There’s a funny thing that happens when a player is truly a transcendent talent.
People look for reasons to say they aren’t that good.
While I can’t explain the complexities of human nature that lead people to do this, I can debunk some myths.
I’ll start with oe of the biggest lies floating around football talk this decade: Aaron Rodgers isn’t a good in championship games.
This myth is remarkably ludicrous as it suggests that 3-time MVP, Super Bowl MVP, sure-fire first ballot Hall of Famer, generational talent, and walking highlight film Aaron Rodgers somehow just regresses to a terrible quarterback when the pressure of a big game arises.
The biggest piece of “evidence” to support this claim is that Rodgers has a 1-4 record in NFCCGs.
To believe this argument, you have to first accept two sill notions as fact:
- That the outcome of a game of football – the most complex team sport in the world, with over 100 players (none of whom even participate in 50% of the plays) and dozens of coaches – should all be put credited to a single player
- That a guy with an incredible 3.46:1 touchdown to interception ratio in the playoffs and a 100.5 passer rating in the playoffs, somehow falls off in the latter rounds of playoff games
Of course, this argument also overlooks the incredible achievement of actually make it to 5 conference championships. For reference, the Bears – the oldest franchise in the NFL – have been to a total of 5 conference championships in their entire history.
But let’s set those ridiculous assumptions aside for now and dig a little deeper and ask: Well then why does Aaron Rodgers have a 1-4 record in NFCCGs?
Buckle up, because it could take a little time to unravel so much nonsense.
First, let’s state that the the 2010 Bears, 2014 Seahawks, 2016 Falcons, 2019 49ers, and 2020 Buccaneers all had incredible defenses. This makes is harder on opposing quarterbacks. It probably also goes without saying the Packers defenses these years (and pretty much every year of Aaron Rodgers’s career) probably were not as good as the opposition.
Even in that context, let’s look at these games and see how Aaron Rodgers fared in these games.
2014 NFCCG: at Seattle
Let’s get this out of the way first.
It’s easy to look at Aaron Rodger’s stat line of 178 yards, 1 TD and 2 interceptions and say he had a bad day, but, I repeat: we need context.
His first interception came when Michael Bennett clearly jumped offsides. The flag wasn’t thrown, but Rodgers thought he had a free play and threw a 50-50 ball into the end zones where Richard Sherman (in his third consecutive season as a First Team All Pro) made an incredible play to pick off the ball. The other interception came when Randall Cobb broke his route off and Rodgers delivered it exactly where it was supposed to be.
Rodgers still led his team to a 16-0 lead in the first half and when special teams gaffes and defensive breakdowns put the Packers in a 3 point hole with 1:33 left, Aaron Rodgers – on a drive that featured a pass on every single play call – marched the team down the field on their 6th scoring drive of the game to tie it up with 14 seconds left.
After that clutch drive, Rodgers never touched the ball again as the defense allowed a touchdown on the 6th play of overtime.
Don’t forget that Aaron Rodgers was playing on a torn calf, in the most hostile road environment in the league, in pouring rain!
So Rodgers didn’t have a great stat line, but how did a fully healthy Russell Wilson, playing at his familiar home environment with no crowd distraction, fare in the same elements? His regulation statistics were: 129 yards, 0 TDs, 4 Interceptions, and a fumble. And people say Rodgers didn’t rise to the occasion.
2016 NFCCG: at Atlanta
This game is often remembered by Packers fans as the game LaDarius Gunter had to guard Julio Jones, but this as also the game where the offensive line got so beat up that nose tackle Letroy Guion had to play offensive line. The team was decimated by injuries in the playoffs, then had a flue outbreak the week of this game, where they faced a super fast Atlanta defense in very loud dome.
The game started with Atlanta marching down the field for an easy TD. Then, Rodgers got the ball in a hostile environment, already down 7. He started the game with 3 straight completions, picking up 48 yards and getting the team into field goal range… where Mason Crosby promptly missed. The Falcons marched down and promptly scored. When The Packers got the ball back, Rodgers was a perfect 5 for 5 for 49 yards and drove the Packers down to the goal line… where Aaron Ripkowksi promptly fumbled. The Falcons marched down and scored another easy TD.
In the 1st quarter, the Falcons more than ran 3 times as many plays as the Packers, keeping their fast defense fresh and wearing down the flu-ridden Packers. By the middle of the 2nd quarter, the Packers were down 17-0, despite Aaron Rodgers leading the team up and down the field with precision passing.
When teams get down 3 scores in a dome, they have a hard time coming back, even if their squad doesn’t have the flu and doesn’t have a practice squad corner guarding an All Pro receiver. The Packers lost this game by a fair margin, but it was through no fault of Aaron Rodgers, who kept the team moving and finished with over 300 combined passing and rushing yards while throwing 3 TDs.
2019 NFCCG: at San Francisco
Here’s another case where stats don’t tell the story.
In the first drive, Rodgers’s first pass went for a 1st down. He went 3 for 3 on the drive, but the receiver came down a bit short of the marker on 3rd down and they punted. The 49ers marched down the field and got a TD. On the next drive, Rodgers passed for another 1st down, then after a couple runs, he faced immediate pressure and was sacked. The 49ers got the ball back and scored again. The Packers next series was run, pass completion, and immediate strip sack from an aggressive 7 man rush. The 49ers called 6 straight running pays and had another touchdown. The Packers get the ball, Rodgers moves the chains through the air, they call some runs, then a bad snap leads to a turnover. The 49ers score again.
At this point, there are less than 2 minutes left in the half. The 49ers are leading 20-0. And what has Aaron Rodgers? He’s perfect – he has yet to throw an incompletion!
He threw a couple TDs to get them back in it along with a couple interceptions as he was aggressively chucking it up to try to get them caught up while the defense was busy allowing 285 yards rushing.
People like to say he racked up garbage time stats since he had four times as many passing yards as the opposing quarterback and finished with a 97.2 rating, but when a team is in a 20-0 hole before the quarterback throws a single incompletion, it’s hard for me to blame the QB for the loss.
2020 NFCCG: vs Tampa Bay
This was the one time the Packers got to actually host an NFCCG. It was, predictably, cold in January, but that didn’t slow Aaron Rodgers down. In the first two drives, he was a perfect 6 for 6, including 95 yards passing on their second drive, which ended with a TD pass. Meanwhile, the Buccaneers started the game by converting 6 consecutive 3rd downs.
After the Bucs took a 14-7 lead, Rodgers led a field goal drive to cut the deficit. Once he got the ball back, he had the team moving for a go-ahead score before the half, but with 34 seconds left, he made his big mistake: he threw a good ball, rather than a perfect one, which allowed Bucs defensive back Sean Murphy-Bunting to yank Allen Lazard backwards and pick it off.
Following the turnover, with 8 seconds left, the Packers defense, for reasons I can’t explain, put their slowest cornerback (who was also injured), on the Buccaneers’s fastest wide receiver and gave him no help over the top. Predictably, the Bucs scored an easy TD before the half. When the Packers got the ball back to start the 2nd half, Rodgers completed a pass to Aaron Jones, who fumbled, giving Tampa the ball at the 8 yard line, where the defense surrendered another easy TD on one-play drive. Within two minutes of game time, the Packers defense allowed two TDs, sandwiched around a fumble after Aaron Rodgers completed a pass, digging a 28-10 hole.
Things looked bad, but Rodgers stormed back, leading drives that ended with TD passes on the next two possessions. The two drives after that were wrecked by sacks as a beat-up Packers offensive line, missing their All Pro left tackle, allowed nonstop pressure from a punishing Bucs front 7 that featured 5 All Pros and dominated the Super Bowl in their next game (holding the Kansas City Chiefs to 9 points).
Rodgers led a field goal drive late to cut the Bucs lead to 5, but the defense then allowed the Bucs to pick up 3 first downs and run out the clock.
In the end, Rodgers passed for 346 yards and 3 TDs. He had 1 interception, which came on a very questionable pass interference, but those are amazing stats to put up against that defense in the brutal cold. Given that the opposing QB folded in the cold and threw 3 consecutive interceptions down the stretch, it’s clear to see which QB rose to the occasion. Which defense rose to the occasion, however, is a different story.
2010 NFCCG: at Chicago
This was easily Rodgers’s worst performance… but let’s look deeper into it than just numbers.
It was Chicago – the Windy City – in January. The kickoff wind chill was 8 and it only got colder as the sun went down. It was one of the coldest NFCCGs of all time. Not ideal throwing weather.
So how did Rodgers start the game throwing?
With completions of 22, 26, 6, and 22 yards. In the freezing cold and wind, he went 4 for 4 for 76 yards (and there weren’t many yards after the catch, he was slinging it downfield) and ended the drive by running in a touchdown himself. How’s that for rising to the occasion?
On the 2nd drive, the Packers started with some running plays, then Rodgers chucked the ball 50 yards in the air in freezing cold and howling wind. The ball hit Greg Jennings in both hands and fell through his frozen mitts for an incompletion. After the pass, Julius Peppers dove low and hit Rodgers in the knee on a play that would qualify as a penalty in today’s game.
Rodgers came up hobbling and favored his leg, hopping on his pass attempts for the rest of the game. Unable to set his base to throw for the rest of the game, in the freezing cold and wind, against the top pass defense in the league, he struggled a bit. Later in the game, Julius Peppers, unblocked from the blind side, went high on Rodgers, rocking him with a vicious helmet-to-helmet hit which drew a 15 yard penalty.
Despite taking those shots, Rodgers kept the Packers in the lead for the entirety of the game. He didn’t have a great stat line, but he led them to victory.
Oh, and that game led them to the Super Bowl.
The Super Bowl, of course, is also a championship game, so let’s look at that one, too!
2010 SUPER BOWL: vs Pittsburgh
So how did Rodgers – with his unearned and now debunked reputation for not rising to the occasion in championship games – fare in the ultimate championship game?
Oh, he had one of the all-time greatest performances in Super Bowl history with 304 yards, 3 TDs, and 0 interceptions for a 111.5 rating against the best defense in the league in a game the Packers never trailed en route to winning Super Bowl MVP and the first – and only – championship belt in NFL history!
Man, when I look deeper at Aaron Rodgers’s championship performances, it is really hard for me to see any evidence of him being a guy who doesn’t rise to the occasion. As one of the most competitive athletes alive, I think he takes his game to the next level in the playoffs – even if the team’s record in championship games doesn’t necessarily reflect it.
In each of the 5 years that Rodgers made an NFCCG, the case could be made that he was on a team with a far less talented roster. No one player can truly carry a team (football is too complex for that), but all signs point to Aaron Rodgers being the primary reason why those teams had a chance to even dream of an NFCCG game, let alone qualify for one.
So sure, trumpeting Aaron Rodgers’s 1-4 NFCCG record (which is actually the Packers record, not solely his) is great clickbait to generate attention for your ads in the offseason dead zone.
But, if you actually watch and understand football, pay attention to what happens, and use logic as the basis for your perspective, it becomes clear that Aaron Rodgers is actually a very good championship quarterback.
Bruce Irons has played, coached, and studied football for decades. Author of books such as A Fan’s Guide To Understanding The NFL Draft, A Fan’s Guide To Understanding The NFL Salary Cap, and A Fan’s Guide To NFL Free Agency Hits And Misses, Bruce contributes to CheeseHeadTV and PackersForTheWin.com.
Follow Bruce Irons on Twitter at @BruceIronsNFL.