When the Packers lost their wild-card game at Arizona last year, Aaron Rodgers threw a first-drive interception. When the Packers lost at Atlanta 20-17 on Nov. 28, there were only two critical errors for the entire 60-minute game: Aaron Rodgers' goal-line fumble and Eric Weems' kickoff return that set up the Falcons for the winning field goal.
So, with their season on the line for a fourth consecutive game, Greg Jennings had a first-drive fumble and Weems snapped a 7-7 tie with a playoff-record 102-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. It was a bad omen against a Falcons team that had made a living off of playing error-free football.
But these Packers are vastly different than the team that lost to the Cardinals last year – and they've continued to grow since being edged by the Falcons a month-and-a-half ago. The Packers didn't wilt. Nor did they just hang tough. No, the Packers took the Falcons' best shots and, as if they were a tractor-trailer against a mosquito, they just kept on accelerating.
"That's really been the story of our season," Charles Woodson said. "We've been hit with a lot. And each time, we rise above it. Think about all the injuries we had and about the guys that our personnel (department) had to go out and find to bring in to fill those voids and the way those guys are playing says a lot about our scouts and them evaluating talent. For those guys to come in and contribute to this team, that says a lot about those guys."
By the time the fair-weather Falcons fans had retreated to their vehicles, the Packers were well on their way to a 48-21 rout. It was thorough. It was convincing. It was of Super Bowl quality. Even without scoring in the first quarter against the NFL's fifth-ranked scoring defense – and even while kicking up their heels in the fourth quarter -- the Packers set a franchise playoff record for points.
"It was a special night," Rodgers said numerous times.
What else would you expect from this mentally tough team? In 2008, the Packers treated adversity like a reason to cower in the corner. In key moments in big games in 2009, the Packers' defense offered no resistance. This season – whether it's a league-leading barrage of injuries or shoddy special teams or whatever obstacle thrown their way – the Packers have risen to the occasion.
On Saturday, Rodgers showed his maturity and his mettle. After Jennings' fumble, the Falcons took a 7-0 lead. No worries. Rodgers answered by completing all six passes to lead an 81-yard touchdown. When Weems returned the kickoff for a touchdown and James Starks muffed the ensuing kickoff out of bounds, momentum had swung firmly in the Falcons' favor. No worries. Rodgers led a 92-yard touchdown drive.
If the Packers were staggered by Weems' touchdown, then the Falcons needed an extra sniff of smelling salts for what was to come. After Tramon Williams' first interception, Rodgers took the Packers 80 yards with a two-minute drill that couldn't have looked any easier if it was during an offseason practice against a rag-tag bunch of third-stringers. When Williams went the distance with his second interception, it was 28-14. At that point, the only question was the final score.
What's the winning formula in the playoffs? Quarterbacking and defense, and the Packers have those in spades.
Rodgers entered the game as the highest-ranked playoff quarterback in NFL history (121.8). With three touchdown passes, no interceptions and merely five incompletions, his rating went up with Saturday's 136.8. And yet, Falcons defensive end John Abraham found it necessary to mock Rodgers' championship-belt celebration.
Facing two of the NFC's three Pro Bowl quarterbacks, the defense has been suffocating. It's no wonder that, with everything at stake, McCarthy deferred after winning the opening coin toss so he could put his defense on the field to start the game. The importance of rookie Sam Shields can't be overstated. Last year, Kurt Warner demolished the likes of Brandon Underwood and Jarrett Bush. To further underscore the need to have quality depth at cornerback, Rodgers demolished the Falcons' secondary. No team can match the Packers' trio of cornerbacks, and that's allowed defensive coordinator Dom Capers to call a more aggressive game.
Maybe more than quarterbacking and defense, a championship team must fight through adversity. McCarthy's teams of recent vintage have always been talented. They've always had plenty of playmakers on offense and defense. But they've never played with the toughness to overcome loud crowds, early turnovers and kickoff returns for touchdowns.
"Absolutely, we're a championship-caliber football team," McCarthy said. "We talked about that before the Philadelphia game. We have 16 quarters on our mind, we've completed eight of them and we have an opportunity to play in four more next week. We feel very good about who we are, the way we played, our brand of football in all three areas, and that's what we're sticking to."
That means Rodgers putting the ball in the end zone, the defense keeping the opponent out of the end zone and a full-squad mental toughness to power through any obstacle standing between here and suburban Dallas.
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.