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Even-Keeled Rodgers Instills Confidence In Teammates

Understandably, a lot of eyes this week are on Aaron Rodgers as he prepares to make his first playoff start. But judging by how he’s handled everything that has been thrown at him in his first two years in the NFL spotlight, it’s hard to imagine a young quarterback instilling more confidence in his teammates that he’s ready to lead them in the postseason, even though he’s never done it before.

Understandably, a lot of eyes this week are on Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers as he prepares to make his first playoff start.

But judging by how he's handled everything that has been thrown at him in his first two years in the NFL spotlight - stepping in for the un-retired Brett Favre and playing through a significant shoulder injury last year, then bouncing back from a 4-4 start and an ugly three-interception outing in Tampa Bay to make the Pro Bowl and lead the team to a 7-1 second half this season - it's hard to imagine a young quarterback instilling more confidence in his teammates that he's ready to lead them in the postseason, even though he's never done it before.

"He's probably one of the best team leaders that I have ever seen," receiver Donald Driver said. "His character, his leadership, it shows. It shows on the field and it shows off the field. He is always in the locker room playing around and joking with the guys. He is one of those guys that you love being around, and he is the focus.

"We know that he is going to have to take us where we want to go."

That's a heavy burden, to be sure. But that's part of the job description as a pro quarterback, and Rodgers knows that. He's just not letting it get to him.

Heading into Sunday's NFC Wild Card playoff game in Arizona, to say Rodgers is taking an even-keeled approach is probably an understatement. He's balancing his excitement with the idea that it's just "another week," an admittedly pseudo-concept that's reinforced somewhat by the fact that the Head Coach Mike McCarthy has the team following the exact same practice and travel schedule to play the same opponent in the same stadium as not only last week, but earlier this year in the preseason as well.

"Mike does a good job of keeping us focused on the task at hand," Rodgers said. "Today we had a good Wednesday practice, and we're going to try to build on that, have a good day tomorrow, and continue to keep the preparation up where it needs to be."

In various ways, the Packers have certainly proven they can do that, particularly during the second half of the season.

For one, their most glaring offensive problem in the first half - sacks - is not nearly the black eye now that it had been. The continuity generated by starting the same five on the offensive line - Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher at the tackle spots, Daryn Colledge and Josh Sitton at the guards, and Scott Wells at center - over the last seven games has helped limit the sacks Rodgers has taken to just nine over that span, after going down 41 times in the season's first nine games.

"We're not worried about Aaron at all going into the playoffs," Colledge said. "He prepares probably harder than anybody on this offense. We know what to expect out of him. It's our job to keep him upright. He's proved that he can do almost anything he wants to do as long as he's not laying on his back."

In addition, the Packers were best in the league in 2009 at protecting the football, turning it over just 16 times, an even one per game. Ball security is emphasized by every team, especially in the postseason, but looking at Arizona's playoff run from a year ago only heightens its importance for Green Bay this Sunday.

In winning their first two playoff games a year ago, the Cardinals generated nine turnovers by opponents Atlanta and Carolina. Thirty-seven of their 63 points in those two games came off of turnovers, including a critical fumble return for a score on the opening possession of the second half of the Wild Card game against the Falcons that gave Arizona a lead it wouldn't relinquish in that game.

They followed that up with five interceptions of Jake Delhomme against the Panthers in the divisional round and rolled to a road triumph that set the stage for the NFC title the following week, and a Super Bowl effort that came up just a couple minutes short of a championship.

The Packers must be ready for an Arizona defense that will be determined to take the ball away, playing much more aggressively than last week's substitute-laden unit. But Rodgers' track record running this offense, with just seven interceptions and four lost fumbles in 599 combined pass attempts and rushes, indicates they will be.

"That's kind of our calling card," offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. "We've told our guys about it. That's got to be what we do, what we stress. Giving the ball away five times is a recipe for disaster in a regular-season game or certainly a playoff game.

"So it's going to be important. It's going to be critical. Our guys know that, and I think they believe that. They take a lot of pride in that, that we've done a good job, but that needs to continue."

Perhaps most important from a leadership standpoint, however, is to handle things well if they do go wrong. Rodgers suggested he's well aware of that, explaining to reporters on Wednesday that the biggest thing he learned from observing the Packers' two playoff games in 2007 is that ups and downs in big games are inevitable.

The 14-0 deficit early to Seattle that year and the back-and-forth overtime affair against the New York Giants in the NFC Championship exemplified that.

"It's a 60-minute game, and crazy things happen," he said. "But you have to stay the course."

{sportsad300}Fortunately for Rodgers and the Packers, they've experienced their fair share of "big games" this season that featured playoff-like atmospheres. The season opener in prime time against Chicago, the two showdowns with Favre and the Vikings, the home game with Dallas following the Tampa Bay loss, and the last-play defeat at Pittsburgh all qualified.

The playoffs, of course, crank everything up yet another notch above those contests, which only adds to the value of a quarterback and leader handling the emotions effectively if and when things go sour.

"(Do) not let one mistake force you to do something you wouldn't normally do," said Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner, who knows a thing or two about playoff football, having reached three Super Bowls in his career. "I think that's the key, to stay even-keel. When bad things happen, you have to push it aside, let it go, and move on.

"That's the formula in any game, and specifically when you're in a hostile environment, when you're in the playoffs, when there's so much riding on it. You have to have the ability to have a short memory and let the bad things go and continue to press forward and let your skill and let the game come to you."

Rodgers' teammates have seen him do that in some crucial moments this season, whether it was leading the team back from a 24-3 halftime deficit against the Vikings to get within 31-26 in the fourth quarter, or bouncing back from a vicious shot to the chin in the first quarter against the Steelers to produce five touchdown drives on the day, including three in the fourth quarter, in a difficult road environment.

"He is a mentally tough quarterback," receiver Greg Jennings said. "Obviously he has all of the tools that a quarterback needs to perform at a high level, and he has used them all this year and all very well. He has spread the ball around. He is the ultimate leader now. He has the leadership down to a 'T' now."

As well as the routine of preparing, practicing, and playing the game. The higher stakes don't change that, no matter how much focus is on the quarterback.

"Obviously the quarterback is going to be judged fair or unfair by the success in the playoffs," Rodgers said. "But we stay focused. We're creatures of habit and we stay focused on the game and the task at hand, and this is just another game.

"It has more meaning, obviously, because it's one-and-done in the playoffs. But it's still 11-on-11, it's still 60 minutes, and we're going to go out there and try to put our best product on the field."

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