GREEN BAY – Three times in 402 days. Twice in the playoffs.
If there’s such a thing as the greatest Hail Mary quarterback ever, it has to be Aaron Rodgers.
No one does it better. Rodgers pulled off yet another clock-at-zero miracle on Sunday at Lambeau Field, this one a 42-yard touchdown heave to Randall Cobb on the final snap of the first half that will go down as the most memorable play of Green Bay’s 38-13 wild-card victory over the Giants.
“That’s three in the last calendar year or so, a little more than that,” Rodgers said afterward. “It’s fun. Every single time, it’s fun. I think we’re starting to believe anytime that ball goes up there, we’ve got a chance.”
Why wouldn’t they? From Detroit last December to Arizona a month later to Sunday, Rodgers’ ability to launch the ball with a monstrous arc has given defenders vertigo and his receivers highlights to cherish forever.
He doesn’t even need to practice it anymore. The team does, every week, but Rodgers said he hasn’t thrown one in practice since early October, presumably turning the duties over to backup Brett Hundley.
It took Rodgers all of a few words into the first answer at his postgame press conference to highlight the serendipity of this one.
Five years ago, in Lambeau’s same north end zone, the Giants’ Hakeem Nicks punched the Packers in the gut by hauling in Eli Manning’s Hail Mary on the final play of the first half.
“It sucked,” Rodgers recalled the feeling, as the Packers trudged to the locker room down 20-10 and never really recovered.
“It felt amazing,” he said of the play that turned a 7-6 advantage to 14-6. “Like it was meant to be today.”
No one ever would have thought 38 points were meant to be after the Packers had seven total yards of offense on their first four possessions on Sunday. They pushed the number to 29 on the fifth drive, but still punted.
Then Rodgers hit a streaking Davante Adams down the right sideline for 31 yards to the New York 7-yard line, and it was as though the dam had broken, finally, with less than four minutes left in the first half.
“That got me going,” Rodgers said.
The Giants continued their disciplined rush plan to keep Rodgers in the pocket, but that didn’t stop him from buying a ton of time in a small space to find Adams from 5 yards out for the first of four TD passes.
It’s difficult duty for Green Bay’s offensive line, the way Rodgers dances and darts around back there. He took his share of the blame for the Giants’ five sacks in the game, just as he routinely shares credit for the plays he’s able to extend.
“It’s a lot of work, and I know I make it tough on them at times, but I appreciate it,” Rodgers said of his linemen. “I saw a comment this week about blocking to infinity. That’s how their mindset is. I try to keep it a little bit underneath that. This group does it as well as we’ve ever had it around here.”
The protection on the Hail Mary was just how it’s designed, too. This time, unlike the Detroit and Arizona plays, Rodgers rolled right with the idea the throw would go back to the left, where all the receivers had lined up to streak to the end zone.
With Cobb falling down to make a clean catch behind the leaping mass of bodies, Rodgers was reminded of perhaps the most famous Hail Mary in football history thrown by Boston College QB Doug Flutie to Gerard Phelan in Miami’s Orange Bowl on Nov. 23, 1984.
That took place nine days before Rodgers turned a year old. Yes, the game’s hottest quarterback right now is a football historian, too.
“It looks like, as is the case many times, there’s a little bit of misjudging of the football by the middle of the pack there,” Rodgers said. “As I watch it, it reminds me of the Flutie-to-Phelan catch there, where he just kind of sneaks behind the last defender and he’s the only one there.”
The Packers aren’t sneaking up on anybody, not with a seven-game winning streak and a quarterback who just threw four touchdown passes in a little over 23 minutes of game clock against the No. 2 scoring defense in the league.
Thirty-eight has become a special number. The Seahawks came to Lambeau Field a month ago with the NFL’s second-best scoring defense, too, and the Vikings were ranked sixth two weeks after that. Both left looking at 38 on the scoreboard, just as the Giants did.
Rodgers matched the four TD passes he threw in his first career playoff game, the 2009 wild-card shootout in Arizona, to become the first QB in Packers history to toss four TDs twice in the postseason. And he did it without favorite target Jordy Nelson, whose injured ribs sent him to the locker room in the first half.
His presence will be missed if the Packers have to travel to Dallas next week without him, but the comfort zone Rodgers found with Cobb, Davante Adams and Jared Cook in Nelson’s absence kept, and should keep, Green Bay’s offense confident and clicking.
“I don’t keep score, but he’s playing tremendous football,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. “He’s spoiled all of us around here for a long time.”
As for snapping out of the early-game slump, McCarthy said he’s always looking for “flow and rhythm” with every glance at his call sheet.
“Keeping Aaron fighting, just on the balls of his feet, and attacking – that’s the way we’ve always done it,” Rodgers’ longtime play-caller said. “My job is to put together sequences and patterns to be aggressive and that’s when him and I are at our best.”
And if all else fails, just try a Hail Mary. Rodgers is the best there is.
“By the time I hit my spot on the field where I want to throw it, I’m 100 percent confident the ball is going to be in a catchable spot,” Rodgers said.
“That’s how you draw it up, as far as you have a jumper, a guy behind and a guy in front. Obviously, you don’t think you’re going to catch it every time, but we’ve been fairly successful around here.”
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