EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Aaron Rodgers stopped in the middle of MetLife Stadium’s visitors’ locker room. He bent over at the waist, looking down. Rodgers tapped his right knee a few times, not the left knee he injured during the 2018 season opener. Then, limping, he continued to the showers.
There’s a fine line between toughness and lunacy. It appeared the Green Bay Packers quarterback escaped New York City showing the former without the latter.
Rodgers took a beating Sunday against the New York Jets. He threw 55 passes, the last a 16-yard, walk-off touchdown to Davante Adams that gave the Packers a 44-38 win in overtime. He was hit 12 times, including four sacks. He ran three times into the end zone, the last a 2-point conversion that gave the Packers a late, three-point lead they ended up needing.
“I got banged up a little bit,” Rodgers said, “but I’m feeling pretty good, you know? I’ve got another week in me.”
All this abuse for a game that absolutely did not matter. At least not in the Super Bowl-or-bust way almost every game Rodgers has ever played mattered. It had been 10 years since Rodgers played with zero postseason implications. No matter, Rodgers made clear from the week’s beginning he would play, and he wasn’t kidding.
The Packers overcame horrible special-teams play and a nearly depleted defense, riding Rodgers to victory the way they have so many times in the past.
“For him to do that,” center Corey Linsley said, “we’re all putting our bodies on the line, but I think there’s a general sense that maybe the star quarterback shouldn’t do this or that. He doesn’t. He fights his ass off. I don’t know if there’s a perception or whatever, but he doesn’t fulfill that.”
Rodgers was not perfect Sunday, but he was awfully good. And as the game progressed, he only got better.
His 442 yards on 37-for-55 passing tied a season high. He had a 103.7 rating and ran for two more touchdowns. The last was a sneak from the 1-yard line when Rodgers lifted up over the pile, pushed the nose of the football just enough to scrape the goal line, and gave the Packers their first lead of the day with 72 seconds left.
Rodgers ran for a third touchdown in overtime, but it was negated by right tackle Bryan Bulaga’s holding penalty. One snap later, on first-and-goal from the 16, Rodgers found Adams to finally end Sunday’s back-and-forth game.
In another season, this would have been the galvanizing moment Rodgers has referenced. A late-season win that could propel the Packers to something bigger. All it did Sunday was ensure this would not become the first Packers team to go an entire season without a road victory since 1958, the year before Vince Lombardi arrived.
They get one more game. That’s it.
“We’ve talked at length,” Rodgers said, “about can you carry over momentum into the next season or not. I don’t think so, but you can carry over this feeling, for sure.”
Rodgers wasn’t the only Packers veteran who gutted it out Sunday. Left tackle David Bakhtiari never missed a snap, despite pulling something in his right leg badly enough to barely limp across the field, back to the line of scrimmage. Bulaga returned from a knee injury that forced him to miss the last two games. Cornerback Tramon Williams refused to fair catch a punt, got drilled in the face with a helmet, left the game to get stitches in his right eyebrow and returned to field a couple more punts.
But Rodgers is the star quarterback. And the star quarterback is the franchise. He easily could have sat out Sunday. That just wasn’t going to happen.
Why? What message was he sending?
“That it matters,” Rodgers said. “That even when the record isn’t great and you’re not going to the playoffs, that it still matters. I have a lot of pride. I love competing — in anything. … I don’t want to look back in 20 years and wonder, ‘What if I played that game? Could something special have happened?’
“What would it look like to my teammates if they knew I kind of quit on them? I hope my teammates know I’m never going to quit on them. I’m going to battle through anything I’ve got.”
On the surface, Sunday certainly didn’t seem special. Not for a team that went to eight straight playoffs in their not-so-distant past. Not for a quarterback who won a Super Bowl eight years ago.
This was beating a 4-11 team with a rookie quarterback and dead-man-walking head coach. An opponent that doesn’t know how to win, so naturally it will lose.
What Rodgers won’t say, but no doubt understands, is the larger significance. The shots he took Sunday from the Jets defense are nothing to the former teammates who have questioned his toughness and leadership. No, Rodgers wasn’t going to feed that narrative.
So he wrote his own story Sunday. In the shadow of New York City, where stars go to prove their mettle, Rodgers played the first “meaningless” game since his first season as the Packers' starting quarterback. He filled those four quarters plus overtime with meaning, if only to himself.
Now, question his leadership, doubt his toughness, and Rodgers can point to that December afternoon in the Big Apple, when the Packers had absolutely nothing to gain, but their quarterback put them on his back anyway.
“That was a special moment,” Rodgers said. “I enjoy this stadium, I enjoy this city, and the atmosphere. It’s a lot like the first week when, as I said there at the locker room at halftime, you never know how many opportunities you’re going to get. You don’t want to let a chance for something special slip away.
“I’m glad I played today. I’m glad our guys responded in the fourth quarter the way we did and overtime, and proud of our victory.”