After a month of down-to-the wire, gut-wrenching losses, Aaron Rodgers finally got the finish he's been looking for. And he didn't have to come from behind to do it.
Officially, his kneeldown on third-and-4 with 24 seconds remaining on Sunday sealed the Packers' 31-21 victory and the Lions' fate as the NFL's first 0-16 team. Unofficially, the Packers' quarterback ended things 7 minutes earlier when he hooked up with Donald Driver for a 71-yard score on first down that pushed Green Bay's lead to 10 points.
"It was a great call," Rodgers said. "I just told Mike (McCarthy) I appreciate the call. It shows a lot of confidence in me for him to call a play like that in a running set with two tight ends on the field."
The play came seconds after Detroit had cut the lead to three points on a 9-yard Kevin Smith touchdown run set up by 35- and 36-yard pass plays to John Standeford. Those receptions were the types of backbreaking plays that have cost the Packers all season and one of the reasons why they've lost seven games by four points or less. It could have signaled the beginning of the end again this week. But Rodgers' ensuing touchdown toss — his third of the game and second of the quarter — put it back to a two-score contest and all but guaranteed it wouldn't come down to yet another desperation drive.
After an interception by safety Nick Collins on the Lions' next possession gave Green Bay the ball, Rodgers hit running back DeShawn Wynn for a 16-yard catch-and-run on third-and-7 that kept the clock moving and set up the offense for the victory formation as time ticked off the clock.
On the afternoon, Rodgers completed 21-of-31 passes for 308 yards with a quarterback rating of 132.2. While it came against the woeful Lions, who rank near the bottom of nearly every statistical defensive ranking, it allowed the Packers to end the season on a positive note while making some pretty amazing history of their own.
With Driver and Greg Jennings each going over the 100-yard mark receiving and running backs Ryan Grant and Wynn eclipsing the century mark on the ground, Green Bay became the first team in NFL history to have two receivers and two backs hit those milestones in the same game. No other offense, not the high-flying "Greatest Show on Earth" Rams of the 1990s or even the Indianapolis Colts' scoreboard-scorching unit of recent years can boast that claim to fame.
Rodgers ended the season with 4,038 yards to become just the second quarterback since 1970 to pass for 4,000-plus yards in the same season in which he made his first career start. The other quarterback was Kurt Warner, who passed for 4,353 yards in 1999 while picking up league and Super Bowl MVP awards. Additionally, Rodgers' 28 touchdowns were the highest total for a first season starting since Daunte Culpepper threw 33 in 2000.
There are lots of ways to judge a starting quarterback. Touchdowns, yards, interceptions, quarterback rating and wins are the usual measuring sticks. Intangibles like leadership are a factor. But the weight given to each of those makes the debate subjective. Some will say the Packers would've won three or four more games, perhaps even the NFC North Division, if Brett Favre had been at the helm.
We'll never know. There is no true apples-to-apples comparison that provides any degree of certainty. Do you compare Favre last year to Rodgers this year or Favre this year with the Jets to Rodgers this year with the Packers? How does a tougher schedule, Favre being a year older and injuries on defense get weighed in the formula? It's an argument without an answer.
But Rodgers is the unquestioned quarterback of the future. He put up numbers few thought possible. The naysayers who thought the Packers would finish in the neighborhood of 6-10, as they did, typically thought it would happen because of an injury to Rodgers that would force rookies Matt Flynn or Brian Brohm into service.
Rodgers, however, was a poster boy for durability, starting all 16 games. He did it despite a painful separated shoulder, and while he's got a couple hundred games to go before Favre's iron-man streak is in any danger, he demonstrated a toughness that was as meaningful as any statistic he posted.
"Definitely, definitely. That was one of the most important things," Rodgers said. "Coach is always talking about accountability and availability, and those are two things I pride myself on. The availability is just where you're supposed to be at all times — where you're supposed to be during the week and on Sundays — and that's on the field. And we all play with bumps and bruises. I had my fair share this year and was able to get through them and stay on the field."
Six months ago, Rodgers left the field at the Packers' Family Night scrimmage to a bellowing of boos. On Sunday, he walked off Lambeau Field to boisterous cheers. Through the numbers he's posted, and through the class, poise and professionalism he's handled himself with during a season of unimaginable pressure, he's won over most of Packer Nation.
Winning more games won't be far behind.
W. Keith Roerdink has covered the Packers since 1992. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rodgers caps strong start with strong finish
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