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No, not desperation. More like: urgency.
That is how this next challenge awaiting Aaron Rodgers must be viewed. This might not be the last opportunity to get to his second Super Bowl. But it could be.
Rodgers is 37 years old, and his 16th year in the NFL — his 13th as the Packers’ starting quarterback — was one of his very best. An all-time season. If he cannot springboard such greatness into taking the next, necessary step, when will he?
If Rodgers and the Packers, the No. 1 seed in the NFC, playing at home Sunday afternoon at their frigid Lambeau Field venue, cannot beat the Buccaneers in the NFC Championship, it will be another season of superlatives that ended with no Super Bowl. And that is unacceptable, even though the impediment in the way, Bucs quarterback Tom Brady, is the most prolific winner in league history.
“No more pressure than usual,” Rodgers said. “I think a lot of times the storylines, pressure and those kinds of comments are good stuff for you guys to write about, but I think it starts with the mentality and focus. Obviously, I put pressure on myself to perform every single week, and I think there’s a lot to be said for being able to harness that pressure and fear of failure and focus into a real positive. That’s something you learn over the years.’’
We shall see if the calming words match the actions. Rodgers at 27 won a Super Bowl after the 2010 season and a decade later is waiting for a return ticket.
“In the moment after you win it, you’re thinking, ‘Shoot, we’ll be right back next year,’ ” Rodgers said. “And we went 15-1, we won 19 games in a row, which was amazing, and then had a one-and-done in the playoffs.’’
That one-and-done exit was orchestrated by the upstart Giants, who were 9-7 during the 2011 season, then, as they had done four years earlier, caught fire in the playoffs. They ousted the Packers in the divisional round.
In 2014, there was a heartbreaking overtime loss to the Seahawks in the NFC title game (the Packers blew a 19-7 lead late in the fourth quarter). In 2016, the Packers were a banged-up bunch that got overwhelmed to the Falcons. In 2019, they were not able to hang with the 49ers.
Rodgers is expected to claim his third league MVP award in a few weeks. For all his exploits, Rodgers is 1-3 in NFC Championship games, with three consecutive losses. His quarterback rating in the four games is 78.0, far below his career rating of 103.9. He has more interceptions (seven) than touchdown passes (six).
“We’ve been there a few times and obviously been unsuccessful in our attempts,” center Corey Linsley said. “Aaron is the guy that’s sealed the deal. He’s the guy with a ring on his finger and one of the few guys left on this team that have done that. He knows what it takes.’’
Back in Week 6, the Buccaneers routed the Packers, 38-10, in Tampa. Rodgers threw two interceptions and no touchdown passes. Brady tossed two touchdown passes and was not intercepted.
To get to Super Bowl LV in Tampa, Rodgers must find a way to defeat a Bucs defense that finished No. 7 in points allowed (22.1) and No. 2 in forcing turnovers. Plus, tangling with Brady this time of year is always fraught with peril. He is the NFL’s all-time postseason leader in starts (43), wins (32), passing yards (11,968) and touchdown passes (77). This will be Brady’s 14th start in a conference championship game. His first 13, of course, came with the Patriots.
“It’s a tough thing, because you look at Brady, and everybody wants to make that comparison forever,’’ said receiver Davante Adams, who caught 18 touchdown passes this season. “So it’s basically turned into a quarterback stat, a Super Bowl. So if that’s what it’s going to be, then obviously we’re going to put as much as we can in ourselves to help [Rodgers] get there. And ultimately will relieve him of the Super Bowl being the one thing that’s keeping him from being the GOAT. Because in my mind, he’s the GOAT regardless of how many Super Bowls are won. But just for the world, just to shut them up, I guess we can go out there and get one for him.”
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