Banged-up Rodgers has shouldered the load in Favre's absence

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Aaron Rodgers has thrown six touchdowns and just one interception since injuring his shoulder in Week 4.

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was the last player off the Lambeau Field turf on Sunday. With each step he took toward the tunnel to his team's locker room the cheers from the still-packed stadium grew louder, thousands chanting his dual-syllable first and last name.

"Aa-ron Rod-gers! Aa-ron Rod-gers!"

He tried to sprint but he steadily slowed, acknowledging the admiration by raising his right arm attached to the bum shoulder he plans on shutting down for the next few days. He had just completed 21 of 28 passes for 186 yards and a touchdown, outplaying Indianapolis' Peyton Manning in a 34-14 thrashing of the Colts.

Stephen Dunn / Getty Images
Lambeau fans have made their choice clear about which quarterback they prefer to lead the Packers.

He had heard similar but not quite as fervent cheers when Green Bay defeated nemesis Minnesota at Lambeau to open the season. But two home losses between then and now brought reminders of how difficult it would be to replace Brett Favre. He still hasn't lived down his three-interception outing in a Week 4 loss to Tampa Bay, the same day Favre was throwing six touchdowns in the New York Jets' victory over Arizona.

For the short term, Rodgers balanced, if not tipped the scale in his favor, as he's not only led Green Bay to a 4-3 record and into a tie with Chicago for first place in the NFC North, he did it on the day Favre threw two interceptions and the Jets lost to Oakland to fall to 3-3.

Rodgers also did it on a field where Manning (21-of-42, 229 yards, 46.6 rating) was unsettled, erratic and nowhere near the best quarterback playing at Lambeau.

"Peyton is a great quarterback," Rodgers said. "He's established. He's been to Pro Bowls, he's won a Super Bowl. He's won MVP. I hope one day to be mentioned in the same sentence -- more than just when we play them -- but I haven't proven anything that he's proven yet."

Rodgers is aware that a win over Indianapolis and a decent start to his NFL career is hardly worth touting at this point. He wasn't great against the Colts. In fact, he threw for the fewest yards among his NFC North colleagues (Minnesota's Gus Frerotte, 298; Chicago's Kyle Orton, 283; and Detroit's Dan Orlovsky, 265 yards).

Instead, Rodgers efficiently managed a balanced offense that was the latest to exploit the Colts' smallish defensive linemen and banged-up secondary. He completed passes to eight players and gave the ball 31 times to tailback Ryan Grant, who surpassed the 100-yard mark (105) and scored a touchdown for the first time this season.

Rodgers established enough for coach Mike McCarthy to go for a fourth-and-1 on his team's 44 -- in the second quarter. The gutsy call worked and Green Bay went on to score a touchdown on the drive. The show of faith by the coach and the deliverance on the gamble proved contagious, as even the defense chipped in. Safeties Nick Collins and Aaron Rouse each returned interceptions by Manning into touchdowns.

"He did an excellent job of taking what the defense gave him," McCarthy said of Rodgers. "The check-downs were there. Just the patience of going through reads. He really trusted his footwork today. He didn't hold the ball. He stepped up very well. That's what you're looking for. No turnovers against that defense. That's an accomplishment, and that's something you look to do going forward."

For Rodgers, it was the ideal performance by a quarterback just hoping to reach this point. For the Packers, it was a showing they needed to provide relief to the player it can't afford to lose. Rodgers has played through a painful right throwing shoulder injury for the past three games, but he really had no other choice.

Not only would the team have been left to pick between starting rookies Matt Flynn or Brian Brohm if Rodgers couldn't play -- as was initially feared when he got hurt in the fourth quarter of the loss to Tampa Bay -- Rodgers would have been rapped with not being as rugged or gutsy as the ultra-tough Favre, who started his 258th consecutive game on Sunday.

"It seems like he's got a little Brett Favre in him," tight end Donald Lee said. "Brett did the same thing playing through injury. By Aaron replacing Brett and playing through injury, it's like we're not missing a beat. It gives the offense great confidence. When the leader of the team is out there playing and competing and trying to win and he's got a bum shoulder, trust me, we want to play harder."

Rodgers, who has thrown 95 passes in games and probably twice as many as that in practices since injuring the shoulder, has never really let on how badly he was hurting. With Green Bay having a bye next weekend, giving him some time to heal, he finally gave an indication of his plight.

"When I originally hurt it, I just kind of wanted to get to this week, hoping that this would be a turning point for the injury," Rodgers said. "I’ll be doing rehab the next few days and going home and continuing to do rehab back home, and hopefully come back next week and hopefully turn the corner on it. It was the goal to get through the pain these three weeks, and hopefully, after the bye, if it's not 100 percent, it will be close to it."

For those counting, that was four mentions of some variation of hope. In other words, he's unsure if he's going to be fully right this season -- and there are still nine more games to go.

The lack of certainty about Rodgers' shoulder parallels a lack of certainty about the Packers' legitimacy. While they are 4-3, they haven't beaten a team (Minnesota, Detroit, Seattle, Indianapolis) with a winning record. When they return from their bye, they play at Tennessee and at Minnesota, then they face Chicago, New Orleans and Carolina.

Healthy or not, Rodgers has a lot to prove with that schedule. Then again, he probably always will.



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