Commentary

Rodgers continues to do it all

Packers QB has his team rolling toward perfection with uncanny precision

Originally Published: December 12, 2011
By Ashley Fox | ESPN.com

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- How do you want Aaron Rodgers to beat you?

With the ball in his hands and 58 seconds left in a game, after you've spent the past 59 minutes, 2 seconds thinking you might actually have a chance at pulling the upset?

Or how about him slowly cutting your heart out with a spoon, one little piece at a time, drive after drive after drive, so that by the time the game is over, you've bled to death?

Pick your method. Rodgers can do it all.

[+] EnlargeRodgers
Kirby Lee/US PresswireAaron Rodgers can win games in whatever fashion is needed.

A week after slicing the New York Giants in the final minute, Rodgers carved up the Oakland Raiders on Sunday, cruising to a 46-16 victory that kept the Green Bay Packers' record perfect and assured them a first-round bye in the playoffs. Five teams came back from at least 12-point deficits on this day, but the Packers needed no such heroics. This one was never close.

Rodgers was sharp from the jump and kept it up as a bright, cloudless sky gave way to a brisk Green Bay evening. He led the Packers on scoring drives on their first five possessions to take a 31-0 lead before the second quarter was even halfway over.

It was yet another stellar performance during a record-setting season that has been nothing short of perfect. Rodgers did what he always does, rocketing passes between defenders into the outstretched hands of his receivers. It didn't matter who was out there catching passes; Rodgers found them, eight in all. He completed 17 of 30 passes for 281 yards and two touchdowns, with one interception.

Rodgers could have gone for more, but the Packers had a 43-7 lead late in the third quarter, and his teammate, wide receiver Greg Jennings, was in the locker room getting treated for a left knee sprain that might keep him out for the balance of the regular-season. There was no need to risk such an injury to Rodgers. He is too important.

With five touchdowns Sunday, the Packers have now scored a franchise-record 57 this season, helping bring their season total of points scored to 466, also a franchise record. No one has held Green Bay to fewer than 24 points. Five teams, including the Raiders, could not hold Green Bay to fewer than 24 points in the first half.

So the Packers continue to roll to perfection. Three games remain, beginning in Week 15 at Kansas City. That is what the players and coach Mike McCarthy wanted to talk about after the game, the next game and not beyond. Still, the goal remains to win six more consecutive games.

This team wants to go undefeated. The Packers want another Super Bowl victory more. And who is to say they won't get there, particularly when Rodgers is playing so well?

One play against the Raiders showed why Rodgers is so tough. In addition to making all the throws, he is playing with an awareness of situations and opposing personnel that puts the opponent on its heels virtually every snap.

In the second quarter, with the Packers up 17-0, Rodgers threw a 22-yard completion to Donald Driver that gave Green Bay a first down at the Oakland 37-yard line. Rodgers hustled his team to the line and noticed right away that the Raiders were not set. The defensive front was shuffling at the line, and there were 12 defenders on the field.

Operating out of the no-huddle, Rodgers implored center Scott Wells to snap the ball. A running play was the call, but Rodgers dropped back and fired a dart to Jordy Nelson in the end zone.

It was essentially a free play -- the official threw a flag -- and Rodgers turned it into a quick-strike touchdown that gave the Packers a 31-0 lead.

"We didn't even know Aaron dropped back and threw it," left guard T.J. Lang said. "It's just stuff like that, the intelligence that he has. If it's an incompletion, so what? We've got a penalty, and we're moving the ball anyway. Great smarts by Aaron to get us in the situation, and we scored a touchdown off it, so it was a big play."

Said Lang: "He has an elevated sense of awareness. He can see that and see the whole field and know how many defenders are out there and see where they're at, so if they're offside, we're able to get a free shot. He does an excellent job."

That touchdown was Rodgers' 39th this season, tying him with Brett Favre for the most in a single season in Packers history. Favre hit 39 in 1996, his fifth season in Green Bay.

But that was over 16 games. Rodgers reached 39 touchdowns in 13 games. It was also Rodgers' 13th consecutive game with at least two passing touchdowns, tying Tom Brady (2010-11) and Peyton Manning (2004) for the longest such streak.

Rodgers did fall off pace to break Dan Marino's record of 5,084 passing yards in a season, though. He now sits at 4,125, which projects to 5,077 yards over 16 games, assuming he even plays after the Packers lock up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, which could happen against the Chiefs. New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees is on pace for 5,376 yards, and New England's Tom Brady is on pace for 5,259.

The yards, although meaningful given the significance of Marino's long-standing record, do not mean as much to Rodgers as the wins. This season is about more than personal achievement. It is about another championship, whether or not the Packers get there without a blemish on their record.

But Rodgers' teammates know they are seeing something special from their quarterback. It was there on that one play against Oakland for all to see.

"That goes to tell you right there, he's savvy and smart in everything he does," Jermichael Finley said. "That's why he's on top right now."

"He's lights-out this year," right tackle Bryan Bulaga said. "There are some throws I'll see on tape and say, '‘Wow, that's a great ball, that's a great throw, or a great check or adjustment.' He does stuff every game that makes you go, '‘That's awesome. Wow.'"

INSTANT REPLAY

Tim TebowJustin Edmonds/Getty ImagesTim Tebow didn't shine as a passer against the Bears until it mattered most.

What I learned from Week 14, quarterback edition:

Tim Tebow is a different player in the fourth quarter and overtime. Last weekend in Minneapolis, I was converted into a Tim Tebow believer after getting a firsthand look at the Broncos quarterback. It wasn't so much Tebow, though, as the faith his teammates have in him. It is contagious.

The team believes in him and one another, and the confidence is palpable. It was on display again late in the game against Chicago. How else can you explain Broncos kicker Matt Prater, who had a 28-yard field goal attempt blocked earlier in the game, booting a 59-yarder that probably would have been good from 69 to force overtime, or his burying a 51-yarder in the back of the net to beat the Bears 13-10?

Denver believes it will win every game. Keep it close, let Tebow work, and the Broncos will win. Against the Bears, Tebow was ineffective through the first three quarters, completing just 3 of 16 passes for 45 yards, zero touchdowns and an interception. Then Tebow completed 18 of 24 for 191 yards and one touchdown in the fourth quarter and overtime.

It didn't matter which team got the ball to start overtime. After Marion Barber got pushed out of bounds to preserve precious seconds on the clock for Denver after the two-minute warning, then Prater's kick to force extra time, Chicago was beaten and stunned, just like the rest of us. That Barber fumbled in overtime to give Denver the ball back was merely a formality.

The comeback continued Tebow's trend of strong play in the fourth quarter. According to ESPN's Stats & Information, in the first three quarters of games this season, Tebow has completed 38.7 percent of his passes for 520 yards, five touchdowns, one interception and an average of 4.7 yards per attempt. In the fourth quarter and overtime, Tebow has completed 60.9 percent of his passes for 770 yards, six touchdowns, one interception and an average of 8.9 yards per attempt.

With Tebow as the starter, the Broncos are 7-1, and they'll play New England in Week 15 with essentially a two-game lead over Oakland in the AFC West. Who thinks, if they can keep the game close into the fourth quarter, the Broncos and Tebow can't do their thing again?

As impressive as Tebow was, Eli Manning was even better. In a game the Giants had to win after losing four straight against staunch competition, Manning led New York back from a 34-22 fourth-quarter deficit with 15 unanswered points over the final 3:14 of the game.

He finished with 400 passing yards, two touchdowns and one interception, and was able to shake off a Mario Manningham drop that would have resulted in the go-ahead touchdown and still led the Giants into the end zone.

Manning now has 14 fourth-quarter touchdown passes this season. No quarterback has ever had more. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Manning is tied atop the list with Johnny Unitas (1959) and his brother, Peyton (2002).

Then there was T.J. Yates. Down to their third-string quarterback, the Texans were still able to clinch the AFC South and a playoff berth, the first in franchise history, with a 20-19 comeback win over Cincinnati. The reason is pretty simple: Gary Kubiak did not veer from the offense he ran with Matt Schaub and then, briefly, Matt Leinart, even though rookie T.J. Yates is now running things.

Trailing 19-13 with 2:33 left and no timeouts, Yates, a fifth-round draft pick out of North Carolina, orchestrated a 13-play, 80-yard drive that he capped with a 6-yard pass to Kevin Walter for the go-ahead touchdown with two seconds left. Yates finished with 300 passing yards, two touchdowns and one interception, and he rushed five times for 36 yards.

Tebow. Manning. And, yes, Yates. All were clutch.

He has yet to win a postseason game, but Matt Ryan looked like a playoff-caliber quarterback against Carolina. In a game that was a must-win to stay in the postseason hunt, Atlanta fell behind at the Panthers 23-7 in the first half.

But in the second half, Ryan was sharp, completing 11 of 20 passes for 232 yards and three touchdowns, including two to Julio Jones, as the Falcons outscored Carolina 24-0 to win 31-23.

Will the Suck for Luck campaign become We Need RG3? No, probably not, but it is worth mentioning the first Heisman Trophy winner from Baylor, junior quarterback Robert Griffin III.

As it is, the updated draft order for picks 1-12 is as follows, according to ESPN's Stats & Info: Indianapolis, Minnesota, St. Louis, Carolina, Washington, Cleveland, Miami, Jacksonville, Tampa Bay, Kansas City, Philadelphia and Buffalo.

SLEEPING IN THE OFFICE

Issues that will keep coaches awake this week:

Dan BaileyRonald Martinez/Getty ImagesJason Pierre-Paul was in the middle of everything against the Cowboys.

Jason Pierre-Paul will keep opposing coaches up at night. The Giants know a thing or two about developing pass-rushing defensive ends, and it all seems to be clicking for Pierre-Paul. The 6-foot-5, 278-pound second-year end New York picked 15th overall out of South Florida in the 2010 draft is coming into his own.

Against Dallas, Pierre-Paul had two sacks (one that resulted in a safety), a forced fumble, two tackles for loss and the blocked field goal that preserved the Giants' desperate 37-34 win. Pierre-Paul has 12.5 sacks, which ranks fifth in the NFL right now.

"He's understanding now," Mathias Kiwanuka told ESPN.com’'s Dan Graziano. "You don't get lucky and make that many plays. This year, you can go to JPP and ask him a question about a specific defense or a specific defensive play, and he's got an answer for you. You'’re witnessing the development from good to great."

That is not good news for Washington, the Jets or Dallas, all of whom still have to play New York, some for the second time this season.

Mike Smith suffers a health scare. The Atlanta coach was taken to a Charlotte hospital after the Falcons' win over the Panthers on Sunday. The team said in a statement late Sunday that Smith, 51, was "resting comfortably, his tests reaffirmed his health." He was scheduled to return to Atlanta on Falcons owner Arthur Blank's private plane.

Chicago might not win another game. It is a shame, but it simply might not matter whether Jay Cutler will be ready for the playoffs. The Bears have lost three straight games with Caleb Hanie as quarterback. The Bears will face Seattle at home in Week 15, then play at Green Bay and at Minnesota.

In three games, Hanie has completed just 51.9 percent of his passes for an average of 167.3 yards per game, with two touchdowns, six interceptions and 15 sacks. The Bears have averaged 11 points in those three games.

The season is slipping away from the Bears, and fast.

Jim Leonhard'’s season likely will end with an injury for the second straight year. The Jets' starting safety, who broke his tibia in practice in early December last year, suffered a right knee injury against Kansas City that is believed to be a torn ligament. In the second quarter, Leonhard intercepted Tyler Palko but was injured when the Chiefs tackled him.

Although the Jets beat the Chiefs 37-10, the loss of Leonhard is huge. He is a leader on defense, a calming presence calling plays and getting his teammates lined up. Leonhard also was back returning punts against the Chiefs.

"We really need him," Jets linebacker Jamaal Westerman told ESPNNewYork.com, "because with him, we'’re so much better than without him."

RANT AND RAVE

A coach and player who will be under review today:

Brady
CBSTom Brady's uncharacterisitic mistake led to an uncharacteristic show of emotion on the sideline.

So Tom Brady isn't totally in control of the New England offense after all.

With the Patriots clinging to a 34-27 fourth-quarter lead over Washington, Brady threw an interception, his first in five games, in the end zone on a pass that was intended for Tiquan Underwood. Brady took a seat on the sideline, and cameras caught Brady appearing to say something to Underwood when Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien jumped in and said something to Brady.

What followed appeared to be an exchange of obscenities, with Brady appearing to say, "No s---!" O'Brien then ripped his headset off and barked something to Brady, who appeared to reply, "He'’s open!"

It was a heated exchange, worse than the one between Philadelphia offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg and defensive line coach Jim Washburn in the Eagles' loss to New England two weeks ago, in part because it was caught on television. Patriots backup quarterback Brian Hoyer had to separate O'Brien and Brady, and then Bill Belichick did.

Of course, afterward Brady tried to downplay the dustup, saying that it was just "football" and "emotions" and "athletics."

"There are probably a long line of coaches and players that were pretty pissed at me after that, but Billy got to me first," Brady said. "He let me have it, and I deserved it."

Belichick downplayed the incident, too, but it is rare to see a coach publicly yelling at Brady. Behind the scenes, maybe, but not for all to see on national television. Belichick will want this incident to go away, but here's betting it won't disappear quickly enough for his liking.

TWEET THIS

Notable tweets from around the league:

"Praise the Lord! Couldn't be any prouder of my teammates for believing in each other 'till the very end. GB²" -- @TimTebow.

"Don't ask me 2 explain it. I don't want 2. All I can say is.. HALLELUJAH!!!!!!!!!" -- @BrianDawkins, the Denver Broncos' veteran safety.

"Damn I been on both sides of a game like that. Them ----- hurt win you Lose, but feel amazin when u win." -- @ddockett, Arizona defensive end Darnell Dockett, after watching the Giants come from behind to beat Dallas on a last-second blocked field goal.

Ashley Fox covers the NFL for ESPN.com.