NFC North: Packers-49ers II

SAN FRANCISCO -- I'm a little late to this trash-talking party, but as we get closer to kickoff at Candlestick Park, I thought I would throw this your way.

Rodgers
Rodgers
About 20 minutes after the Green Bay Packers drafted him in 2005, quarterback Aaron Rodgers gave an interview to KPIX, the CBS affiliate in San Francisco. Rodgers was asked how disappointed he was not to have been drafted No. 1 overall by the San Francisco 49ers, who selected Alex Smith instead.

Rodgers, clearly still emotional after a long day, responded: "Not as disappointed as the 49ers will be that they didn't draft me."

(Video here.)

The 49ers are no doubt appropriately disappointed, but it's worth noting that Rodgers claimed this week that he no longer harbors intense resentment toward the franchise.

"I don't have the same feeling," Rodgers said on his ESPN 540 radio show. "That interview that I did was probably right after I did my interview at the podium back behind the green room. I got picked maybe 20 minutes earlier. It was an emotional day, a long day. At the time I wanted to play right away and prove … to the other teams that they made a mistake.

"I look at it differently now. [Green Bay] is where I would have wanted to be had I known what I know now, about the kind of working environment this is, the opportunities I would be given, the coaching staff that was going to be here.

"I don't like doing the whole 'what-if' game. I just know that I'm really glad that I fell into God's country here in Wisconsin and had the opportunities to spend my early years the way I did, and have gotten the opportunity to be a starter and play for this team."
We had a few discussions late this season on the Green Bay Packers' defense before, during and after linebacker Clay Matthews' hamstring injury. It's not too hard to figure out; Matthews has 15 sacks in 13 regular-season and postseason games.

But what about the Charles Woodson factor? How did Woodson's fractured collarbone impact the Packers defense, and what will his presence mean for Saturday night's divisional playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers?

As the chart shows, the Packers' defense was predictably better this season when Woodson was on the field. But what's interesting is that defensive coordinator Dom Capers was significantly more aggressive in terms of sending extra rushers -- especially when one of them was a defensive back.

In his first game back since suffering the injury, Woodson was on the field for all 63 of the Packers' defensive snaps. In that game, the Packers sent at least one extra rusher against the Minnesota Vikings on 48 percent of their dropbacks. For context, consider that the Packers' blitz rate for the season was 40 percent -- and that was the fourth-highest in the NFL.

Game plans are always opponent-specific, but at the very least I think we can agree that Capers has a bigger playcard at his disposal with Woodson on the field. The 49ers will no doubt expect the same thing.

Divisional round programming note

January, 11, 2013
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It's about time to take this show out west.

The San Francisco 49ers will be at Candlestick Park on Saturday evening, awaiting the Green Bay Packers for a divisional-round playoff matchup. My guess is that NFC West blogger Mike Sando is already waiting for me in the lobby of the media hotel so that we can make a Sando-like arrival at the stadium. (I'll just say this: "Sando time" makes "Lombardi time" seem like a quaint little notion that doesn't really mean anything.)

Given the long flight this evening, I probably won't circle back to the blog until Saturday morning. The Packers have released a completely unsurprising injury report: Receiver Jarrett Boykin is out and all other players are probable. If you're antsy for more, here is an easy one-stop link for all of our "Packers-49ers II" coverage this week.

I'll be looking for your photo submissions (via Twitter @espn_nfcnblog) for a Sunday morning slideshow. You can also follow along on our still-rocking Instagram account (kevinseifert_espn). In the meantime, have a wonderful night.

Final Word: Packers-49ers

January, 11, 2013
1/11/13
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NFC Final Word: Packers-49ers | Seahawks-Falcons AFC: Ravens-Broncos | Texans-Pats

Five nuggets of knowledge about Saturday's Green Bay Packers-San Francisco 49ers divisional playoff game:

Tight matchup: In talking and writing about this game over the past week, it became clear that there truly is no favorite. The Packers and 49ers have the same number of advantages and disadvantages, which makes for what I think should be the most anticipated matchup of the divisional weekend. The 49ers are 2.5-point favorites at home, which basically means Las Vegas would consider this a pick 'em game on a neutral field. ESPN's panel of 14 experts is split -- seven picked the Packers and seven chose the 49ers to win. My NFC West colleague Mike Sando, who is 36-17 in picking his division's games this season, predicts a 28-24 win for the 49ers. Me? I don't make picks. Lucky meeeeeeeee!

[+] EnlargeAaron Rodgers
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesAaron Rodgers has three consecutive road playoff wins -- just one shy of tying an NFL record.
Rodgers on the road: We've noted that Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has three playoff victories on the road in his career, a relatively modest number that nevertheless is two away from the NFL record. And it's worth noting that Rodgers was exceptional on the road during the regular season, even by his standards. He threw 22 touchdown passes and three interceptions in those eight games -- the second-best touchdown-interception differential (+19) in road games during the Super Bowl era. Only Tom Brady (+25 in 2007) has been better. This week, we also noted that Rodgers' low interception rate over his career gives him a head start for consistent playoff success.

Smith factor: Rodgers and the Packers should get an early gauge on how close 49ers defensive lineman Justin Smith is to full strength. Smith was a key part of a defense that physically overwhelmed the Packers in Week 1, but he missed the final two and a half games of the regular season because of a triceps injury -- and the 49ers defense took a notable dive in his absence. Over that stretch, the 49ers' sack rate dropped by about half and linebacker Aldon Smith didn't have a single sack. The 49ers forced a turnover about once every 57 plays without Justin Smith as opposed to once every 41 plays with him, and opponents averaged 5.1 yards per play after managing 4.5 yards per play with him on the field.

Defending Kaepernick: The 49ers' bold midseason move to promote Colin Kaepernick to their starting quarterback meets a critical judgment point this weekend. Kaepernick brings a more explosive mixture of running the read-option and throwing downfield, but his ability to handle the pressure of the postseason has not been tested. Although it was an admittedly small sample size, the Packers gave up an average of 10 yards on the six read-option plays they faced last Saturday against the Minnesota Vikings. On the other hand, you have to assume the Packers -- now at full strength with linebacker Clay Matthews and defensive back Charles Woodson on the field -- will send heavy pressure at Kaepernick. The Packers' 40-percent blitz rate during the regular season was the fourth-highest in the NFL. Kaepernick completed 57 percent of his passes against the blitz this season, ranking No. 20 in the NFL. His Total Quarterback Rating (QBR) was 59.6 against the blitz and 86.5 against four or fewer rushers.

Kicking strategy: The teams have taken different approaches with inconsistent veteran kickers this season. The Packers never considered replacing Mason Crosby, who has emerged from an extended slump to convert five consecutive attempts over his past three games. The 49ers' David Akers, meanwhile, struggled for much of the season and has missed four of his past 10 attempts. He will kick in this game only after fending off a challenge from veteran Billy Cundiff, whom the 49ers signed for an extended competition during their playoff bye week.

(Statistics courtesy ESPN Stats & Information unless otherwise noted.)

BREAKING: Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers grew up in Chico, Calif., which is more or less San Francisco 49ers country, which means Rodgers was once a big 49ers fan. In the video, Rodgers tells ESPN's Bob Holtzman: "I have lot of great memories, sitting by the TV watching Joe Montana and Steve Young and a lot of my favorite players." Rodgers' only career game at Candlestick Park was in the 2008 preseason.
Time for a quick quiz. Can you guess the pass-happiest game in the five-year history of the Aaron Rodgers Era?

Tick, tock.

Tick, tock.

Brrring.

It came in Week 1 of this season, the Green Bay Packers' 30-22 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. As the chart shows, Rodgers dropped back on 85 percent of the Packers' plays in that game (52 of 61). More than half of those plays (31 of 61) came without a running back on the field. The approach has come to symbolize the worst of the Packers' occasionally imbalanced offense under Rodgers and coach Mike McCarthy, and it's an appropriate starting point for extending the conversation on how the team has changed over the ensuing 17 weeks.

To spur that discussion, I've circled back on two posts from the early part of the season. One documented the Packers' failure rate whenever they push past a dropback rate of 70 percent. The other illustrated the decline of their downfield passing success.

With the help of John McTigue from ESPN Stats & Information, I can tell you a couple things:
  1. The Packers dropped back at a significantly lower rate over the final two-thirds of their season.
  2. Over roughly the same time period, their downfield success improved, even if it didn't approach the heights of their record-setting 2011 season.

On the first point, the Packers averaged 44.6 dropbacks over their first five games, which was the third-highest in the NFL at the time. It was part of the reason they were 2-3 at the time, and it left them 2-8 in games they've dropped back at least 70 percent of the time in the Rodgers Era.

Thereafter, the Packers had only one 70-percent dropback rate: Their Week 17 loss to the Minnesota Vikings. Even with that game, the Packers' dropback average dropped to 38 per game over their final 11.

With a less imbalanced offense since then, as the second chart shows, Rodgers has had more success as a downfield passer. His QBR on throws that traveled at least 15 yards in the air has been 98.5 (on a scale of 0 to 100).

The Packers' offense still fell short of its explosive 2011 season. Its 40-yard completions dropped by 44 percent (from 16 to 9) and its 20-yard completions dropped by 21 percent (70 to 55) over the course of 16 games. Rodgers averaged 7.83 air yards per throw, ranking No. 27 in the NFL, after averaging the league's 10th-highest mark (8.97) in 2011.

What's more important, however, is the Packers made a steady climb since hitting that early road block. Why has that happened? Conventional wisdom suggests their balance has helped. But in in a conference call this week, ESPN analyst Steve Young discounted that theory and suggested Rodgers simply raised his performance level amid an incompletely formed offense.

"Defenses are predatory," Young said. "They smell trouble and then they go after it. And throughout this year, I think defenses smelled that there was really no threat from the [Packers'] run. You can talk about it. You can even have some success. You know the truth. [But] it creates a lot of problems for quarterbacks.

"And that's why I think Aaron had one of the great years ever, because he pulled this team along without all the weapons, without his full arsenal. You give him a running game and the ability to put the ball in the belly of running back and pull it back out, and have reaction from safeties and linebackers … you won’t stop him.

"I don't believe there's enough of a threat to change the predatory nature of how defenses look at the Packers. They haven't been straightened up to that fact. … I don't think they’ve done enough to change the perception from the kind of defense he’s going to be facing."

We'll leave it to people with deeper football knowledge than me to understand why this shift has occurred. Was it more balanced play-calling? Simply a yeoman effort from Rodgers? That debate can continue. What we can conclude is that there has been a notable shift. The Packers are a more balanced and more explosive offense than they were in Week 1, and it sure won't hurt them in Saturday night's rematch.

Packers-49ers II: Thursday injuries

January, 10, 2013
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The Green Bay Packers appear to have answered their biggest injury question of the divisional playoff round.

Their top four wide receivers participated in at least a portion of their final practice of the week Thursday, suggesting they will all be available for Saturday night's game against the San Francisco 49ers. Jordy Nelson (ankle) and Randall Cobb (flu) were limited Thursday, but coach Mike McCarthy suggested that both should be ready by the weekend.

Formal injury designations won't be released until Friday, which sets up a possibility of the kind of curveball we got last week from the Minnesota Vikings. But for now, it appears that receiver Jarrett Boykin (ankle) is the only Packers player at risk of missing the game.

The 49ers practice later Thursday. We'll update you with any surprises there.

Blogger Blitz: Don Barclay's big task

January, 10, 2013
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The development of the Green Bay Packers' running game, and their consistent commitment to it, has been one of the stories of their season. Some of the credit has gone to an offensive line that settled down when coaches decided on rookie Don Barclay as the replacement for injured right tackle Bryan Bulaga, which then allowed T.J. Lang to move back to left guard.

It's only fair to mention, however, that pressure on quarterback Aaron Rodgers has increased over roughly the same span. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Rodgers was sacked or put under duress on 28.1 percent of dropbacks over the Packers' final seven regular season games. That was the fourth-highest rate among NFL teams over that span; Rodgers' duress rate was 20.1 in the previous nine games, the 12th-best in the league.

(ESPN defines "duress" as any time a quarterback is forced from the pocket, had his throwing motion altered or faced a defender with a clear path in his line of sight.)

That's why the relatively anonymous Barclay will play an important role in Saturday night's divisional playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers. Barclay figures to get at least a few matchups with 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith, who brutalized another NFC North team -- the Chicago Bears -- for a 5.5-sack game in Week 11.

Rodgers typically plays well in such situations. His 81.7 Total Quarterback Rating (QBR) while under duress was the NFL's best by a long shot during the regular season. But you still don't want to see a pass rusher like Smith running free in a playoff game. Hence, this week's Blogger Blitz.

Related: Elizabeth Merrill's Hot Read profile on Smith.
As we get closer to Saturday night's divisional playoff game at Candlestick Park, the biggest injury question might be whether or not Green Bay Packers receiver Jordy Nelson will play.

Nelson missed his second consecutive practice Wednesday because of what coach Mike McCarthy called an "ongoing" ankle injury. McCarthy said he hopes Nelson will get on the field Thursday for the Packers' final practice of the week. Nelson played sparingly (19 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus) in last weekend's wild-card victory over the Minnesota Vikings, and the Packers have kept the exact nature of his injury quiet.

Let's take a look at the rest of the injury reports for both teams:

Packers: Receivers Randall Cobb (flu) and Jarrett Boykin (ankle) joined Nelson on the sideline. Cobb is expected to be ready for Saturday night's game, however. Safety Jerron McMillian missed Wednesday's practice for personal reasons. All other players had at least limited participation, and tight end Jermichael Finley (hamstring) went full.

49ers: All players had at least limited participation, including defensive lineman Justin Smith (elbow/triceps). Barring a setback, Smith is expected to play Saturday night.
As predicted, NFC West blogger Mike Sando consumed a good portion of this week's Inside Slant podcast advocating for Colin Kaepernick's immediate induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Sigh.

Seriously, our discussion centered around Kaepernick's role in Saturday night's divisional playoff game against the Green Bay Packers. In a best-case scenario, Mike acknowledged, Kaepernick will give the San Francisco 49ers a better chance than former starter Alex Smith to keep pace if the Packers' offense makes this game a shootout.

The Packers' defense could draw into question the judgment of 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh if it shuts down Kaepernick -- who admittedly has played well since ascending into the starting lineup -- and advances to the NFC Championship Game. The 49ers made this move knowing Kaepernick would need to perform like a postseason veteran in order to reach the Super Bowl.

The quarterback shift was one of the boldest moves of the NFL season, a topic we addressed in our Nov. 7 podcast and then circled back on Wednesday as well.
Rodgers/KaepernickUSA TODAY SportsThe play of Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, left, and San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick will go a long way in deciding the outcome of Saturday's divisional playoff matchup.
The 2012 season began at Lambeau Field for ESPN.com's NFC West and NFC North bloggers. The San Francisco 49ers had a Week 1 date against the Green Bay Packers, which meant that Mike Sando and Kevin Seifert would be working side by side in a game that figured to be a (early) playoff preview.

Except -- oh, that's right -- Sando got caught up in Russell Wilson-mania, bailed on the trip to Green Bay and left Seifert to chronicle the 49ers' wire-to-wire victory. So it's only fair to let Seifert have the first word in this discussion of Saturday night's rematch in the divisional playoffs at Candlestick Park.

Seifert: Yeah, Mike, I remember turning to you during the game to express surprise at how much better the 49ers seemed that day -- and there was only an empty seat next to me. I know you were busy tracking your guy Wilson, but I can tell you firsthand that the 49ers physically manhandled the Packers that day. They walked into Lambeau, took a 10-0 lead early in the second quarter and never looked back. Both teams have changed since then, but there was a clear physical advantage there. I remember seeing Frank Gore bulldozing into the second level and popping outside, an issue the Packers would face later in the season against Adrian Peterson as well. (Gore gained 72 of his 112 yards outside the tackles.) So I'll ask you: Are the 49ers still as physical of a team as they were in Week 1?

[+] EnlargeJustin/Aldon
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezAldon Smith, left, and the 49ers' defense weren't as productive with Justin Smith out of uniform.
Sando: That’s just how we roll in the NFC West, Kevin. It has become the new Black and Blue division. The 49ers are still a physical team. Their offense is pretty much unchanged from that standpoint. I expect a rested Gore to run the ball effectively. If the 49ers are smart, they’ll involve Colin Kaepernick in the running game, adding another dimension. The big question for San Francisco is whether the defense can be as physical with Justin Smith playing through a triceps injury. Smith will have had 27 days between games by the time he suits up for this one. If he is at full strength, the 49ers will be just as physical now as then. If not, the entire defensive front is compromised. San Francisco doesn’t have great depth along the line.

Seifert: We'll dive deeper into that Smith issue in a bit, but let's pick up with the 49ers' read-option capabilities with Kaepernick. I realize it's a small sample size, but the Minnesota Vikings had some success Saturday night using Peterson and Joe Webb in a similar type of option arrangement. They ran the read-option six times and gained 65 yards on it. Gore isn't as dominant of a runner as Peterson, but I would say Kaepernick is a more reliable scrambler than Webb. Regardless, the 49ers could have some success with it Saturday night. It's a lot to keep track of. But even typing the name "Joe Webb" reminds me what can happen when a quarterback makes his first NFL playoff start. Kaepernick has to be a bit of a question mark in this game, doesn't he?

Sando: Kaepernick is a different kind of question mark. The conventional and advanced stats say he has been as good as or better than Alex Smith. Kaepernick ranks third in Total QBR (76.8) behind Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. Matt Ryan is fourth, and Aaron Rodgers is fifth. That doesn’t happen by accident. But the identity of the offense is changing, and the process has been a little unsettling for a team that had a pretty strong identity for more than a year. The offense can be much more explosive with Kaepernick. He has had a couple of 50-yard runs in fourth quarters and his arm strength has opened up the field, but Gore hasn’t been as comfortable running from the pistol formation. It throws off his timing. Vernon Davis has disappeared from the passing game. Kendall Hunter, Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams have landed on injured reserve. Randy Moss’ playing time is up. There has been a lot of change packed into a short window, and there’s a sense almost anything could happen, good or bad.

Seifert: Well, that certainly settles things. Anyway, I was in the Packers' locker room Saturday night after they beat the Vikings, and the team seemed to have every expectation that the 49ers would try to run the ball down its throats, especially with an inexperienced quarterback making his first playoff start. The Packers know Gore steamrolled them in Week 1, but they feel as though they've had a lot of practice against Peterson since then. Even though Peterson had 409 yards against them in two regular-season games, the Packers did a nice job bottling him up in the playoffs. (Most of Peterson's 99 yards in that game came after the Packers had a three-score lead.) But we've now spent, oh, about 800 words discussing Gore and Kaepernick in this matchup and have barely mentioned the two most important words in this game: "Aaron" and "Rodgers." With all due respect to the Smiths, Justin and Aldon, Rodgers will be the best player on the field Saturday night. You can have your Colin Kaepernick.

[+] EnlargeDuJuan Harris
AP Photo/Jeffrey PhelpsDespite his size, DuJuan Harris was effective as a rusher for Green Bay.
Sando: That’s an interesting take on Kaepernick. I think he’s better than that. He went into Gillette Stadium, threw four touchdown passes and had the 49ers up 31-3 on Tom Brady. Kaepernick and Rodgers both have 5-2 starting records since Kaepernick entered the lineup. Kaepernick is averaging more yards per drop back in part because he has taken half as many sacks (since Week 11, when both have been starting). Kaepernick has a higher Total QBR over that span. He has 10 touchdown passes and three picks. Rodgers has 14 touchdowns and three picks. Rodgers is completing 67.6 percent of his passes, while Kaepernick is at 62.5 percent. I’m giving the QB edge to the Packers in this game, but I’m not sure it’s as lopsided as conventional wisdom would suggest. Is Rodgers playing lights out, or was Greg Cosell -- the NFL Films analyst -- right when he said Rodgers is "leaving an awful lot of plays on the field" through tentative play from the pocket?

Seifert: There is no doubt Kaepernick has been productive and efficient. We in the NFC North were his first victims -- the Week 11 romp over the Chicago Bears. But as you're fond of saying, Mike, usually we can find a statistical split to tell whatever story we want to tell. On Rodgers-Kaepernick, I'll just throw out a few things. First, Rodgers enters this matchup having thrown 11 touchdowns without an interception over his past four games. Kaepernick has seven touchdown passes and three interceptions in his past four. Rodgers is 5-2 as a postseason starter and has the highest passer rating (105.4) in NFL playoff history. If my math is right, Kaepernick is winless as a playoff starter. Finally, on Cosell's analysis, I will say that other media observers have made similar suggestions about Rodgers' tentativeness. Ron Jaworski is one. I'm not smart enough to know how many plays Rodgers has left on the field, but I do know I would rather him pass up a few, and take a few extra sacks, than follow a more reckless approach that might hit a few more big plays but also almost certainly lead to more mistakes. Rodgers makes enough big plays; he led the NFL in touchdown passes per attempt (7.1 percent) this season. But he also has the single-best quality for a quarterback in the playoffs: He rarely throws interceptions. Rodgers' career interception ratio is 1.73, the best in NFL history by a long measure. Of all the statistical indicators, interceptions might be the one most directly correlated to postseason success and failure.

Sando: That brings us back to the beginning. Justin Smith and that 49ers defense must affect Rodgers. I’m not sure they’ll be able to do that well enough. Aldon Smith had 19.5 sacks this season, but none after Justin Smith played his final regular-season snap against New England in Week 15. When it comes right down to it, I’m less sure what to expect from the 49ers on either side of the ball. Their special teams also have gone from a major strength to a consistent liability -- at kicker, in the return game and in coverage. The more I think about this game, the more I think Kaepernick has to be Rodgers’ equal, or close to it. That’s a lot to ask, but the 49ers made the quarterback change with this type of game in mind. When I think about the Packers' allowing three touchdown passes to the Vikings’ Christian Ponder in a meaningful Week 17 matchup, I’m inclined to take the 49ers at home. You won’t see me at the betting window putting a wager on it, though.

Seifert: The best thing the Packers have going for them in this game is that they have built a more balanced offense around Rodgers in the second half of the season. If you think back to Week 1, they were such a pass-happy offense that they ran more than half of their plays against the 49ers -- 31 of 61 -- without a single running back on the field. Now they're in a position where they've run for at least 100 yards as a team in six of their past nine games. I think this is a great and fun matchup. Heading west to win a playoff game at Candlestick is tough -- just ask the New Orleans Saints last year -- but it's not impossible to envision a Packers victory. Hopefully Mike joins me this time.
As we get inch closer to Saturday night's divisional playoff game at Candlestick Park, it's become quite clear that NFC West blogger Mike Sando is on a mission to equate San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick with the Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers.

Mike offered an overview to his position in this post, comparing their performances over the final seven weeks of the regular season. I can tell you that Mike brought more nonsense in a Double Coverage post we will publish a bit later Wednesday, and I imagine I'll have to listen to it once again in our Inside Slant podcast this afternoon.

As the NFC North blogger, I'm basically taking a rope-a-dope position. Mike is more than welcome to come at me with his QBR, his QB PAA, QB PAR and ABCs. I’ll just respond with a few key facts, established over Rodgers’ far more productive career, to use for the inevitable knockout.

We noted Rodgers' career-long avoidance of interceptions Tuesday. On this fine morning, I'll point you to his success as a road quarterback in the playoffs -- one of the most difficult challenges in pro football. Despite limited opportunities, Rodgers has won three consecutive road playoff games. He is one away from tying the NFL record in that regard.

To understand how rare it is for quarterbacks to win more than they lose on the road in the postseason, check out the chart. As surprising as it might be, the NFL record for road playoff victories by a quarterback is five, meaning Rodgers is two away from tying that mark.

Before you suggest those figures are merely a function of good quarterbacks playing on lower-seeded teams, consider that four-time Super Bowl winner Joe Montana was 2-5 in his career on the road. Terry Bradshaw, another four-time winner, was 2-3 on the road. Steve Young was 0-3, Troy Aikman was 1-4 and Brett Favre was 3-7. Meanwhile, Tom Brady is 3-2 in road playoff games during his career and Peyton Manning is 2-5. (Hat tip to Packers public relations for those records.)

So bring it, Mike. It's on.
Aaron RodgersJeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsGreen Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers: "The postseason is all about creating your legacy."
On the eve of his fourth trip to the NFL playoffs, Aaron Rodgers sat down with broadcaster Bob Costas and obliged a big-picture conversation.

The Green Bay Packers quarterback has started a Pro Bowl. He has won the league's MVP award and was the MVP of Super Bowl XLV. What's left to accomplish?

The "L-Word."

Legacy.

A total of 29 quarterbacks have won Super Bowl titles. Only 11 have won multiple championships, as the chart shows, and that achievement represents the next step on Rodgers' career path. His style makes him ideally suited for the historic profile of multiple champions, and he isn't hiding from the meaning of a second Super Bowl as Saturday night's divisional-round game at the San Francisco 49ers approaches.

"I really believe that you earn your paycheck during the season," Rodgers told Costas. "[You] play at a high level and get your team to the playoffs. And then the postseason is all about creating your legacy. The great quarterbacks are remembered for their playoff successes and triumphs and Super Bowl championships and Super Bowl MVPs. We've got one here, and we want to add to that."

Rodgers is universally considered one of the NFL's top quarterbacks (near-unanimous, at least). Still, there are many examples in league history of elite quarterbacks who couldn't win multiple championships. Look no further than Rodgers' predecessor in Green Bay.

So what could separate Rodgers? Simply put, he is the least error-prone quarterback in league history.

Turnover totals are among the most reliable indicators of team success, and for quarterbacks, that mostly means interceptions. As you may know, Rodgers has, by far, the lowest interception rate -- interceptions per attempt -- in NFL history.

Most focus on yards, completion percentage and touchdowns in this fantasy age, but you might not realize that Rodgers has thrown only 46 interceptions in 2,665 regular-season attempts over his career. His corresponding interception percentage of 1.73 is well ahead of the second-best in history, the 2.06 percent of the New England Patriots' Tom Brady, and is among the few statistics that don't have to be curved for the modern-day explosion in NFL passing numbers.

In his seven playoff starts, Rodgers has thrown four interceptions over 253 attempts. That percentage of 1.58 is fourth-best in postseason history. It's worth noting that in his four most recent games -- the final three of the regular season and Saturday's wild-card victory over the Minnesota Vikings -- Rodgers hasn't thrown a single interception while tossing 11 touchdowns.

Why are we locking in so heavily on interceptions? I recognize that more goes into winning championships than a quarterback who doesn't throw picks. If that were the only criterion, cautious quarterbacks such as Alex Smith (10 interceptions over the past two seasons) would have multiple rings.

For the purposes of this post, let's accept that we've limited ourselves to excellent quarterbacks. We're trying to determine what can elevate them into the best of the best.

The gang at Cold Hard Football Facts tracks this topic in great detail on their insider site. The correlation between interceptions and victories, especially in the playoffs, is overwhelming.

This season, teams that threw fewer interceptions than their opponents won 80 percent of their games. As playoff intensity ramped up beginning in Week 14, that winning percentage jumped to 95.7. Since Rodgers became their starter in 2008, the Packers have won 90.2 percent of their games in those situations.

Taking care of the ball is especially critical in the playoffs between teams that are presumably closer-matched than in the regular season. In a study updated through most of 2009, CHFF found that a team's chances of winning a playoff game drops about 20 percentage points with every interception it throws. Teams whose quarterback threw just one interception in a playoff game won only 56 percent of their games. Two interceptions dropped that winning percentage to 31.4.

You might think we're hashing our way to an obvious conclusion. Interceptions are bad. We know that. But it's not that Rodgers simply avoids interceptions. Over a five-year span, he has avoided them to a substantially better degree than any quarterback in league history. History tells us the Packers have a better playoff advantage with Rodgers than most any other quarterback. Ever.

Consider Rodgers' predecessor, Brett Favre -- who threw five interceptions in 12 career playoff victories and 23 in 10 postseason defeats with Green Bay. In the three playoff games that led to his only Super Bowl victory, Favre threw one interception in 71 attempts.

On its own, a dearth of interceptions won't take Rodgers and the Packers to another championship. But it probably provides the clearest path to building that legacy.
John Clayton's Last Call column broached a unique angle in looking ahead to Saturday night's divisional playoff game at Candlestick Park. Namely: Will the Green Bay Packers have an advantage because their defense is less beat up than the San Francisco 49ers?

As Clayton points out, the Packers set out to expand their defensive rotation this season because they thought their defense was worn down when the 2011 playoffs began. That's part of why they selected six consecutive defensive players at the top of their 2012 draft, and the numbers show they have spread out playing time and reduced the number of high-frequency snap counts as a result.

The chart lists every player who participated in at least 60 percent of the Packers' defensive snaps in 2011 and 2012, in each case including one playoff game. According to numbers compiled by Pro Football Focus, the number dropped from 10 such players last season to seven in 2012.

All told, 21 players played at least 200 defensive snaps this season compared to 16 in 2011. Injuries to cornerback Charles Woodson and Clay Matthews reduced their playing time this season, but regardless of the reason, both entered the playoffs with less wear on their bodies than usual.

The most obvious non-injury reduction in playing time happened with nose tackle B.J. Raji. After playing more than 80 percent of the snaps last season, Raji has been on the field for 59.2 percent this season -- a significant difference of 238 snaps. He missed two games because of an ankle injury, but his snap totals would have been down even if he had played both at his regular rate.

Raji's extra snaps have been spread among rookies Jerel Worthy (467 snaps) and Mike Daniels (250), along with veterans Mike Neal (295) and C.J. Wilson (314).

Meanwhile, as Clayton notes, the 49ers have had only 13 players get at least 200 defensive snaps. Seven of them have more than 1,000 snaps and an eighth, defensive lineman Justin Smith, was on pace to do the same before he was sidelined by injury.

The 49ers, of course, were the NFC's second seed and thus had a bye week to rest and recover from the regular season. They should be relatively fresh Saturday. But compared to last season, at least, the Packers will be as well.

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