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Rodgers silences doubters with vintage performance

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LANDOVER, Md. -- They walked off the field in order, like the assembled cast of a Broadway play. The northwestern tunnel of FedEx Field was Packer Country now, and bows in front of the applauding fans were almost customary, even for the Packers' quality control and equipment managers who scurried out first and offered a fist bump to all the Cheeseheads.

The personalities kept growing larger and positional groups gave way to individuals led by security guards. There was Eddie Lacy and Randall Cobb. There was Clay Matthews.

But the star of the night, after quite possibly his most impressive performance of the season, trumped all. From just a few feet inside the tunnel connecting the field to the Packers' locker room, a blast of cheering caused anyone who was hoping for a piece of Aaron Rodgers to get in line.

Led by two security guards in the front and flanked by two Packers officials in the back, Rodgers smiled. He was impossibly at ease with all of this -- the standing ovations, the unscripted, masterful outings. Every week was a test of his patience and toughness and mental capacity, yet he still had the finesse to stop on a dime just before the locker room to autograph a pair of gloves for a fan that could barely see over the guard rail.

And with the final bow on Sunday, after a 35-18 win over Washington, Rodgers reminded everyone that he may still be the most dangerous force in a playoff landscape populated by new favorites.

"He was just Aaron, just Aaron," wide receiver James Jones said. "The guy has set such a high standard you know what I mean? You guys get on him about every little thing. But to us, he's just Aaron. He came out here and he played ball like he always does."

He added: "That's 12, man. He spoils you guys around here. Future Hall of Famer -- you guys are spoiled. So when he makes one bad throw or does one bad thing, you're all on him. But to us, he plays like 12 every week."

To understand Rodgers' outing, it's essential to understand that the Packers' offense prefers non-stop movement. It works best when they have short rest time between plays, and it works because Rodgers can act as the nerve center. It's a morale booster for the offensive line when they know they have the advantage over a heavy, tired personnel grouping on defense that cannot substitute. It's even more so for the skill position players who now understand that the defensive secondary will likely be out of place.

This was especially true against Washington who, according to Packers head coach Mike McCarthy, went with a heavy base defense for a majority of the game to prevent Green Bay from running the ball.

Now add in a new left tackle who was bull-rushed by Redskins rookie Preston Smith, resulting in a safety on Green Bay's second drive. Add in wind that was pushing 20 miles per hour, taking one of Rodgers' go balls to Jones and hurling it well off the trajectory. Add in the need to run plays out of a bigger personnel set to help protect the quarterback, which results in fewer eligible receivers. A team cannot enter a movement offense without a completed pass, and Rodgers hurled eight incomplete in a row after hitting on his first pass of the game.

"Tempo is huge," wide receiver Davante Adams said. "That's something our coaches push week in and week out."

Rodgers delivered at the 13-minute mark of the second quarter. He likely knew that the only route to not betray him so far that night was a quick 8-yard stop to Jones. Out of the shotgun -- still a risk at that point in the game -- he faced a full-on blitz with just his original five-man protection and dropped the ball right below Jones' numbers as he turned back to the field.

On the next play, the up-tempo game was on, and Green Bay caught Washington with 12 men on the field. It was the first of two times they would do so on the drive. Three minutes later, after a failed bubble screen attempt, Rodgers noticed Washington attempting a last-gasp effort to pull one of their defenders off the field. He saw this out of the back corner of his eye, snapped the ball and began to scramble even with several of his own lineman standing still. He rifled a ball to Randall Cobb in the end zone for Green Bay's first score of the night.

The Packers ended up using no huddle on roughly 30 percent of their snaps.

"He's having fun and this is what playoff football is all about," Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said. "... I mean, we're in the tournament, he has a lot of experience in these games and it's important for him to go out there and ignite us."

After the game, Rodgers was asked about the headlines that compared him to Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins, who went on a record-breaking tear to end the season as Rodgers struggled. He was asked particularly if it fueled him coming into this game -- a fair question considering the way he internalizes most slights.

"No," Rodgers said. And then he smiled like all good Broadway stars smile, letting you know that he understands, that it was foolish to doubt him in the first place.

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