For Rodgers, It's Closing Time

After last season's finish for the Packers, playing well at the end of the season has become a theme for 2012. Can Aaron Rodgers deliver? Signs are at least pointing upward. Matt Tevsh takes a look at his history closing out seasons, including comments this week from his coaches.

At this time a year ago, Aaron Rodgers was getting set to close out the regular season as an assistant offensive coordinator.

With the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs clinched for the Green Bay Packers, Rodgers gave way to backup Matt Flynn, who, amazingly, had the most prolific quarterbacking day in franchise history. As a game day inactive, Rodgers actually put on the headset for the first half and called plays from the sideline as the Packers beat the Detroit Lions in a shootout to finish 15-1.

The Packers have no shot at 15-1 this season, but that might not be a bad thing. They can get a first-round bye in the playoffs with a win at Minnesota on Sunday, and Rodgers and the offense seem to be gaining steam at the right time.

The league's reigning MVP is coming off his best back-to-back games since a mid-October duo at Houston and at St. Louis that helped the Packers turn their season around. Two weeks ago at Chicago, Rodgers made several clutch throws in an NFC-North clinching victory, and last Sunday against the Tennessee Titans, he tied a season-high with 342 yards and accounted for four touchdowns in a 55-7 romp.

"I thought (the Tennessee game) was the type of game where you're able to get in all your different categories – as far as the play-action, quarterback movement," said head coach Mike McCarthy. "Having Aaron out on the perimeter is very dangerous. The one touchdown throw to Randall (Cobb), the naked there, that's what you want. We actually had a number of keeps where really not so much the production, but just the stress it puts on a defense, especially with the no-huddle, the ability for Aaron to extend plays like that really wears a defense down. I thought the three-step was excellent. I thought we pass protected well. I thought we had a solid pocket throughout all four quarters. And the five-step was productive. So, we were able to get through all the different types of passes, and I think that's when we're at our best, which really hasn't been the case all year."

What has been the case all year for Rodgers is a different set of challenges than in the past. Injuries at skill positions have hit harder than in 2011. There has been shuffling along the offensive line, including two new centers after the departure of Scott Wells in the offseason. And Tom Clements was promoted from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator after Joe Philbin left to coach the Miami Dolphins. As a result, Ben McAdoo moved over from coaching tight ends to coach the quarterbacks.

Then, of course, there is the tough-to-crack Cover-2 defense, which Rodgers has seen frequently this season, but not as much recently. Coincidentally, the Packers' passing game, spurred by a consistent no-huddle effort against the Titans, has found some momentum.

"The last couple weeks we've seen some more one-high (safety)," said Rodgers. "Teams have allowed us to run some of those slant patterns that had been gone for a while because they're not a great Cover-2 beater. We've just seen, in the winter months a lot of times, teams will challenge you a little bit more than early in the season when the weather gets more difficult to throw the football. We've had some success the last couple weeks. Playing in a dome (this Sunday), controlled environment, against a team that likes to play Cover-2, we'll kind of see what happens."

An improved run game has taken opponents out of playing two deep safeties all the time. The Packers could get running back James Starks back for the playoffs to go along with Alex Green, DuJuan Harris and recently acquired Ryan Grant, all of whom have made contributions the past four games to give the Packers their best rushing stretch of the season (130.5 yards per game, seven touchdowns).

At wide receiver, the Packers should be at full capacity for the playoffs. Jordy Nelson (hamstring) is ready to return against the Vikings after missing the past three games, and Randall Cobb's ankle injury last Sunday does not look like a long-term problem.

Add in a surge in production from tight end Jermichael Finley (at least five catches in three of the last four games) and Rodgers should be primed for the stretch run.

"I think he's had a fine year," said McAdoo of Rodgers. "Every year in the league is a new year and there's a lot of change and this is no different than the rest. He's probably had more change to deal with than normal. We've handled it well, he's played well, and it shows with the voting of the Pro Bowl with the peers and the fans. They respect him. They respect the way he's played the game this year. And he's had a nice year so far."

In 2011, Rodgers had a passing rating of 106.2 or higher in each of his first 12 games then had games of 96.7 and 80.1 before rebounding with a 142.7 effort against the Chicago Bears on Christmas Day. He then sat out against the Lions giving him three weeks (with a playoff bye) without game action.

The next game he played was in the divisional playoff round and he posted his worst rating of the season at 78.5 as the Packers' Super Bowl repeat dreams came crashing down with a loss to the New York Giants.

The ending to the 2010 season was much different. In the third quarter of that season, he threw for 1,232 yards and a 73.8 percent completion rate with 11 touchdowns and no interceptions. After a concussion held him out of a game and a half, he rebounded against the Giants (404 passing yards, four touchdowns) in a game that started the streak of six straight wins to a Super Bowl title.

Asked whether he might use the stark contrast to the end of each of the last two seasons as a teaching tool for Rodgers, McAdoo responded: "Like I said, each year's a new year and we like to treat it as such. But you can always rely on past experiences to help when you move forward and as you fight through some things. There's a lot of change year-to-year and this year's no different than the others."

In 2009, Rodgers saw his passer rating increase in each of the last five regular-season games before unleashing the most prolific passing game in Packers playoff history (423 passing yards, four touchdown passes) at Arizona. The Packers lost that day to the Cardinals after winning seven of eight to close the regular season.

In 2008, Rodgers' first year as a starter, the Packers were 5-5 then lost five of six to close the regular season. Rodgers had just two passer ratings over 100 during that stretch with seven interceptions.

For now, McAdoo will try to maintain the status quo in coaching Rodgers and go with the flow – which seems to be headed in the right direction.

"I'm not one to go in and deviate from the way we prepare for games," he said. "I'm going to go in and I'm going to be consistent. It doesn't matter if we're preparing for the third preseason game, the fourth regular season game, or the Super Bowl. I'm going to go about my business the same way and he's going to prepare the same way and we'll hold each other accountable."


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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at matttevsh@hotmail.com


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