GREEN BAY – Aaron Rodgers is sick. His receivers are banged up. Two months ago, no one outside their own locker room thought the Packers would be here.
Green Bay’s two-time MVP quarterback is right in his comfort zone.
“I like the challenge. I like when the odds are stacked against you, when the expectations are low for certain circumstances or games, I’ve just always enjoyed that role,” Rodgers said on Friday in his final remarks to the media before Sunday’s NFC title game in Atlanta.
“Now, around here we haven’t been the underdog too many times, but we are this week, and we’re going into a tough environment, and there’s expectation outside of the building that they’re going to win.
“I like our role and I like our chances.”
That’s not to discount what the Packers must overcome. First is Rodgers’ head cold, the same one that kept kicker Mason Crosby from practicing on Wednesday and sent receiver Jordy Nelson home on Friday. “Rest, fluids” is Rodgers’ prescription.
“We’ll be OK,” he said.
Then there’s the injuries at receiver, with Nelson (ribs), Davante Adams (ankle) and rookie Geronimo Allison (hamstring) all questionable and likely game-time decisions, according to Head Coach Mike McCarthy.
None of the three has practiced all week, but that doesn’t bother Rodgers, either.
“Very comfortable,” he said of the potential scenario. “Let’s see, we’ve played, what, 18 games so far? We’ve got a lot of continuity there. I have no reservations about them playing if they can’t practice.”
If any or all three can’t play, that will thrust third-year pro Jeff Janis and rookie Trevor Davis into the spotlight. Both receivers, along with Allison, scored their first regular-season touchdowns back on Oct. 30 in the first meeting with the Falcons, and Rodgers said all three of the scoring plays were ones that hadn’t necessarily been practiced with those guys in those particular spots.
They’ve been practicing this week in the others’ absence, so in Rodgers’ mind they should be in even better shape to get the job done.
“Those guys made some big plays for us in that game, and if we need to call on them, there’s a high expectation,” Rodgers said. “At this point in the season, there’s no place for mental errors and missed assignments.
“Those guys have been practicing well and are ready to go, and if they need to be out there, there will be as much trust as they have earned when they’re out there.”
Personnel aside, the formula for beating the Falcons could be similar to the one that worked against the Cowboys last week – start hot, withstand the home team’s surge, and find a way to close the deal.
As the Georgia Dome hosts its final football game, the crowd noise will be yet another obstacle, though Rodgers has had his share of success in the building.
“Any great home-field advantage, if the opposing team starts strong, the fans will look for any opportunity to get back in the game,” Rodgers said. “You saw last week, we went up 21-3, they clawed back and scored a touchdown, and you would have thought it was them ahead by 11 instead of down by 11.
“They (the fans) want anything to get back in the game and get that energy up again. You have to start fast and push through that response and finish strong.”
If the game comes down to more last-minute improvisation, as it did last week with Rodgers’ left-rolling, Lane Taylor-escorting, sideline-throwing, tip-toeing pass to tight end Jared Cook to get in field-goal range, the northern California kid who grew up rooting for the great 49ers teams is comfortable in those situations, too.
“I love ’em,” he said. “It’s like growing up in the street, playing as Joe Montana and Steve Young throwing to John Taylor and Jerry Rice and Brent Jones and making it up as you go, and trusting those guys are going to be on the same page.
“The beauty of it is it’s never out-and-out street ball. It’s rooted in concepts that we know and we’ve run … and when guys respond that way and get in the exact spot they need to be … those are incredibly heady plays that you hope happen the way they happen.”
Rodgers also has enjoyed “proving those doubters wrong” since the Packers’ 4-6 start, when they were miles and miles rather than one step away from another trip to Texas for a Super Bowl.
That said, Rodgers isn’t buying into team-of-destiny talk. There’s been nothing predetermined about the path of the 2016 Packers.
“I think you make your own opportunities,” Rodgers said. “Nothing’s been given to us this year. We’ve scratched and clawed for everything. It’s been a really rewarding season to watch the team come together and to believe in each other and believe in the leadership and the vision that Mike set out at the beginning of the season.
“There’s four teams playing right now, so it’s pretty fun being one of those four teams. Obviously, we’d like to move on and be one of the final two. You can’t help but think about what it would feel like to be leading when the clock hits zero and you’re going to Houston.”