Aaron Rodgers, honorary San Diegan, looked as comfortable in frosty Green Bay as an expert surfer would in La Jolla or Encinitas.
From the pocket Saturday in his team’s playoff opener, Rodgers made a few throws that neither Chargers Hall of Famer Dan Fouts nor Philip Rivers may have nailed in their prime years. The Californian whipped strikes through the snowflakes, including a second-and-17 fastball from the end zone with rushers converging.
Rodgers, outmaneuvering the NFL’s top-ranked defense, also drew upon out-of-pocket playmaking that separates him from the traditional pocket QBs such as Rivers and Drew Brees.
A bunch of other Packers earned their paychecks, too, in a 32-18 victory against the Los Angeles Rams that advanced Rodgers, 37, to his fifth NFC championship game.
Hitting the Rams (11-7) for 188 rushing yards and four sacks, Green Bay showed more power and explosiveness than the Packers squad the 49ers trampled in the NFC title game last year in Santa Clara.
Rodgers passed for two touchdowns and finished 23 for 36 for 296 yards. The 108.1 passer rating ranked seventh in his 19 career starts.
The 1-yard rushing TD he improvised by pump-faking Rams linebacker Leonard Floyd into the air was his fourth in a postseason.
So, Rodgers was very good, even by Rodgers’ standards.
But here’s the thing about Rodgers and this Packers team.
They received some good luck Saturday. And it wasn’t the first time they turned favorable circumstances into a big step forward.
A gift of sorts was a fourth-quarter fumble by Packers rookie running back AJ Dillon bouncing 4 yards backward — to Rodgers at Green Bay’s 31.
The Rams were down seven points with nine minutes left in the fourth quarter when linebacker Troy Reeder jarred the ball from Dillon.
A Rams recovery would’ve created LA’s third consecutive stop against Green Bay’s deadly offense, which had scored on its first five drives.
Rodgers and Co. turned the fortunate bounce into victory.
Off a run fake, Rodgers saw that two Rams defensive backs had charged too far. He hit Allen Lazard on a seam route with no one nearby.
Very good (and lucky)
Knowing full well that Super Bowl runs are fragile, Rodgers will use both hands to grab any good luck he can seize.
His MVP-winning seasons in 2011 and 2014 didn’t translate into Super Bowl berths. The ’14 team suffered a brutal playoff defeat that owed in large part to a special teams miscue: The Seahawks recovered an onside kick the Packers had a chance to grab but didn’t.
These Packers are identical to the ’14 Packers in two respects: They finished first in offense and 13th in defense.
The current team holds hard-earned advantages including Matt LaFleur’s creative play designing — but it has been a little luckier, too.
A soft NFC North, for example, helped Green Bay to earn the NFC’s only playoff bye.
And when the Rams won last weekend at Seattle, the Packers caught a break. Instead of facing Tom Brady and the Bucs, who beat them by 28 points in October, they got Jared Goff and the Rams. Oddsmakers rated it a windfall of 2.5 to three points. Goff’s favorite receiver, Cooper Kupp, had played at Seattle but was scratched Sunday because of a knee injury. Because Saturday’s game opened the two-day quarterfinals, the Packers will have an extra day on their next opponent — either the Bucs or the Saints, who’ll meet Sunday in New Orleans.
For the first time in five NFC title games, Rodgers will be at Lambeau Field. For the former Del Mar and Pacific Beach resident, who trained in Scripps Ranch at Fitness Quest 10 under Todd Durkin, a trainer to Brees, it’s his best shot at the Super Bowl since he took the 2010 team into Chicago as a 3.5-point favorite and won 21-14.
On the Rams
The Rams created chances to pull the upset but had two glaring miscues near the goal line.
Their interior blockers misfired on fourth-and-1 at Green Bay’s 14, resulting in a false start. Worse, the false start came out of timeout, a big no-no. Instead of scoring a touchdown, the Rams kicked a short field goal to tie the score, 3-3.
Late in the first half when Rodgers threw too short to the end zone, Rams cornerback Troy Hill dropped the ball. When Rodgers stunningly repeated the mistake a play later, safety John Johnson couldn’t make a difficult catch. The two whiffs allowed the Packers to stretch their lead to 19-10 with three points.
Goff (21 of 27, 174 yards, one TD) was sharper than a week ago in his second game since Dec. 28 surgery to repair a broken thumb. His inability to make plays outside of structure were limiting, though. If the Rams go forward with Goff, whose contract makes that likely, they should find a mobile backup from the mold of Saints versatile playmaker Taysom Hill to help diversify their offense. Rookie RB Cam Akers (18 carries for 90 yards) finished on a surge.