GREEN BAY – Aaron Rodgers didn’t need to jog. He had one healthy leg, and plenty of time to make it to the sideline before the start of Sunday’s second half.
But before exiting the tunnel, there was something the Green Bay Packers quarterback forgot to do. Deep inside Lambeau Field, Rodgers put his swollen left knee through all sorts of tests. First, the Packers needed to know their franchise quarterback hadn’t torn his ACL. (Yes, there was a time Sunday night when their season appeared to be on the fritz.) Convinced they’d avoided the worst, Rodgers could return.
Midway to the sideline, Rodgers remembered that through all the twists and turns and tests of his left knee, he skipped over one crucial detail.
Rodgers hadn’t shown Dr. Pat McKenzie he could move faster than a walk.
“I realized,” Rodgers said, “I probably should jog. I was thinking about walking from the tunnel out all the way to the sideline, but I figured I might as well jog a little bit to let Doc McKenzie know I could do that, because I hadn’t done that yet in the bowels of the stadium.”
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He couldn’t move any faster than that shuffling jog, but on this night Aaron Rodgers didn’t need to. For all the traits that made him one of the greatest quarterbacks ever – the athleticism, the field vision, the hold-all-grudges competitiveness – there’s potentially an even greater skill that can be overlooked.
The two-time MVP has a cannon for a right arm, and on Sunday night he used it to turn the borderline impossible into reality, leading a 24-23 comeback against the rival Chicago Bears that will be remembered long after Rodgers retires.
Rodgers, who finished 20 of 30 for 286 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions, added another chapter to his long, successful history against the Bears. The comeback will join the 2010 NFC championship game, and the fourth-and-eight touchdown to Randall Cobb that clinched the NFC North in 2013.
“This will definitely go down as one of my favorite memories,” Rodgers said, “especially in this rivalry. But we’ve had some fun ones in the rivalry.”
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Rodgers shouldn’t be able to surprise anymore, not on the back nine of a career filled with stunning moments, but Sunday night was unexpected. The Packers were left for dead 30 minutes into their season. They trailed 17-0 after Bears pass rusher Khalil Mack emphatically stamped what had become his personal showcase, returning a DeShone Kizer interception 27 yards for a touchdown with 56 seconds left in the second quarter. Boos chased the Packers into their locker room at halftime.
Rodgers induced a roar from the crowd of 78,282 as he emerged from the tunnel for the third quarter.
“When I got the ovation,” Rodgers explained, “at that point, I said, ‘We might as well win this thing.’ ”
In hindsight, Rodgers said he felt good about his team’s chances as soon as he was cleared to play. He may have been the only one. The Bears got possession to start the second half, and they drove 60 yards in 12 plays, a methodical possession that ended with a 33-yard field goal.
Down 20-0, the Packers’ deficit was on the fringe of what could be potentially overcome in one half. Aside from Rodgers, nobody in the Packers locker room has seen as much football as tight end Marcedes Lewis.
How bleak did things look at 20-0?
“In this league?” Lewis shot back.
Precisely. In this league, teams don’t come back from 20-0.
“I ain’t seen nothing like that,” Lewis said,
He wasn’t the only one.
“That was sick,” left guard Lane Taylor said, shaking his head.
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Rodgers looked up at that 20-0 on the scoreboard with 9:14 left in the third quarter, and he processed his team’s hole differently than just about anyone else. It was deduced to simple arithmetic. “Seven times three,” Rodgers said. “We have to score three touchdowns, stop ‘em three times.” Then he willed it to happen, but not without making things a little more difficult.
The Packers responded to the Bears’ field goal with one of their own. It was their first points, but it took 12 plays and 5:37 on the clock. Rodgers almost caught the Bears with too many players on the field before a third-and-9 from just outside the red zone, but it wasn’t called.
His pass over the middle to tight end Jimmy Graham was incomplete, forcing the Packers to settle for a 42-yard field goal. The points felt like a failure, leaving the Packers down 20-3 with 3:37 left in the third quarter.
They still trailed three possessions.
“I got a little ticked off,” Rodgers said. “… Because I knew we still had to score three times.”
A ticked-off Rodgers is usually good, and Sunday was no different.
On the Packers' next possession, Rodgers hit receiver Geronimo Allison for a 37-yard touchdown against Bears cornerback Kyle Fuller – but the official yardage doesn’t give the play justice. Rodgers dropped back 10 yards to the Bears’ 47, then unleashed a missile from the left hash to the opposite corner of the end zone. It was all arm, Rodgers barely stepping into the throw.
How’d Rodgers heave the football that far on one leg?
“I don’t know,” Allison said, shaking his head. “I don’t know.”
Next, Rodgers found Davante Adams alone in the left flat. Adams made Bears cornerback Prince Amukamara miss in the open field, but it was another all-arm throw from Rodgers, who couldn’t pick up yards with his legs when the pocket split open up the middle.
It took only 26 seconds for the Packers to get their third straight touchdown. Rodgers threaded a pass past Bears safety Eddie Jackson, who cheated underneath receiver Randall Cobb. Jackson laid out for the ball but missed, giving Cobb open space in the middle of the field. Cobb finished his 75-yard catch-and-run cutting inside Ty Montgomery’s block at the goal line, scoring the winning touchdown.
“Nothing’s easy in this business,” Rodgers said. “But the familiarity, him kind of stopping his route there. Once I saw him put his foot in the ground and move back to the left, I knew that was where the ball had to go.”
Rodgers followed Cobb behind the play, arms extended over his head, index fingers pointed in the air. He took his time, walking. No need to jog.
His work was complete.