As best he can figure it, Nov. 20 is the date when the season changed for Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. That was the day Rodgers faced Washington. The result was a 42-24 loss for Green Bay, the fourth in a row for a team that had sunk to 4-6.
But despite the defeat, Rodgers said he felt something click. An awakening of sorts.
“Things just started to slow down for me a little bit,” he said this past week of that Week 11 game. “I started playing a little better and kind of held on to that feeling. I knew that my performance was very important to us having confidence and starting games faster and I knew I had to play better. I felt like if I could raise my game that guys would raise their games as well.”
They have. The Packers haven’t lost since then, rattling off seven straight wins to head into Dallas for Sunday’s NFC divisional playoff game as the NFL’s hottest team with the hottest quarterback. Rodgers has thrown an amazing 19 touchdown passes without an interception during that winning streak, evoking memories of his MVP season in 2011 and the Super Bowl run in 2010.
“I think it’s clearly one of the better stretches,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said of Rodgers’ play during the past two months. “He has spoiled us with his level of play around here for so long . . . This definitely ranks up there.”
Rodgers and his turnaround — he had seven interceptions in the first nine games of the regular season — are the biggest reason the Packers have confidence going up against a Cowboys team that has dominated the season as a whole.
This is a Dallas bunch that had 11 wins in a row in mid-December and clinched the top seed in the NFC before the final weekend of the regular season. Those were reasons to be grateful back then. Now they look like handicaps for a team that has not played a meaningful game since the day after Christmas.
“We’ve won seven in a row, we come in with a lot of confidence,” Rodgers said. “They didn’t play a lot of starters in the finale against Philadelphia, they were off last week, and they’re hosting the game, so there’s extra pressure on them as the number one seed to win. We’re coming in with a lot of confidence riding the streak and feeling good about the way we’ve been playing.”
“I can’t speak on the challenges they’re going to have coming off the bye,” Packers linebacker Julius Peppers said. “But for us, it definitely boosts our confidence coming in on a winning streak. We feel good as a football team and we feel good about our chances.”
The Packers lost to Dallas in the regular season in Week 6, but that was before Rodgers’ epiphany. They also know that only one team has beaten the Cowboys when they were playing at full strength: the Giants. The Packers beat them twice this season, including last week’s wild-card round.
They also feel good about their level of experience. Rodgers already has won a Super Bowl — he did it in Dallas, in fact, the only other time he has played at AT&T Stadium in his career — while the Cowboys are riding a rookie quarterback and a rookie running back.
Rodgers remembers his first playoff game in 2008. He threw an interception on his first pass.
“You have to get into the rhythm of the game and keep your composure and find that balance,” he said. “There’s a lot of nerves in your first playoff game. You have to find a way to settle in. The experience gives you the composure and the confidence. Been there, done that.”
Rodgers sure has. He knows what it takes to win at this time of the year.
“You have to try to find a way to stay focused in the midst of chaos and distraction,” he said. “You have to be steady and make plays in the most important moments. Just like in the regular season, it comes down to one or two plays. It could be a play in the first quarter, could be the last play of the game. It could be a Hail Mary. But flawless execution is how you move on.”
For the past seven weeks, no one has been as flawless as Rodgers and the Packers.