Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers won’t win this season’s NFL most valuable player award. That voting closed the day before the first round of the playoffs, so Tom Brady’s a shoo-in there.
But Rodgers has been the best quarterback, and player, so far in the playoffs. His play has helped make the conference championships this weekend noteworthy for who’s not there: a Pro Bowl quarterback.
That flies against NFL conventional wisdom, because quarterbacks matter most, and the teams with the best quarterbacks usually go deep into the playoffs. But all five Pro Bowl quarterbacks who made it to the playoffs – Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Michael Vick and Matt Ryan – are done.
How could that be? Two reasons.
First, there are two elite quarterbacks still playing. Rodgers dispatched two of the Pro Bowlers, and there’s a good argument he’s played better than anyone over the last month. Also, Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger, like him or not, is a top player even if he missed out on the Pro Bowl. Their teams are in the final four.
Also, in all four divisional-round games last weekend, the more talented team – the team with more playmakers – won.
New England had Brady, which always is an edge, and an especially big one against Mark Sanchez of the New York Jets. But relative to their talent, the Patriots overachieved to finish 14-2. Aside from Brady, they have no one on offense whom opponents fear. On defense they have plenty of decent players but only one stud (Vince Wilfork) plus two up-and-comers (Jerod Mayo and Devin McCourty).
The Jets overcame the disparity at quarterback because they have several premier players at their positions: cornerback Darrelle Revis, who is one of the best handful of players in the league; linebackers Bart Scott and David Harris; plus two receivers, Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards, who have formidable playmaking talent even if they don’t play like it week in and week out. They played like it last week.
The Bears, with Devin Hester, Julius Peppers, Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs and Jay Cutler, easily dispatched Seattle, which has no playmakers of note. Makes you wonder how they Seahawks beat New Orleans. Guess they have aging Matt Hasselbeck’s lights-out game to thank for that.
Like the Jets vs. Patriots, Pittsburgh was fairly evenly matched against Baltimore, but the Steelers had more upper-tier players (Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, and Rashard Mendenhall) than the Ravens (Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs, Ray Lewis and Ray Rice).
Then there’s the Packers. For the second straight week, Rodgers outplayed his Pro Bowl counterpart, first Vick at Philadelphia, and then Ryan at Atlanta.
Players and coaches voted for the Pro Bowl with two games left in the regular season, which explains why Ryan, Vick and Brees made it, and Rodgers didn’t. But when it mattered, in the playoffs, Rodgers proved the superior player. Vick is improved, but defenses are catching up. And the difference between Rodgers and Ryan, well, who knew it was this big?
Rodgers against Atlanta was among the all-time great playoff performances in Packers history, at least on par with the young Brett Favre in that team’s breakthrough win at San Francisco in the 1995 playoffs. Like Rodgers last week, Favre did it in a divisional-round game on the road. The third-seeded Packers won 27-17 over the second-seeded 49ers, who were defending Super Bowl champs.
Favre has become the favorite whipping boy for a wide swath of Packers fans these days because he went to the Minnesota Vikings, and his unsavory off-field behavior that’s made news in the last four months further undercuts his standing, deservedly so. But let’s not rewrite history or develop selective amnesia about his play. On that day in San Francisco in January 1996, Favre was 26, a year younger than Rodgers is now, and at the height of his powers.
There’s no distinguishing their dominating performances.
Rodgers’ passer rating was 136.8 points, Favre’s 132.9; Rodgers threw three touchdown passes and no interceptions, Favre two and none; Rodgers completed 31 of 36 passes (86.1 percent), Favre 21 of 28 (75 percent); Rodgers threw for 366 yards, Favre 299; and Rodgers was sacked twice, Favre once.
Anyone who remembers that game against the 49ers can recall the similarities. Favre played fast and sharp, time and again dropping back, finding an open receiver and in a nanosecond throwing a dart. His astronomical 10.68 yards per pass attempt – not per completion, per attempt – underscores his efficiency.
Similarly, Rodgers had his best game in the NFL against Atlanta last week. He played fast, he played smart, and he was athletic – at least four times he turned what appeared to be sure sacks into back-breaking gainers.
That performance will be impossible to match Sunday against the Bears. The conditions at Soldier Field, weather and turf, will be bad. But they’ll be bad for both teams.
So regardless, the Packers have the best quarterback in the playoffs. As former NFL scout Mike Lombardi wrote on NFL.com this week, Rodgers “looks like he is ready to take the throne as the best in the league.”
That’s a big reason why oddsmakers this week favor the Packers to win it all.