- Ashley Fox
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ATLANTA -- His work finished, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers yanked off the pink tie that he had worn for all of five minutes, stuffed it into a black athletic bag and pulled on a Milwaukee Brewers baseball cap. That was much better, much more him. He could wear a tie for a quick postgame news conference, but he needed a cap for the plane ride home.
With that, Rodgers slung the bag over his shoulder, took a swig of grape soda and exited the Georgia Dome a 25-14 winner over an Atlanta Falcons team he left scratching its proverbial head and wondering what had just happened.
Rodgers is doing a lot of that lately. The truth is as plain as the "M" on the cap he wore back to Green Bay. Rodgers is the best quarterback in the National Football League. Better than Tom Brady. Better than Drew Brees. He is younger, more accurate, still on the upward arc of his prime and leader of the reigning champs. No one has knocked that world championship belt off his compact frame, and the way he is playing, no one might.
"That guy is playing unbelievably right now through the first five games, probably as well as any quarterback," Atlanta coach Mike Smith said.
All of Rodgers' tools were on full display Sunday night. His offensive line was a mess, with starting right tackle Bryan Bulaga missing his second consecutive game with a knee injury. After starting left tackle Chad Clifton went down with an injury in the second quarter and Rodgers took some hits, the Packers shuffled Marshall Newhouse to left tackle and put in rookie Derek Sherrod on the right side, and Rodgers got rolling.
Part of Rodgers' greatness is how he can change a game in an instant, like he did with a 70-yard throw to James Jones in a third quarter that saw the Packers, who had trailed 14-0, go ahead 15-14. With that play, the Georgia Dome fell silent, just as it had when Packers cornerback Tramon Williams picked off Matt Ryan in the NFC divisional-round playoff game 10 months before.
In the second half, Rodgers was at his precise best, narrowly escaping would-be sacks to turn nothing plays into big third-down gains. On third-and-15 in the third quarter, Rodgers found Jones for a 30-yard gain. On third-and-10, he hit Jermichael Finley with a 22-yard pass. In the fourth quarter, Rodgers twice hit Finley on third down, and for the game he converted 9 of 15 third downs, finding Finley on four of them.
The Falcons had their chances to put Rodgers and the Packers away in the first half, but they could not do it. Rodgers would not allow it.
"Oh yeah, he's getting a lot better," Finley said afterward of his quarterback. Rodgers finished the night 26-of-39 for 396 yards and two touchdowns and again did not throw an interception. For the season, Rodgers has 14 touchdowns and just two interceptions, and he has completed 71.7 percent of his passes for 1,721 yards and an average of 9.6 per pass play.
"We've seen it all. We're used to it," wide receiver Jordy Nelson said of Rodgers' play. "We know he can make plays. He makes them all the time in games and practice. He's such a competitor that he'll do it in practice, too. It's just the expectation now for himself and us."
"He's the best quarterback in the game right now," Driver said.
When did Rodgers assume that position?
"After he wins the Super Bowl," Driver said. "That's a simple fact. You go through so much, and people tell you're not going to be able to do this or do that, and he calms down and he wins the Super Bowl his third year as a starter, and now he's just playing well throughout the season. You have to take your hat off to him. He's the man."
It is hard to argue.
Including Green Bay's 4-0 run through the playoffs last season, the Packers have won 11 straight games. Their last loss was in Week 15 last year at New England, 31-27. This season they have beaten New Orleans, Carolina, Chicago, Denver and now Atlanta.
They will face the 0-4 St. Louis Rams next week, then the 1-4 Minnesota Vikings before their bye week. There is a good possibility that Green Bay will be 7-0 heading out of the bye, and if it is, the undefeated talk will heat up. The Packers aren't shying away from it.
Asked who can beat the Packers, Driver was succinct: "Us," he said.
"That's it," Driver added. "We can only beat ourselves."
During the lockout, Green Bay benefited from keeping its nucleus of players intact from the Super Bowl team. There was consistency among the coaches, and not much has changed from the playbook.
"We have a lot of smart players on the team," Nelson said. "We're not having to learn a bunch of stuff. It's the same system, and we've got guys who work hard. When we hit training camp, we hit it on the run. We knew we would be short a little time, but we hit it hard, and we knew what was expected when we got here."
The expectation was more wins, and Rodgers has delivered.
"This is a different team than in years past," Rodgers said.
But this is the same Rodgers who ended the 2010 season holding the Lombardi trophy. He is the best quarterback in the league, and he will remain that until someone proves otherwise.
What I learned from Week 5:
Al Davis would be proud: Just a day after the legendary Oakland owner died at age 82, the Raiders came from down 14-6 to win at Houston 25-20 despite being outgained by the Texans 473 yards to 278 and held to just 11 first downs.
"It's been a harder 24 hours than I've let on to you guys," Jackson told his players in the locker room after the game. "Losing that man hurt me more than you know. But you know what, just like I told you, I know he loved you guys just like he loves this coaching staff and this organization, and that man -- that was a helluva job by you, Michael Huff, I tell you this, I tell you this -- Al Davis had his hands on that ball."
Drew Brees is virtually automatic in the clutch: The latest gut-check scenario for New Orleans came Sunday with the Saints having given up a 23-13 third-quarter lead and trailing Carolina 27-23 with 7:06 to play. With the ball at the New Orleans 11-yard line, Brees completed 8 of 9 passes for 89 yards, including a 6-yard touchdown strike to Pierre Thomas with 50 seconds to play.
Brees ate the clock. He moved the ball. And he won. There was never any doubt.
The NFC East is no longer the best division in football: The Giants couldn't beat Seattle. Philadelphia has lost four straight. Dallas can't close out games. At this point, Washington, with its relatively soft schedule in the second half of the season, is the front-runner to win the division, which really tells you all you need to know about the state of the NFC East.
Jim Harbaugh is the front-runner for coach of the year: The 49ers are 4-1, and it is a testament to their steady, even-keeled, first-year head coach. A year ago, the Niners lost to Tampa Bay 21-0. On Sunday, they throttled essentially the same Buccaneers team 48-3. That comes down to coaching, preparation, a solid game plan, practice and players believing what the coach is selling.
It is Tebow time: After he benched Kyle Orton with the Broncos trailing 23-10 at halftime on Sunday against San Diego, coach John Fox cannot go back. He must now see whether Tim Tebow can be a starting quarterback in the NFL. Fox didn't think Tebow was ready five weeks ago. Four losses in five games can change a man's opinion.
Different doesn't necessarily mean better. Tebow is a natural-born leader, but is he an NFL-caliber quarterback? After the Broncos' bye next week, we undoubtedly will begin to find out.
SLEEPING IN THE OFFICE
Issues that will keep coaches awake this week:
The Jets are the most disappointing 2-3 team: This team, coach Rex Ryan told us, would win the Super Bowl, but right now the Jets lack an identity -- are they ground-and-pound, or are they not? -- and swagger. There reportedly is internal strife between several key offensive players and coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, the likes of which could derail the team.
After losing to the hated Patriots 30-21 on Sunday, the Jets talked optimistically, but it rang hollow. They've lost three straight games and couldn't move the ball against the league's 32nd-ranked defense. This team is in trouble.
The Giants are the most disappointing 3-2 team: Coach Tom Coughlin likely got no sleep Sunday night after his team lost a game it needed to win against Seattle 36-25. Eli Manning threw three interceptions, and the Giants averaged just 2.8 yards per rush.
New York might be without starting center David Baas and starting right guard Chris Snee against Buffalo on Sunday. That won't help the run game. After a bye and a game against Miami, the schedule doesn't get any easier with New England, San Francisco, New Orleans and Green Bay on tap as well as the rest of the NFC East.
Cam Newton isn't going away: Despite losing four of their first five games, the Carolina Panthers have a swagger that is a direct reflection of the supremely confident Newton. It will be Atlanta defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder's job to try to devise a way to slow Newton this week.
Although his numbers have fallen off since he set a record pace in the first two weeks, Newton completed 16 of 31 passes for 224 yards and two touchdowns Sunday against New Orleans. His fifth rushing touchdown of the season came with 12:32 left in the game and gave the Panthers a 27-23 lead.
The wins will come. The next one very well could come next weekend at Atlanta.
Mario Williams might be out awhile: The Texans' best pass-rusher suffered a pectoral injury while sacking Oakland quarterback Jason Campbell on Sunday and will be sidelined indefinitely. Williams is the best outside linebacker in Wade Phillips' 3-4 defense with five sacks in five games. Houston will play at Baltimore and at Tennessee next. The Texans can survive with rookie Brooks Reed for a couple of games, but not over the long haul.
A one-footed Ben Roethlisberger is still a beast: What must Jacksonville defensive coordinator Mel Tucker think when he watches the film of a hobbled Roethlisberger, playing on a sprained left foot, shredding Tennessee's defense? Roethlisberger could not run and was playing behind a patchwork offensive line, yet he threw for five touchdowns and 228 yards.
The Jaguars' defense gave up 239 yards to Cincinnati on Sunday and lost 30-20. What might a healthier Roethlisberger do to it?
RANT AND RAVE
A coach who will be under review today:
Philadelphia's collapse is on one man: Andy Reid.
The Eagles are 1-4 for the first time since Reid's first year as coach in 1999. Including a first-round playoff loss to Green Bay last season, Philadelphia has lost seven of its past eight games. In a 31-24 loss at Buffalo on Sunday, the Eagles had five turnovers -- four interceptions and a fumble by quarterback Michael Vick -- and the Eagles' 15 giveaways this season are the most in the NFL, according to ESPN's Stats & Information.
Reid was the one who decided to promote his offensive line coach, Juan Castillo, to defensive coordinator. He signed off on high draft picks that haven't panned out. Reid oversaw the overhaul of his defense even though the Eagles did not have the benefit of an offseason to work together.
And Reid keeps calling plays that don't work. Against the Bills, Reid called for a pass play from the Buffalo 26-yard line with seven seconds left in the first half instead of kicking a field goal that could have pulled the Eagles within 21-10 at halftime.
The mistakes, penalties, turnovers and losses keep mounting, and now it is highly unlikely the Eagles will make the playoffs.
"I'm not looking at the playoffs," Reid said. "I'm looking at one game at a time."
The Eagles will not fire Reid midseason, but if the mistakes continue, the question in Philadelphia is this: After the season, will Reid still be in charge?
Notable tweets from around the league:
"I just wanna thank the #raidernation for supporting us and this win was for AL. We love you AL and we'll never let your legacy die." -- @Huffy247, Oakland All-Pro safety Michael Huff, whom Davis selected seventh overall in the 2006 draft.
"Great team win.. That was for Mr. AL Davis.. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to wear the silver and black. #RaiderNation" -- @Rockgotti25, Oakland running back Rock Cartwright, a Raider since 2010.
"R.I.P. Coach Al Davis … Thank you for everything. You've changed my life. A true players Owner #JustWinBaby." -- @theDHB85, Oakland wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey, whom Davis selected seventh overall in the 2009 draft.
Ashley Fox covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
The biggest stories from Week 5 begin in Atlanta, where Aaron Rodgers showed why he is the best quarterback in the NFL, writes Ashley Fox.