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Being named MVP of the preseason is like being voted the freshest-smelling worker in the stable at Churchill Downs.
But that was the mantle thrust upon Aaron Rodgers after a sizzling four games in which nine of his 13 possessions ended in the end zone. He completed a stellar 70.7 percent of his passes, threw six touchdowns against no interceptions, and averaged a ridiculous 11.3 yards per passing attempt. His passer rating of 147.9 points led the NFL.
"The big thing about quarterback play -- and really offensive football -- everybody talks about it but it's really what you're chasing every single day in practice and you're trying to carry it over to the game field, is the rhythm and the timing," coach Mike McCarthy said this week. "That's where I think Aaron is at a high level right now. He's played very well in the preseason. Regardless of who you are playing against or how long you are playing against 1s and 2s, you still have to out and play and he's in sync right now."
Will he remain in sync against the Chicago Bears on Sunday night? He barely played in the last preseason game, so his last extended playing time came more than two weeks ago at Arizona. Rodgers obviously hopes so, and he points to the hard work put in during offseason workouts and organized team activities as a reason for his productive preseason.
"I think it tells you that I was very prepared, I took care of my body this offseason and wanted to put myself in a good situation in training camp to have the kind of preseason that I did," he said. "Other than that, I think it tells us that our offense has some confidence right now, but we're going to have to carry that over. Those stats don't carry over, they don't mean anything, but it gives us a confidence and momentum on offense. We feel like we've got a good thing going right now. But we're playing a tough defense, a veteran defense that's going to try to take us out of our comfort zone and do things that we're not accustomed to doing and confuse us a little bit. So it's going to be important that we carry over the positive vibe and energy that we had in the four preseason games and start fresh."
With Rodgers running the show and the Packers suddenly a chic pick to get back to the Super Bowl, expectations and silly titles like "preseason MVP" are being thrown Rodgers' way.
"Absolutely nothing. Absolutely nothing," he said of what that praise meant. "We haven't played a game yet. The preseason went well, obviously, but they don't give out MVPs for the preseason. Think I might have been in the running maybe. But that means absolutely nothing. The individual awards for all of us comes as the wins come. So, if we take care of business on the field and win games, then we're going to be in a good position late in the season for not only those individual awards, which take a backseat to the team's progress and getting into the playoffs and making a run."
In Capers they trust
The 11 preferred defensive starters from last season will be in the starting lineup against the Bears. That means the success or failure of this season depends on the addition of defensive coordinator Dom Capers.
In the preseason, the Packers finished with 13 takeaways and 12 sacks. The No. 1 defense allowed only 13 points – an impressive figure considering most of the defensive playbook remained hidden from public view.
"In the preseason, you hold a lot of things back," Pro Bowl cornerback Charles Woodson said. "You maybe run 10 or 12 defenses. We have a hundred and some defenses. So, there'll be a lot of things that we can pull from the packages that we have and play on Sunday. It'll be fun to go out there and just give it everything we've got."
With a dominating preseason, there's been a noticeable energy in the locker room among the defensive players this week. The challenge of facing a Bears offense that already was pretty good before adding Pro Bowl quarterback Jay Cutler only added to the excitement.
"It's taking too long. All I can say is it's taking too long," Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins said. "I'm ready, I'm excited. Anxious to get out there and just play football again."
"We're ready. We're ready," Woodson said. "You ever see those horses on the racetrack before they open those doors? We're ready to run."
When Bears coach Lovie Smith took over in Chicago, he made it his top priority to beat the Packers. While that was a red-meat line for the team's rabid fans, Smith said he was only saying that to win the division, the Bears needed to beat their division rivals. And because the Packers were atop the pecking order, beating Green Bay was a must.
"It's a very big game," Cutler said. "Not only is it the opener, but it's against Green Bay, our oldest rival, we've played them a bunch. So, it means a lot to the city of Chicago. It means a lot to the city of Green Bay. I understand that. I think Green Bay understands that. So, it's a heated rivalry and we're all excited about it, especially on Sunday night."
Still, the fury of this rivalry has cooled a bit since the days when Mike Ditka was coaching against Forrest Gregg. Nonetheless, this is a huge game – especially for the Packers. To win the division, they can't afford to lose a division game at home.
"Anytime you play those division games and you think about the tiebreakers coming down the stretch for just the division championship, head-to-head being the first one, it's important to take care of business when you've got 'em," Rodgers said. "Especially taking care of our business at home. It's tough to play in this league in Minnesota, in Chicago -- those are tough places to play -- and Green Bay. You need to win your home games. It will be important for us to execute and take care of business against Chicago this weekend."
-- The Bears have won 50 season-opening games; the Packers have won 49. They rank first and second in league history.
-- Since 1992, the Packers boast the best home-field record in the NFL at 101-35. Denver, at 99-37, is second, followed by Pittsburgh (98-37-1), Kansas City (93-43) and Minnesota (92-44). That home edge has eroded in recent years, though the Packers are 13-5 in their last 18 at home.
-- Green Bay ranked second in the NFL in fourth-quarter scoring last season with 150 points but allowed the second-most points in the final period with 135.
-- The Packers averaged 5.03 yards per rushing attempt last season at home but just 3.22 yards per carry on the road. So, while the carries were almost the same (220 at home vs. 217 on the road), Green Bay rushed for 138.4 yards per game at Lambeau compared to 87.3 away from Lambeau.
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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 email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Bill also is giving Facebook and Twitter a try. Find him on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook.