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Rodgers, Packers hit their stride

There is nothing in Aaron Rodgers' eyes or voice that leads you to believe he'll be overwhelmed in his first career playoff start Sunday at Arizona. Why would there be? If he can hold his own in two showdowns against former Green Bay icon Brett Favre, continue to stand tall in the pocket after being sacked a league-leading 41 times through nine games, and rally his team from a dispiriting and seemingly back-breaking loss to then-winless Tampa Bay in November, what's a little playoff game against an opponent he has torched for 55 points (including the preseason) in five quarters this season?

"He's a gooooood quarterback," said one defensive coordinator who game-planned for Rodgers this season. "He can do it all."

In only his second season as a starter, the former Cal star threw for the second-most yards (4,434) in franchise history, posted the second-best passer rating (103.3) in Packers annals and had the second-lowest interception percentage (1.3) by a Green Bay regular. He also ranked fourth in the league with 30 touchdown passes.

The irony is that coach Mike McCarthy entered the season hoping to lean more heavily on his ground game. The NFC North has always been known as the black-and-blue division, and McCarthy wanted his offense and defense built with that in mind. It's the primary reason he hired defensive coordinator Dom Capers to install an attacking 3-4 scheme that, despite a slow start, produced league-highs in interceptions (30) and takeaways (40) this season.

But the remolding of the offense failed to materialize because, despite struggles to protect Rodgers for half the season, it was clear the Packers' best mode of travel was through the air. When the team re-signed veteran Mark Tauscher to solidify the line (it allowed only 10 sacks over the final seven games) and got 6-foot-5, 247-pound tight end Jermichael Finley back from a midseason knee injury, the passing game really soared.

"That was big," Rodgers said of Finley's return. "When he finally was able to come back, that's when our 'big' package came back, which was Jermichael, Donald (Driver), Greg (Jennings), Jordy (Nelson) and (James Jones). We were able to get the five best athletes on the field -- and we need those guys on the field. With the line feeling more consistent, we became tough to stop because defenses have matchup problems with our receivers.

"I don't care who we're going against, either Jermichael is going to be a mismatch, or Greg in the slot, or Donald in the slot. We saw what happens in Pittsburgh: You want to put your best guys on Donald or Greg to take them away, then James Jones is going to make plays, Jordy Nelson is going to make plays. When we were able to get that 'big' package back in, that's when things turned around for us."

Not coincidentally, the running game came around soon after. Ryan Grant had only three runs of 20 yards or longer in the first 12 games -- the longest being 37 yards -- but has reeled off gains of 62, 56 and 24 yards (all touchdowns) in three of his past four and is starting to look like the player who was so instrumental in the Packers' march to the NFC Championship Game two seasons ago.

Green Bay appeared to be anything but a contender after the loss to the Bucs on Nov. 8. The offense was searching for its identity and the defense was trying to adjust to the scheme change. But that defeat seemed to refocus the Pack, particularly on defense, where Capers dug deeper into his playbook and showed more trust that his players could handle the calls.

The Packers surrendered 30 points or more in four of their first eight games, but have allowed only one opponent to reach that mark since then -- even with veteran stalwarts Al Harris and Aaron Kampman sustaining season-ending injuries Nov. 22 against San Francisco. The unit had 13 sacks over the first eight games but has registered 24 since; and its interceptions have increased from 12 in Games 1-8 to 18 in Games 9-16.

Several players admitted that things looked dark after the Tampa game, but Rodgers, who earned his first Pro Bowl berth, says he never felt the Packers were out of it.

"We had a good feeling coming out of training camp with the team that we had," he said. "I was looking at the schedule in the preseason thinking, 'We need to be 8-3 by the time we get to December if we want to (play for a championship).' I knew we would have five tough games that month: We had both Super Bowl teams, a Baltimore team that went to the AFC Championship, Seattle at home and Chicago on the road, where they had won three of last four meetings.

"When we started 4-4 there was concern. But I could see a light. After that game we just got on this roll. We found our identity on offense and the defense started playing lights out. They kept getting us the ball, and we kept doing things with it. You're not going to lose too many games when that happens."

Or when you have a quarterback as talented, confident and comfortable as Rodgers is entering Sunday.

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