There are pundits who could cover the NFL forever and never get it, but most kids in grade school figure it out soon after they pick sides for the first time on a playground.
The team that gets the first pick and, in turn, the best player usually has the best chance to win.
Aaron Rodgers might not have been as sharp as usual in his first game back in almost two months, but he did what the best player on the field often does from Pee Wees to the pros: He made the plays that won the game, including one of the biggest and most dramatic in the 95-year history of the Green Bay Packers.
Jay Cutler might have played as well as Rodgers and maybe even a little better for the first 53 minutes. But with the outcome on the line and the ball in his hand, Rodgers did what great quarterbacks are expected to do. He hoisted his team on his back and produced a 33-28 victory over the Chicago Bears that decided the NFC North title and a playoff berth.
In the four seasons since Rodgers emerged as the divisionís clear-cut No. 1 quarterback, the Packers have won three division titles and a Super Bowl in the other year.
As the previous eight games had shown, the Packers without Rodgers were no better than any of their three NFC North rivals.
The NFL is a microcosm of society. Roughly 70 percent of NFL players fall into the average category and another 25 percent or so rank just above or below average. About 2 or 3 percent fall into the extremely gifted category and another 2 to 3 percent are extremely challenged.
There are two or three other truly gifted players in the NFC North ó Calvin Johnson, Adrian Peterson and probably Ndamukung Suh ó but Rodgers is the only quarterback among them, and that position is the be-all and end-all in todayís NFL.
The 48-yard touchdown pass that won it for the Packers with 38 seconds remaining was thrown by the one gifted player on the field to a receiver, Randall Cobb, who was one of maybe 10 above average players among the 92 who were active, over a safety, Chris Conte, who is one of those players near the bottom of the NFL barrel.
Rodgersí return doesnít mean the Packers are going to win even one playoff game. While heís one of the two best quarterbacks still alive in the NFC, the Packers without Clay Matthews donít have a single defender who is better than average. That means winning the Super Bowl will be a tall order, best player on the field or not. But with Rodgers, the Packers at least have a shot.
Heís the ballerina at the ball. A little rusty. His first interception was a good play by Conte. The second interception was high and behind Jordy Nelson. But Rodgers played through it and made three big plays on the final drive.
The first was a 5-yard scramble on third-and-3 where he made former All-Pro linebacker Lance Briggs miss. The second was a 6-yard completion to Jordy Nelson on fourth-and-1.
Rodgersí scramble seemed to be an emotional shot in the arm. On the gameís first series, he took a dive to avoid contact outside the pocket. As a result, the Bears didnít appear to be worried about Rodgers making plays with his feet and dropped their linebackers deep in coverage on several third-down pass plays. Running for a first down sent the message: ďThe whole playbook is open. Here we go. Our top gun is back to normal.Ē
Rodgers makes a difference in so many ways. One is his experience. He has the offense mastered so he can make adjustments at the line, keep the rhythm of the no-huddle going, etc.
The reason the short hitch passes to the wide receiver on the run-pass option plays are more successful with Rodgers than Matt Flynn is because the ball gets there before the receiver has a defensive back in his face. Thatís a little thing, but those little things add up. In the span of three plays early in the fourth quarter, Nelson and James Jones caught two of those short hitches for 46 yards.
But the biggest thing with Rodgers is that he keeps the pedal to the metal all game. That puts the defense on edge every play. With Flynn, the defensive philosophy was to keep everything in front and make the Packers win at a 4-yards-per-clip pace.
Rodgers stretches the field. He can hit 15-yard crossing patterns over the top of linebackers who are playing pass, not crowding the line to stop Eddie Lacy. Rodgers hit one to Nelson for 14 yards on a third-down play on the first series to set the tone.
On the winning TD pass, the safety squatted at the first-down marker and Cobb flew past him. Rodgers didnít do anything super. The safety blew the play. But Rodgers had the Bearsí defense walking a tightrope the entire game. And when you have a quarterback putting that kind of pressure on a defense, those things happen.
The grunt work
The Packers might not have any other stars or Pro Bowl players, but they have a lot of selfless players who do good work.
John Kuhnís blitz pick-up on the winning play showed why he makes the cut every year. He recognized the all-out blitz and then had the confidence to make the call. Thatís a heady, experienced player taking care of the details that also win games.
Lacy was affected by his ankle injury, especially late and running right. But James Starks stepped in and did what a reliable sub is supposed to do. Heís not the plow horse that Lacy is, but he didnít screw up ó notwithstanding a dropped pass ó and he produced to the point where there wasnít a big drop-off.
Nelson caught 10 passes for 161 yards. In the seven games that Rodgers didnít start, Nelson averaged just over four catches and 62 yards per game. The fourth-down pass was safe and accurate, but it also was a quintessential Nelson play. Nothing flashy. He simply ran a good route, used his body and made a sure catch of a low throw on a cold day.
The biggest defensive play might have been A.J. Hawkís forced fumble in the final 2 minutes of the first half. Tramon Williams was given credit for a strip on the official play-by-play, but it was Hawk who got his hat on the ball and dislodged it. The Bears were on the move with a chance to take the lead at halftime. Instead, the half ended with a Mason Crosby field goal.
Hawk made maybe the most athletic play of his career on an interception last week, but this one proved to be a much bigger play.
The strength of the Packersí defense right now is the cornerback position. The line is porous, the linebackers arenít explosive, but Sam Shields and Williams have been holding their own battling some of the best receivers in the game. Shields got caught peeking ó before the safety bit ó on a 67-yard pass play, but other than that, Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery combined for only eight catches and 87 yards.