GREEN BAY – After Aaron Rodgers said back in late November that he thought the Packers could "run the table" and make the playoffs – and as they proceeded to win six straight games, capture the NFC North Division and clinch a postseason berth and, retroactively, prove him correct – the original pronouncement was breathlessly recast, with the help of frenzied media treatment, into a sort of a Nostra-Rodgers prophesy, as though the quarterback had foretold the future, rather than simply expressed the standard belief in his team that all professional athletes have and publicly project.
It was less an amazing prediction than a boldly generic statement, but that makes it no less important. Like everything Rodgers says and does, there was an underlying, less-obvious meaning, which he later revealed. He was simply trying to inspire and inject much-needed confidence into his wallowing team, which he knew to be more talented than it was playing, and he was willing to put the pressure – and scrutiny – on his own shoulders, while taking it off his teammates.
The tactic worked, of course. Each week, Rodgers was asked about "run the table" – just as he was a few years ago when he told Packer Nation to "R-E-L-A-X" – and, as Green Bay kept winning, the confidence grew, the concentration tightened and morale improved, producing a snowball effect that now has the fourth-seeded Packers hosting the fifth-seeded New York Giants in a Wild Card Round playoff game Sunday at Lambeau Field.
All this, after former teammates like Donald Driver and Greg Jennings grumbled about Rodgers’ arrogance in recent years, and a Bleacher Report article published during the Packers’ midseason swoon quoted others questioning the two-time MVP’s leadership style and personal life.
This week, with Green Bay’s eighth consecutive playoff appearance locked up – a streak currently matched only by the New England Patriots – teammates were eager and effusive in their praising of Rodgers, the leader.
"He stayed true to himself; he didn't change anything," said Jordy Nelson, with whom Rodgers set the franchise’s all-time quarterback-to-receiver record for touchdown passes this year. "He just continued to grind, made sure we were focused on what was important – not the outside noise and everything else."
Rodgers led the NFL in touchdown passes this season with 40, while Nelson led the league in touchdown catches with 14. A year after Nelson missed all of 2015 with a torn ACL, the two players reestablished their connection, especially later in the season, which helped the Packers’ offense look like its old, explosive self again. During the six-game winning streak since Rodgers’ assertion, the quarterback completed 83 percent of his passes to Nelson, up from just 56 percent in the first 10 weeks.
"He's been the leader of our team – not just when things are bad, but for the last however many years – ever since I've been here," said Nelson, who’s been his teammate since 2008. "I think he's done a great job, whether it's verbally or by action, which I think carries more than anything. His performance, the way he goes about his job in the meetings or practice, it's what you want."
Fellow receiver Randall Cobb, who’s had a relatively disappointing campaign with 60 catches for 610 yards and four scores, similarly praised Rodgers’ personality and steadiness.
"He does a great job of getting guys to understand what we're trying to accomplish, being hard on them at times when he needs to be," Cobb said. "I think he's an excellent leader. I definitely think he's continuing to grow as a leader throughout the course of his career.
"It's always the same. He expects a lot from us. His expectations are very high in practice and in the game, and he treats every day like a game, whether it's in the meeting room or on the practice field."
Perhaps we’ll find out what Nelson and Cobb really think after they leave Green Bay, as with previous receivers like Driver, Jennings and Jermichael Finley, but it seems unlikely their sentiments are fake.
On the opposite side of the ball, the Packers’ other high-profile superstar, Clay Matthews, who’s not nearly as outspoken as Rodgers, said the quarterback’s "run the table" comments were exactly what the team needed at its November nadir.
"He has a type of leadership where he likes to prove people wrong," Matthews said of the famously shoulder-chipped Rodgers. "I think by putting those expectations out there, it kind of really had this locker room come together, and kind of back him up, and obviously trying to achieve those goals which we're aiming for.
"Now we're six in a row, and we're fortunate enough to do that, so hopefully part of that table means four more games. The type of leadership he brings is one that I think is kind of infectious in what you see on Sunday and every day in practice."
What does Rodgers think about all the attention on his intangible leadership skills?
"I think the best leadership is authentic, and the best leaders and the best players don't have to go around telling other people that they are those things," Rodgers said. "You let your play and you let your teammates speak for you. I'm going to do that in this moment.
"I care about these guys. I show them in a number of ways; I show them by my performance, as well. Because I know how important my role is and my job in this offense and this team is, and how important my play is to this team getting on the right track and winning football games. So I take that part very seriously, as well as being a good teammate to the young guys – young quarterbacks, new players – and holding guys accountable as well."
Asked this week if he thought the Packers had the ability to advance deep into the playoffs, Rodgers, predictably, said, "Of course, absolutely." He wasn’t particularly interested in stamping a new catchphrase onto Green Bay’s postseason, though.
"Look, I just talked about running the table and getting into the playoffs," Rodgers said. "Obviously, it's win or go home at this point. That's the focus. Keep on winning and get this thing to (Super Bowl 51 site) Houston. It doesn't always bear out that way. The season in '11, I thought we were going to run through that thing and be in the Super Bowl. But every year, you have that feeling right now where you know that it could happen."
The Packers enter the playoffs as the hottest team in the NFC, and Rodgers as the hottest quarterback in the league. But momentum, for all its hype in the NFL playoffs, hasn’t always borne out the expected results. According to ESPN Stats & Info, in the last 10 seasons, 13 teams entered the postseason on a streak of six-plus wins; only seven won their first playoff game, just three reached the Super Bowl and none won the title. But a winning streak isn't the same as that nebulous thing that is momentum, and there’s no question Rodgers has the Packers’ offense playing at a very, very high level right now.
Over the past six weeks, Rodgers has completed 71 percent of his passes, averaged 277.8 passing yards per game and tossed 15 touchdowns without an interception. He hasn’t thrown an interception in his past 245 attempts, the longest run of his career. The Packers are averaging 30.8 points over the last six games, which for the whole season would have ranked second in the league in scoring.
Earlier this week, in a conference call with Green Bay reporters, Giants quarterback Eli Manning said Rodgers has "had an unbelievable season." Manning, who has won twice in the playoffs at Lambeau Field, in 2007 and 2011, added, "He's playing at an extremely high level, especially these last couple weeks. He's making all the throws, extending plays."
Rodgers, who is 2-2 in his postseason career at home, was voted by his teammates to be one of the Packers’ three captains for Sunday’s game against New York. Head coach Mike McCarthy, whose relationship with his demonstrative and vocal quarterback has at times been interrogated, had nothing but genuine commendation for Rodgers.
"I think the biggest thing, besides his performance, and I think he's an incredible teammate, but I think anytime you work with an individual over a long period of time, one of the best compliments that you can give him is his consistency of how he comes to work every day," McCarthy said. "Because there's a lot that goes on during the season. Obviously, the demands and the responsibilities of the quarterback, and particularly Aaron Rodgers, there's obviously more on top of that."
In 2010, the Packers made a late-season charge into the playoffs as a Wild Card team, rolled through the postseason and won the Super Bowl, with Rodgers becoming a bona fide superstar. Since then, Green Bay has gone 3-5 in the playoffs, with its last three seasons ending on a heartbreaking final play. Rodgers’ and McCarthy’s postseason credentials have been criticized, but both once again have a chance to change their Packers legacies.
Given the tumultuous but eventually triumphant nature of his season, Rodgers, specifically, seems poised to do something special in these playoffs, carrying a compelling and dangerous Packers team on his back, perhaps running this next table all the way to the Super Bowl.
"We’ve been a part of some pretty special playoff games over the years, some pretty high highs and some pretty disappointing lows throughout it, and it’s fun to be a part of it," Rodgers said. "You know it being a four seed, anybody can win it. We were the six seed and won it, the Giants have been a higher seed and won it before.
"We’re pretty hot right now. And usually the teams that are hottest and can stay healthy are the teams that are there at the end."
Born in Milwaukee but a product of Shorewood High School (go ‘Hounds!) and Northwestern University (go ‘Cats!), Jimmy never knew the schoolboy bliss of cheering for a winning football, basketball or baseball team. So he ditched being a fan in order to cover sports professionally - occasionally objectively, always passionately. He's lived in Chicago, New York and Dallas, but now resides again in his beloved Brew City and is an ardent attacker of the notorious Milwaukee Inferiority Complex.
After interning at print publications like Birds and Blooms (official motto: "America's #1 backyard birding and gardening magazine!"), Sports Illustrated (unofficial motto: "Subscribe and save up to 90% off the cover price!") and The Dallas Morning News (a newspaper!), Jimmy worked for web outlets like CBSSports.com, where he was a Packers beat reporter, and FOX Sports Wisconsin, where he managed digital content. He's a proponent and frequent user of em dashes, parenthetical asides, descriptive appositives and, really, anything that makes his sentences longer and more needlessly complex.
Jimmy appreciates references to late '90s Brewers and Bucks players and is the curator of the unofficial John Jaha Hall of Fame. He also enjoys running, biking and soccer, but isn't too annoying about them. He writes about sports - both mainstream and unconventional - and non-sports, including history, music, food, art and even golf (just kidding!), and welcomes reader suggestions for off-the-beaten-path story ideas.