSIDE THE NFL

Red-hot Rodgers may be playoffs' most dangerous talent -- bar none

Story Highlights

Aaron Rodgers admits the Falcons game might've been his finest hour as a pro

Green Bay will face either Seattle or Chicago in next week's NFC title game

The Packers' brass has no regrets about turning over the team to Rodgers in 2008

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Aaron Rodgers (366 yards passing, 4 total TDs) is the first QB in NFL history to throw 10 TDs in his first three playoff games.
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

ATLANTA -- One subject was off limits, too sensitive for discussion. This was on Friday morning, and Packers executive vice president and general manager Ted Thompson was talking on the phone as the Pack awaited their departure to Atlanta for a divisional playoff game against the Falcons. They would leave their Lambeau Field headquarters at precisely 12:45 p.m., because that is when they always leave Lambeau for away games. Head coach Mike McCarthy, like most coaches, worships the sanctity of routine, so soon the buses would arrive and the team would leave promptly at 12:45.

Many things were discussed with Thompson: Atlanta's unseasonable freezing weather, Thompson's East Texas roots and, in greatest detail, the Packers' "Emergency Board,'' a giant magnetic slab that sits on the wall of an office about 30 feet from Thompson's. It contains the names of any potentially available football player whom the Packers might need to sign, should injuries deplete their roster. It has happened frequently this year -- the Packers have 15 players on injured reserve and have tapped the emergency board (and other means of filling vacancies) frequently and effectively.

"It's a pretty sorry-looking board about now,'' Thompson said. But the board has largely finished its work. Soon, it will be replaced by the Packers' draft board. Thompson and his staff deserve heaps of credit for the board's work.

Another topic was broached. It was three years ago that Thompson presided over Brett Favre's departure from Green Bay. Here, the current Packers were preparing to play a playoff game, two wins away from the Super Bowl. Favre seems certain to retire ... for good. The divorce seems complete, or as complete as it can ever be. Looking back, Thompson was asked, how does it feel to have prospered while healing the wounds cleaved open in Green Bay by jettisoning a legend?

There was a pause on the line. "I try to steer clear of talking about that,'' says Thompson. "Feelings are still pretty raw around here. It was a very difficult time for all parties involved.'' Another pause, and then Thompson added a caveat with the name of the player he drafted to replace Favre: "We're very happy to have Aaron Rodgers playing quarterback for us right now.''

On Saturday night at the Georgia Dome, Rodgers turned an NFL playoff game -- a road playoff game against the NFC's No. 1 seed -- into a piece of performance art. In the Packers' 48-21 rout of the Falcons, Rodgers completed 31 of 36 passes for 366 yards and three touchdowns, a ridiculous quarterback rating of 136.8. (At halftime, he was 18-for-21 for 234 yards and two touchdowns, and with Tramon Williams's 70-yard interception for a touchdown on the last play of the first half extending Green Bay's lead to 28-14, the Packers had squeezed the life out of the Dome).

But Rodgers' performance was not just sublime, it was Favre-ian (Favre-esque? Favre-like?) in its creativity and flair. At least six times he escaped impending sacks and completed passes. He was as dazzling as Favre, but more accurate. Midway through the third period, he scrambled to his right and dove into the end zone for the score that gave Green Bay a 35-14 lead.

From the sideline, Packers backup quarterback Matt Flynn, a third-year pro who started the Pack's narrow Week 15 loss at New England when Rodgers was out with a concussion, watched in awe. "That was about as well as I've ever seen a quarterback play, in person,'' said Flynn. "The ability to break tackles, extend plays, thrown on the run with accuracy. I mean, I see a lot of that stuff every day, but today it seemed like he stepped it up a notch.''

Rodgers said, "It was a special day. We kind of did what we wanted to do. I just got into a rhythm not only throwing the football, but moving around in the pocket.'' Asked if the game was his best, he said, "Yeah, this probably was my best performance. I think, the stage that we were on ... the importance of this game, so yeah, it was a good night."

There were a half-season's worth of highlights: A sprint-scramble right and 34-yard completion to James Jones in the second quarter when the Packers trailed by a touchdown. A balletic 20-yard touchdown pass to Jones in the final minute of the first half (right before Williams's pick-six), in which Rodgers threw a perfect ball to the apex of Jones's remarkable jump. An instinctive reverse-pivot escape and 15-yard completion to Jones (who was atoning all night for a terrible drop last week in the wild-card win over the Eagles) on third-and-13 from the Green Bay 17 on the opening drive of the second half.

But no play better measured Rodgers' resolve than this one: Leading 42-21 with just under 14 minutes left, Rodgers threw a short out pattern to Greg Jennings, who led the Packers with eight catches for 101 yards. Jennings slipped down and the ball skipped out of bounds. In a game long over, Rodgers glared at Jennings. "He was a little perturbed," said Jennings. "It was a look, it was everything. It was like, 'Come on man, you've got to make that play.' When you've got a guy leading your team with that mindset, it's scary.

"There were a couple times tonight," said Jennings, "When I could have caused a delay-of-game penalty because I was telling him that was a great play."

It seems absurd that just a week ago, when the Packers went to Philadelphia and took out the NFC East champion Eagles, that Rodgers was hit with a question about finally winning a playoff game, when he had only played one previously. (A 51-45 loss to Arizona last year in which Rodgers threw for 423 yards and four touchdowns). Now, he has become the first quarterback in NFL history to throw 10 touchdown passes in his first three playoff games (Daryle Lamonica, Dan Marino and Jeff George -- Jeff George? -- all had thrown nine). "I think he's put that issue to rest at this point,'' said Packers offensive tackle Chad Clifton. "The things he can do with his arm and his feet, it's hard to find someone better right now."

Pending whatever Tom Brady might do against the Jets late Sunday afternoon, Rodgers looms as the most dangerous man in the playoffs and a very good reason to climb onto the Green Bay bandwagon. He was good all season. His 101.2 passer rating was third in the NFL behind Brady (111.0) and Philip Rivers (101.8). He threw 30 touchdowns and 11 interceptions and his average of 8.3 yards per attempt was second only to Rivers' 8.7. (As an aside, when I was in the middle of reporting a piece on the art of quarterbacking earlier this season, I asked Rivers whose work he admired. "Aaron Rodgers,'' Rivers said. "His mechanics are just really tight." And that's tight in good way, as in efficient and smooth).

But Rodgers has been building to this: When Thompson committed the franchise to him in the 2008 offseason, Rodgers had thrown only 59 passes in three seasons as Favre's backup. The Packers struggled to a 6-10 record in that first season post-Favre and then went 11-5 last year, but lost to the Vikings in both Green Bay and Minneapolis. Rodgers finished with more than 4,400 yards passing, 30 touchdowns and only seven picks. But it was hard to make people forget the legend when the legend was beating him.

With any decision in the NFL (or any major American sport), there is a desperate rush to judge. Team's drafts are evaluated before ESPN signs off its coverage. Free-agent signings, trades and coach hirings are ranked long before a game is played, when, in fact, the only time to fairly judge such actions is after many games are played. But that would take too long. So, Rodgers has been incessantly judged and by an unfair standard.

And it's possible that some piece of Rodgers' legacy will always be that he was the guy who replaced Favre. Saturday night that piece got smaller.

 
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