GREEN BAY – Over his past two months of sensational football, Aaron Rodgers hasn’t just been making big plays; he’s also been not making big mistakes, which has been just as important to the Packers’ seven-game winning streak, going into Sunday’s Divisional Round playoff showdown against the Cowboys in Dallas.
An accurate passer who’s highly intelligent and ever-cautious, Rodgers has always valued ball security as sacred and been loath to throw an interception – or even to throw the ball away. As he scrambles for his life, eyes downfield, as defenders close in on him and fans yell, "Get rid of it!" Rodgers will hold on longer, looking for the amazing completion but willing to take a sack if he can’t find one, as long as it means a potential turnover has been avoided.
Rodgers has not tossed an interception since the fourth quarter of Green Bay’s Week 10 loss at Tennessee, more than eight weeks ago. His current streak of 285 passes without an interception is the longest of his career, and it’s just shy of Bart Starr’s franchise record of 294 – though Rodgers can’t officially break it because that’s for regular-season games only, and his 2016 campaign ended at 245 passes. Still, he could set the record in 2017.
"There’s moments where you’re kind of locked in a zone, where you feel like you can kind of put it where you want it," Rodgers said. "But I think reckless abandonment as a mentality has never come into my mind. It’s about being as accurate and as smart as possible with the football.
"That being said, there’s a time and a place. In certain situations, trailing or a big third down, you’re going to have to put it in a specific spot and take some shots. It’s calculated risks, I think. That’s the way I’ve been playing."
During the seven-game winning streak, which started with the quarterback saying he thought the Packers could "run the table," he has committed just one turnover. In the snowy Week 13 win over the Texans, Rodgers fumbled the snap and Houston recovered it. In the five subsequent games, he hasn’t let opposing defenses so much as get a whiff of the ball. It’s the first time in team history the Packers have had just one giveaway in seven contests.
That level of ball security – which is characteristic of Rodgers, who has not had more than eight interceptions or fumbles in a year since 2010 – was not evident early in the season. Part of the reason for the narrative about Rodgers struggling and being perhaps past his prime was his increased carelessness through the first half of the year. After eight games, he had five interceptions and six fumbles (three lost), which had him on pace for the most combined turnovers in a full season for his career.
After a Week 7 fumble against the Bears was returned for a touchdown, Rodgers reportedly began doing ball-security drills with the running backs and wide receivers. Holding tightly onto the ball is especially important for Rodgers, who does his best work on the move and likes to run for first downs when he can. The mobile quarterback said he’s made a conscious effort to get back to his fundamentals, keeping two hands on the ball when he runs, and not being sloppy.
Since his last interception on Nov. 13 against the Titans, Rodgers has completed 68.4 percent of his passes for 2,391 yards and 22 touchdowns, leading Green Bay to its eighth consecutive postseason appearance. In last week’s Wild Card Round victory over the New York Giants at Lambeau Field, Rodgers was 25-of-40 passing for 362 yards with four scores and no turnovers, good for a 125.2 rating.
Besides the obvious highlight just before halftime that was his third unbelievable Hail Mary in 13 months, perhaps Rodgers’ best play came earlier in the second quarter and demonstrated his incredible ability to be both crafty and careful, making the big play while avoiding the big mistake.
On second-and-goal from the Giants’ 5-yard line, Rodgers took the snap and was immediately under pressure. As he danced around in the pocket for nearly nine seconds, magically evading voracious pass rushers while scanning the end zone for a target, he finally found Davante Adams, who’d gained maybe two inches of space on the far left side.
Rodgers lasered a pass into the tiniest window to connect with Adams for the game’s first touchdown. With a less talented quarterback, it may have been considered a forced throw and possibly a disaster; with Rodgers, who managed to avoid at least three sacks while scurrying around on the seemingly eternal play, it was art.
Said right guard T.J. Lang of the Adams touchdown play, on which the line had to try and maintain its blocks for about twice as long as normal: "We understand that there’s going to be times when we need to extend some plays, and we know that’s the way Aaron likes to play. … We understand that’s how we get rewarded, when we extend the plays – you usually see Aaron make some big plays down the field with the receivers."
The wonder of that sequence was not lost on head coach Mike McCarthy, who said the team watched the play in film study, no doubt in awed silence and with mouths agape.
"We showed it today in the team meeting, because of the emphasis on ball security," McCarthy said. "Dallas is outstanding at taking the football away. Their takeaway opportunities are very high, probably one of the best teams we’ve seen all year. That particular clip, Aaron’s ball carriage throughout that time is outstanding. It’s part of the way we play."
The Cowboys, ninth in the NFL in takeaways this year with 20, only had nine interceptions, which were the sixth-fewest among all 32 teams. They had the league’s best run defense, though. On offense, Dallas has its own cautious protector of the ball, rookie Dat Prescott, whose mere four interceptions were tied for 35th among all quarterbacks.
Rodgers, who was sacked 35 times in the regular season, praised his linemen on Wednesday as one of the reason for the Packers’ offensive resurgence, saying, "I think our offensive line is playing better." Both QB and coach speak often about the importance of winning the turnover battle, an area in which Green Bay improved dramatically down the stretch.
Wide receiver Randall Cobb said the biggest difference in his team from the Packers’ 30-16 loss to the Cowboys in Week 6 to now is the group has found its identity offensively and is sticking to what it does well. "For us, I think the efficiency of our offense is a lot better than it was the first time we played them," he said.
Standing at his locker, Rodgers knocked on wood while discussing his run of interception-free passing, but also insisted that – especially now – the streak is only important insomuch as not turning the ball over gives Green Bay a better chance to win games.
"At this point, it’s all about winning," Rodgers said. "Those streaks are great, but it’s about winning, however you do it. If you throw a pick and you win, nobody (cares) about the pick. It’s about winning right now."
Green Bay faces Dallas on Sunday at 3:40 p.m.; beloved FOX broadcasters Joe Buck and Troy Aikman are on the call, and cheesehead fans will hope the former doesn’t have occasion to reveal his alleged anti-Packers feelings with a cold and emotionless mentioning of Rodgers’ interception-less streak finally coming to an 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.