It had been almost three full years since Aaron Rodgers had last thrown a pass in the NFL postseason. Ty Montgomery was Green Bay's leading rusher that regular season, Jordy Nelson the team's leading receiver. A lot has changed in the months since: a new head coach, new skill position players, an improved defense. And a more grizzled beard on the face of its signal-caller. "I'm 36," Rodgers told reporters earlier this week. "I know what this is all about."
No. 2 Green Bay's offense also now features a bonafide rushing attack: the 5’8” Aaron Jones is arguably as important to his team's success as the former league MVP. But with the Packers nursing a 28-23 lead with under 2:30 to play in the game, Rodgers made the kind of throws that fans have come to expect over his Hall of Fame career. First, it was a 32-yard touch pass into the arms of wide receiver Davante Adams streaking up the right sideline. Then, just 20 seconds later, he found tight end Jimmy Graham on a slant for a second third down conversation that iced the game away. Sunday’s 28-23 Packers victory over the Seattle Seahawks resulted in plenty of grass-stained jerseys. But looks aside, it moved Green Bay to within 60 minutes of the Super Bowl.
“We started the game the right way," Rodgers said after the win. "And we finished it the right way."
One series before closing the game, Rodgers watched as his defense had stopped a second-half push by the No. 5 Seahawks. Russell Wilson and the Seattle offense scored three touchdowns in the game's final 30 minutes compared to Green Bay’s one. And while the Seahawks entered Sunday having been 10-2 in games decided by eight or fewer points in the regular season, the Packers entered 8-1 in one-score situations.
As Rodgers alluded postgame, Green Bay's offense looked sharp at the start. The Cal product orchestrated an eight-play, 75-yard drive in just over four minutes that resulted in a 20-yard touchdown catch from Adams. But a 45-yard Jason Myers field goal cut the Packers' lead to just 7-3, breaking a 10-minute scoreless streak.
It was then Jones's turn to answer the call. The fifth-round pick in 2017 averaged 136.5 scrimmage yards per game over the final four weeks of the regular season. While he finished with only 66 combined on Sunday, he knifed through the trenches with just under 10 minutes to go in the second quarter, extending Green Bay's lead to 14-3. The Packers would grow their lead even further thanks to another Jones score with just over a minute to go in the half, taking a 21-3 advantage into the locker room.
But the Seahawks, like they've shown a number of times both this season and in recent memory against Green Bay in particular, wouldn't go away. Wilson hit WR Tyler Lockett on a fourth-and-1 at Green Bay's five-yard-line to extend their eventual five-plus minute drive. And one play later, the recently un-retired Marshawn Lynch found the end zone, slashing the Seahawks' deficit to just 11.
The dueling offenses would trade touchdowns to close the third period. But Seattle would cut into Green Bay's lead early in the fourth when Lynch powered through the gut of the Packers' defense for his second score of the game. Wilson was sacked on the team's two-point attempt, however, leaving the game's margin at five. The third round pick in the 2012 NFL draft finished 21-of-31 for 277 and one score, and added 64 yards rushing on the ground.
For years, everything in the Packers’ orbit seemed to revolve around their star quarterback. But needing a stop with under five minutes to play, Rodgers watched as his defense made the plays required. He finished with a modest 243 passing yards and two touchdowns, completing 16 of his 27 attempts, but made clutch throws when the game hung in the balance. The Packers, in the end, converted nine of their 14 third down chances.
Jones had also put the Packers in position to emerge victorious on Sunday evening. And Adams, the team’s star wideout who missed four games earlier this season dealing with a turf toe injury, hauled in one of key receptions en route to finishing with a game-high eight catches for 160 yards and two touchdowns.
The Packers are headed to their first NFC Championship game since 2016. Their opponent next Sunday, the San Francisco 49ers, beat them handily in Week 12 of the regular season. However, the now veteran QB knows a Super Bowl is within reach.
“They're only four teams and we're one of them,” he said afterward. "We have a legitimate chance."