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Aaron Rodgers alone makes Green Bay Packers legit contenders

When Aaron Rodgers saw Randall Cobb hit the turf in agony after taking a direct shot to the knee, the Green Bay Packers' star quarterback was mad enough to start a fight.

Instead, against all odds, a relatively civilized debate ensued -- though Rodgers would later inflict his wrath upon the Baltimore Ravens by flexing his golden right arm.

Rattled by the scary sight of Cobb, perhaps his most dangerous target, dealing with a potentially serious injury after absorbing a low blow from rookie safety Matt Elam late in the first half of Sunday's game against the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium, Rodgers loudly expressed his displeasure. To Elam's defense came fellow Baltimore safety James Ihedigbo, who issued a reasoned rebuttal.

"I was upset that Randall got hit in the knee, but (Ihedigbo) made a good point," Rodgers recalled Sunday night after landing in Green Bay following the Pack's 19-17 victory. "He said, 'What do you expect? It's the way they're calling things. The hits to the head are being called so closely, we have to lower our target area.'

"Personally, I think there's some room to operate without going unnecessarily low -- but more power to him for voicing that. It's rare that we have intelligent banter back and forth like that, instead of trash talk. I thought (Elam) could have gone for the midsection or shoulder area, but I haven't played defense before, so I don't understand what that's like. I do appreciate his perspective, but I just hate to lose a player like Randall."

Cobb's fractured fibula, which left the young receiver on crutches during the second half, was compounded by an earlier leg injury to deep threat James Jones, whose status also was unclear as the Packers returned home (although coach Mike McCarthy said Monday that Jones might play in the next game). Losing both wideouts for an extended period would be a big blow, but whatever goes down, it's clear the Pack will have life as long as the quarterback remains upright.

As Rodgers showed in Sunday's pivotal moments, Tom Brady's not the only brilliant passer who can survive the absence of his most potent pass catchers and find a way to thrive.

The victory over the defending Super Bowl champs, though made possible by the tremendous performance of a much-maligned Packers defense missing its best player (outside linebacker Clay Matthews, who's out several weeks with a fractured thumb), hinged on two pinpoint passes by the Sultan of Spiral.

On NFL Network
NFL Replay
will re-air the Green Bay Packers' 19-17 win over the Baltimore Ravens from Week 6 on Tuesday, Oct. 15 at 3:30 p.m. ET.

The first came late in the third quarter, with Green Bay clinging to a 9-3 lead: On first-and-10, Rodgers faked a handoff to his left to rookie running back Eddie Lacy (23 carries, 120 yards), a key part of the team's newly energized rushing attack, and rolled back to his right as receiver Jordy Nelson streaked downfield on a post. After planting his right foot, Rodgers delivered a glorious dime that traveled 60 yards in the air. Nelson, who had several steps on cornerback Lardarius Webb (with no safety in sight), caught it in stride and cruised into the end zone to complete the 64-yard scoring play.

The 2011 league MVP made it look so easy: As Rodgers released the ball, it was the equivalent of Michael Jordan launching a 3 he knew was destined to swish or Tiger Woods nailing a perfect drive down the middle of the fairway.

"We got a real good look, and when I came off my fake, I had a good idea what was going to happen," Rodgers said. "On a play like that, you can't try and baby it or aim it -- you have to throw it."

And when Rodgers throws it, you might as well call him 'Daddy.'

That same principle applied to Rodgers' second and equally impressive dagger, which came after the Ravens had cut the deficit to two points and were threatening to get the ball back in quarterback Joe Flacco's hands. With 1:53 remaining and the Packers facing a third-and-3 from their own 27, Rodgers (17 of 32 for 315 yards and one touchdown with one interception) took a shotgun snap and zipped a perfect pass over the middle to tight end Jermichael Finley, who caught it 15 yards downfield in full stride and rumbled free for a 52-yard gain.

It helped that Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees had dialed up the same alignment (five-man pressure, one safety deep) on consecutive downs, leaving Rodgers with an appetizing array of options.

"We had a good call -- really, it gave us three one-on-ones," Rodgers said. "We had Jordy on a post, Jarrett (Boykin) on a quick route on the back side and Jermichael inside on a quick post. Jermichael just had to beat an inside linebacker -- I was kind of hoping for that matchup all day, and we finally got it late in the game. I just wanted to make sure he got some room, and once he did, I had a lot of confidence that he'd make a play."

The day before the Packers' season opener last month, a disappointing 34-28 defeat to the San Francisco 49ers, Rodgers told me that he expected big things from Finley, both on that particular Sunday and throughout the season.

"Jermichael has expressed a desire to be 'The Guy,' and I've told him to stay patient," Rodgers said then. "He's really been playing well, and if he can stay healthy, he can do all the things that he wants to do and more. He's primed for a big year."

Can the same be said for Green Bay? Despite a tough Week 3 defeat to the Cincinnati Bengals, the Packers (3-2) have shown signs of developing into the type of well-rounded team they were in 2010 (when Rodgers led them to a championship) and 2011 (when they went 15-1 before suffering a divisional-round upset to the New York Giants).

Rodgers has been heartened by the effort of the Pack's defense in a 22-9 victory over the Detroit Lions on Oct. 6 and against the Ravens on Sunday, saying: "They were unbelievable. They've kept us in the game the last two weeks, and their goal-line stand (stuffing four short-yardage running plays to keep the Ravens scoreless in the second quarter) was tremendous. They did their job; at some point, as an offense, you've got to make some plays."

He's also thrilled with the contributions of Lacy, a hard-running second-round draft pick from Alabama who has gained 219 yards over the past two games.

"Eddie was awesome," Rodgers said. "He's just a heady player who knows how to run the football. He's very elusive for a guy his size, and he's a winner. He runs so hard, and that's just his personality. We haven't had a back like him in my nine years here, and I'm definitely enjoying it."

Some of Rodgers' enjoyment level will hinge on the severity of Jones' and Cobb's injuries, the latter of whom could be out for six weeks. And while he appreciates Ihedigbo's perspective, and the calmness with which the Ravens safety delivered his argument, Rodgers would like to see some action taken to mitigate the possibility of future hits like the helmet-to-knee shot Elam delivered on Cobb.

"The NFL really needs to examine some of these hits on defenseless guys in the knee area," Rodgers said. "If you think about the hit to (Dolphins tight end) Dustin Keller that knocked him out (for the season), that was a bad one, and I think they should do everything they can to avoid those. I just hope Randall's isn't nearly as bad."

Even without Cobb, all won't be lost: As long as the Packers have Rodgers, they have hope. And they're also likely to continue their ascent up our query-laced totem pole of the NFL's three-dozen-minus-four combatants:

1) Denver Broncos: How peeved was Peyton Manning after repeatedly taking low hits from Jaguars defenders early in Sunday's game -- and how tempted was he to go all Paul Creweon Paul Posluszny?

2) Seattle Seahawks: Was Sunday's sloppy victory over the Titans the NFL's version of grunge music -- and how scary is it that this team can make so many mistakes and still prevail?

3) Kansas City Chiefs: Does Andy Reid realize that when he (like many of his coaching colleagues) covers his mouth with his laminated play sheet, he's potentially revealing more information than he's trying to conceal?

4) New England Patriots: Does it seem a tad unfair that Tom Brady has to play twice as well as normal to give his team a chance to win with his current crop of receivers -- and even more unfair that he's actually pulling it off?

On NFL Network
NFL Replay
will re-air the New England Patriots' 30-27 win over the New Orleans Saints from Week 6 on Wednesday, Oct. 16 at 9 p.m. ET.

5) New Orleans Saints: Why did Sean Payton suddenly turn conservative in the final three minutes of Sunday's game in Foxborough -- and can we please have *this* guy back, ASAP?

6) Indianapolis Colts: Was Manning's refusal to mention his old team by name during his postgame news conference Sunday in Denver the equivalent of Bill Parcells referring to Terrell Owens as "The Player"?

7) San Francisco 49ers: Remember when Colin Kaepernick and Vernon Davis didn't click -- and how much would the Cardinals like to forget the duo's ridiculously dialed-in performance Sunday at Candlestick Park?

On NFL Network
NFL Replay
will re-air the Cincinnati Bengals' 27-24 win over the Buffalo Bills from Week 6 on Tuesday, Oct. 15 at 2 p.m. ET.

8) Cincinnati Bengals: Why does this talented team make everything seem so hard?

9) Green Bay Packers: Who knew that a Hawk would hunt Ravens so relentlessly -- and should we refer to this suddenly productive linebacker's three sacks as bird droppings?

10) Chicago Bears: Are Robbie Gould and Devin Hesterthe most unlikely *brothers* since these guys -- and should we thank them for giving us something to talk about last Thursday?

11) Baltimore Ravens: Do the Ravens fans who booed the home team Sunday suffer from short-term memory loss, or are they simply spoiled?

12) Detroit Lions: Who got more abused: the Wisconsin marching band by Dominic Raiola in Green Bay, or the Browns' defense by Joseph Fauria in Cleveland?

13) Miami Dolphins: Why, again, did this team let Reggie Bush leave via free agency -- and who, exactly, did they believe would fill his shoes?

14) Dallas Cowboys:Did the Cowboys cross the Line of DeMarc-ation to defeat their rivals Sunday night -- and does that add new meaning to Jerry Jones' use of the term "moral victory"?

15) Cleveland Browns: When Brandon Weeden texted me after Sunday's game to say that he "couldn't flip that (expletive) any farther" -- in reference to his not-so-successfulBrett Favreimpersonation -- he wasn't sending a subliminal message to Hattiesburg, was he?

16) Atlanta Falcons: Doesn't it seem like every time the Falcons get into the red zone, they're reliving the rough ending to the 2012 campaign?

17) Tennessee Titans: What was a bigger bummer for former University of Washington star Jake Locker on Sunday: missing out on a chance to play against his hometown team or having to watch backup Ryan Fitzpatrick's punchless performance in Seattle?

18) Arizona Cardinals: If Carson Palmer keeps throwing interceptions, will Bruce Arians soon hand the keys to the Cards' offense to Drew Stanton?

19) New York Jets: How much more inviting is "Al-Cro-Traz" than Revis Island -- and will Rex Ryan be able to overcome The One That Got Away?

20) St. Louis Rams: Did anyone make good use of my Zac Stacy tip six weeks ago, and if so, how's that working out for you so far?

22) Carolina Panthers: Are the Panthers finally making a move in Year 3 of the Ron Rivera/Cam Newton regime, or are they simply doing to our emotions what Steve Smith believes Cardinals defensive backs did to his leg in Week 5?

23) Buffalo Bills: Will the recently signed Matt Flynn rival new teammate Kevin Kolb as the most overcompensated player of his era?

24) Houston Texans: So, will T.J. Yates get his own deranged stalker, too -- and if so, can we sentence the jerk to spending one series as the Texans' quarterback?

25) San Diego Chargers: If your interception leader nearly a third of the way through an NFL season is 330 pounds and wears No. 92, how subpar is your secondary?

26) Minnesota Vikings: Can Josh Freeman be deemed a coach killer and coach saver in the same season?

27) Pittsburgh Steelers: After Mike Tomlin took away the Steelers' toys, could he at least have hooked up Ben Roethlisberger by reacquiring Mike Wallace?

28) Washington Redskins:How awkward will Rick Reilly's Thanksgiving be?

29) Oakland Raiders: When the Raiders lined up for a third-and-48 in the fourth quarter of Sunday's defeat in Kansas City, did Al Davis turn over in his grave -- and did Daryle Lamonica feel a tingling sensation in his spine?

30) Tampa Bay Buccaneers: If the Bucs wanted to put together a brochure to convince free agents *not* to sign with them, could they possibly be doing a better job?

31) New York Giants: If the Giants go 2-14 (or worse), will Tom Coughlinreally be allowed to decide if he wants to stay on as coach -- and, for that matter, will general manager Jerry Reese be afforded that luxury?

32) Jacksonville Jaguars: Can the person in charge of the Jags' Twitter feed play a little outside linebacker -- or is he/she just defensive?

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @MikeSilver.

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