Aaron Rodgers got a kick out of it. As the Green Bay Packers’ regular-season finale approached, the reigning NFL MVP came across more than a few fans who thought they knew what was best for him and his team.
And so, whether he was at Best Buy doing his last-minute Christmas shopping or his Piggly Wiggly picking up a loaf of bread, a container of milk and a stick of butter, they would advise him of the best path to Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans: Not getting the No. 2 seed and a first-round playoff bye.
“A lot of fans over the last two weeks, if they saw me, said, “Hey we don’t need a bye this year,’” Rodgers said in a story he repackaged for the Bay Area media during his conference call this week in advance of Saturday night’s NFC Divisional Playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park.
“They said, ‘We don’t want a bye. What happened last year? We had a bye and we lost.’ Which I would tell them, ‘Hey, a bye would be great for some of the injuries we’ve got, and it’s been a long season. It’s always nice having the bye. And they would retort very quickly back, ‘We don’t care about that, we don’t want the bye, we won the Super Bowl without a bye.’”
That unforgettable 2010 run, when the Packers made the playoffs as a wild card and the NFC’s sixth and final seed, required them to win three straight road games – at Philadelphia, at Atlanta and at Chicago – to advance to Super Bowl XLV. While the Packers won the NFC North this season, ensuring themselves of at least one home playoff game, missing out on the No. 2 seed – which they did by dropping the finale at Minnesota – meant they were guaranteed a road game in the Divisional round.
That, of course, will be at San Francisco on Saturday night. If the Packers win, they’ll either travel to top-seeded Atlanta on Jan. 20 or play host to Seattle at Lambeau Field if the Seahawks beat the Falcons on Sunday to set up a rematch of the Seattle’s controversial “Inaccurate Reception” victory on Sept. 24.
“I just think we have a certain confidence in each other that we know that no matter where we play, no matter who the team is, no matter how many great players they've got, we feel like with the team we have, we can compete with anybody,” wide receiver James Jones said of the Packers not fearing road games. “I'm not saying we're going to go in there, we're just going to blow people out. But we feel like we can compete with anybody, anywhere. We feel like a type of team built for that. Is it going to be easy? Not by any stretch. We understand that, but we've got confidence in each other.”
They also have a history of road success. Since the start of the 2010 postseason the Packers have won 14 of their last 19 road games. At 14-5 (.737), the Packers’ road winning percentage is second only to the New England Patriots (12-4, .750) during that span. This season, the Packers were 4-4 on the road (losses at Seattle, Indianapolis, the New York Giants and Minnesota) and have been .500 or better in five of coach Mike McCarthy’s seven seasons at the helm.
“I think it’s part of the ‘road rules’ that we adhere to when we come upon these types of challenges,” McCarthy said. “I think our record at Lambeau Field in December and January speaks for itself, just the success that we have here at home and the ability to play in front of your home fans. But playing on the road and just the way we're built and the design of the way we operate, we feel we're very prepared to go on the road.
“I think there's a little bit of that kinship that goes on more on the road than you're able to do at home. One thing about playing in Green Bay, Wisconsin, everybody wants to come to Lambeau Field and it can be a distraction, particularly for your younger players, when you do have home playoff games. So that part of it is eliminated. So there are definitely positives of going on the road.”
There are still negatives, of course, but the Packers believe their quarterback helps neutralize some of them. Since taking over as the Packers’ starting quarterback to open the 2008 season, Rodgers is the NFL’s No. 1 rated passer (103.0 passer rating) in road games, with an NFL-best 81/23 touchdown-to-interception ratio and 8.14 yards per attempt, also tops in the league over that span.
Entering Saturday night, Rodgers is 3-1 in road playoff games, the lone loss having been at Arizona in the NFC Wild Card playoffs, when he completed 28 of 42 passes (66.7 percent) for 423 yards with four touchdowns and one interception (121.4 rating). Rodgers did throw an interception on his first pass in the game and lost the decisive fumble that was returned for a touchdown in overtime to give the Cardinals a 51-45 victory.
“I think the nerves were definitely there,” Rodgers recalled. “It was a road game, it was a loud environment. We had a lot of confidence and I think you learn that you have to start well in the game, and you can’t make mistakes. We turned the ball over two of our first three plays and fought back to get in the game and had a chance to win in overtime. You’ve got to make the plays that are there.”
This season, Rodgers’ numbers were actually slightly better on the road than they were at home. On the road, Rodgers completed 184 of 273 passes (67.4 percent) for 2,249 yards (8.24 yards per attempt) with 22 touchdowns and three interceptions and 34 sacks for a passer rating of 114.9. At home, Rodgers was 187 of 279 (67 percent) for 2,046 yards (7.33 yards per attempt) with 17 touchdowns, five interceptions, 17 sacks and a rating of 101.3. Rodgers, the NFL’s all-time passer rating leader in both regular-season and postseason play, led the NFL in rating at 108.0 overall.
“Aaron's ability, No. 1, to communicate in loud environments – and really the experience we have now with a number of players that have been together and the way the young guys are incorporated into the communication network – I think is a real strength of our operation. It's a real strength of how we play offense,” McCarthy said. “He deserves a lot of credit for that. That really gives us the ability to do things at the line of scrimmage, whether it's home or away. I think that's a big part of keeping us in clean plays and letting him play the quarterback position the way it's supposed to be played."
As a result, Rodgers enters Saturday night among the NFL’s all-time leaders in road playoff victories. According to ESPN.com NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert, only Eli Manning (5-1), Roger Staubach (4-1), Len Dawson (4-1), Jake Delhomme (4-1), Joe Flacco (4-1) and Mark Sanchez (4-2) have won more. Of course, some of that is the result of circumstance, as some of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history had losing road records in the playoffs: Four-time Super Bowl winners Joe Montana (2-5) and Terry Bradshaw (2-3); Steve Young (0-3); Troy Aikman (1-4); Brett Favre (3-7) and Peyton Manning (2-5).
Then again, the Packers’ road success may have more with their coach’s approach. None of McCarthy’s predecessors were better than .500 during their tenures – Mike Sherman (24-26, .480, including 0-2 in the postseason), Ray Rhodes (3-5, .375) or even Mike Holmgren (29-34, .460, including 3-4 in the postseason) – while McCarthy is 35-25 (.583, including 3-1 in the playoffs).
Historically, McCarthy has had the team’s charter flight depart at 12:45 p.m. the day before each game, regardless of how far away the game might be. The players have several hours of free time upon their arrival at the team hotel in the opposing city to have dinner together or meet up with friends and family in the area before a 9 p.m. local time team meeting. There are also rooms set up for players to watch film or attend chapel.
Unlike Sherman, who was a proponent of extra meetings at the team hotel the night before road games, McCarthy keeps the team meeting short, by design. That, too, might help the cause.
“He gives us time when we get to a city to relax. I think that’s important,” Rodgers said. “He doesn’t bog us down with a lot of night meetings. But I think it’s the mindset, it’s a focus, it’s a business trip. It’s kind of the, ‘us against the world’ mentality, if you will. But Mike’s always done a real good job of kind of setting the direction with the schedule when we go on the road.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.