ATLANTA — On 3rd-and-13 on Green Bay's first drive of the third quarter, Falcons LB Stephen Nicholas closed in on Packers QB Aaron Rodgers. A sack here would force the Packers to punt, sparking a Georgia Dome crowd in danger of becoming listless with the home side facing a 28-14 deficit.
Then, Aaron Rodgers did what he does so well. He used his mobility, creativity and strong arm to buy time and craft a solution to a problem. He spun away from Nicholas, rolled to his left and fired a dart to Packers WR James Jones, who found just enough room against tight coverage from Falcons CB Dunta Robinson. First down, Green Bay.
Nine plays later, Rodgers would punctuate the drive with a seven-yard TD run, a journey highlighted by Rodgers' pump-faking, eluding a diving tackler and falling into the endzone. By then, the question wasn't whether the Packers would win; it was by how many points. And they would continue to pour it on, prevailing 48-21 in a divisional-round tour de force that stamps them as the favorite to win the NFC title next Sunday whether they travel to Chicago or Seattle.
Such is the position of strength the Packers operate from when their best player — one of the NFL's very best at the game's most vital position — plays this efficiently, this stylishly. About that style — heaven help those who go out in the yard Sunday morning and try to fire the ball from the ear a la Rodgers without warming up. And, my goodness, please stretch beforehand, too, lest you tear something throwing a jump-pass.
Where were we? Oh, yes — Rodgers.
"Yes, this probably was my best performance," said Rodgers, who completed 31-of-36 passes for 366 yards with three TDs and no interceptions.
We'll probably forget it over time, but there was a time when the Packers looked vulnerable in this game. It was after the Falcons' Eric Weems shredded their kickoff coverage for a 102-yard touchdown (aside: Green Bay better get that fixed before facing Chicago's Danieal Manning or Seattle's Leon Washington next week) to give Atlanta a 14-7 lead early in the second quarter. Then, on the ensuing kickoff, Packers RB James Starks muffed the kickoff return out of bounds, pinning Green Bay at its eight-yard line.
No matter. Rodgers found WR Donald Driver for 24 yards across the middle, then hit WR Greg Jennings for 12 yards up the left sideline. (The Packers' wide receivers, in a word, were exceptional.)
In a snap, the Packers were at midfield. The Falcons dialed up a blitz, and a good one, with S William Moore coming free off the right side, but Rodgers spun out of that one and hit Jones up the right sideline for 34 yards. Eventually, the Packers would even the game on a one-yard run by FB John Kuhn.
Soon, things started to come apart for Atlanta. On their next drive, things started swimmingly for the Falcons, their offense hitting on all cylinders, too. And facing a 3rd-and-21 from the Green Bay 26, they got everything they could have wanted: WR Michael Jenkins running open down the right sideline. All QB Matt Ryan had to do was hit him in stride.
But Ryan underthrew him, Jenkins slipped, and Packers CB Tramon Williams intercepted the pass. The Falcons had let a prime scoring opportunity slip away in a game when they could not afford to do so.
Rodgers was simply playing too well for that. On the Packers marched for another touchdown, a 20-yarder from Rodgers to Jones in the right corner of the endzone. The throw was precise, and Jones' leaping catch highlighted his considerable talent.
The previous play told us everything we needed to know about how locked in, how teeming with confidence Rodgers was on this night. Facing a 3rd-and-2 from the Atlanta 40, Rodgers rolled right. He had a receiver open in the flat. If he dumps it off, it's a safe first down, and we nod our heads at his prudence. Instead, he fired across to the middle to Driver for 20 yards. Such are the throws of daydreams.
For the Falcons, their first home playoff game since the 2004 season would become a nightmare. With 10 seconds left in the first half and the Falcons on the Packers' 35, Ryan rolled left, looking for Roddy White. The goal: a short reception by White, ending with him going out of bounds and setting up a shorter field goal. But Williams jumped the route, intercepted the pass and sprinted 70 yards for a touchdown. The Packers would take a 28-14 lead into halftime, and they were never uncomfortable in the second half.
We may go a long time before seeing a No. 1 seed get bounced out of the postseason as ingloriously and soundly as the Falcons did, but it is hard to think of an opponent Rodgers and the No. 6-seeded Packers wouldn't have sent packing Saturday night.
"Well, again — I have said this before — the way that I prepare and the way that our coaches prepare us, we expect to play well," Rodgers said. "Maybe not this well, but it was one of those nights that when things weren't working or weren't open, I was able to move in the pocket and find some of those free guys to make some big plays.
"It was a special night."
Afterward, Jennings was asked about the notion some hold that a quarterback needs to validate his greatness with a Super Bowl title.
"Has a Dan Marino won a Super Bowl? He was a pretty decent quarterback," Jennings joked of the Dolphins' Hall of Fame passer.
"Aaron's a great quarterback," Jennings said. We know he's a great quarterback."
And on Saturday night, he delivered the signature performance of his career — a display that had so many brilliant little pieces at which to marvel. Was it the accuracy that caught your eye? The arm strength? The mobility? Those spin moves?
Packers OLT Chad Clifton was asked whether he had ever seen a right-handed quarterback like Rodgers spin to his left so well. Clifton, who began his pro career protecting Brett Favre's blind side and undoubtedly has been asked to lend his up-close, expert perspective on quarterbacking brilliance many, many times before, summed up Rodgers' performance thusly:
"I just know he's playing unbelievable football right now. Spin left, spin right — whatever you need him to do, he's doing right now."
As a public service, once again — some warm-up tosses would be a good idea, OK?