GREEN BAY – Aaron Rodgers sounds as focused as ever.
Preparing to play in his fifth NFC Championship Game as the Packers' starting quarterback, Rodgers has plenty to think about, particularly Tampa Bay's stingy defense.
But as a 37-year-old, soon-to-be three-time MVP who knows all about how elusive Super Bowls can be, one thing he's not thinking about is whether this could be his last chance to get back to one.
"I'm always just trying to stay present, especially this year as much as anything, and enjoy the moments," Rodgers said on Wednesday, four days before Sunday's 2:05 p.m. CT kickoff against the Buccaneers. "I hope there's more opportunities, but I don't know. I mean, I really don't. That stuff is out of my control. My future is a beautiful mystery, I think."
That comment was in line with much of how Rodgers repeatedly has described his mental state – an exceedingly positive one in a year that's seen the Packers draft his potential successor at QB, thereby leaving control of his Green Bay timeline to others, and in a season that's been altered by a global pandemic during which he's repeatedly expressed appreciation for what's right in front of him, including every game, every teammate and every touchdown in the "gold" zone.
His mindset is no different as Sunday approaches and he gets to lead the Packers into an NFC title game at Lambeau Field for the first time.
"I remember when I heard the news about him coming to the NFC, I thought this was a real possibility," he said, calling it "another special moment" in a career that has seen him accomplish much of what he hoped to as a kid.
"I've always been a football fan," he said. "I grew up wearing out a VHS tape of Super Bowl highlights, and as a kid you dream about playing in Super Bowls, playing in big games, what that would feel like."
Well, he's on the closest-to-the-biggest stage once again, and for the second year in a row under Head Coach Matt LaFleur. Rodgers made a passing reference to those who doubted the Packers' staying power, and ability to get back here, after a 13-3 season last year that surprised many.
But that's just another thing on which he's wasting no energy. It doesn't matter, nor does the future, nor the burden of three straight losses at this stage and what has become a 10-year wait for another shot at a title.
All that matters is the here and now. That, along with positivity, gratitude, and the like, are all that have mattered to Rodgers all year.
"Obviously I put pressure on myself to perform every single week, and I think there's a lot to be said for being able to harness that pressure and fear of failure and focus into a real positive," he said. "That's something you learn over the years. But I don't feel any extra pressure going into this one."
The Green Bay Packers practiced on Clarke Hinkle Field on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021.
"The present is such a gift to be able to stay in the moment and to have gratitude for being in this situation again, and being with the guys and having fans in our stadium and maybe snow in an NFC Championship Game," he continued. "I'm going to enjoy these moments for sure, and just not worry about what happens down the line.
"I'm thankful for the opportunity again to be leading these guys, to have played the way I want to play, to be called upon for a greater leadership role. Those things are really, really important to me."
His teammates can't help but notice, too. Rodgers is one of only two players (kicker Mason Crosby is the other) on the Packers' active roster to have played in a Super Bowl, so his level of leadership naturally rises in times like these.
"He's really the guy leading the charge," center Corey Linsley said. "Leading us and keeping our eye on the prize … because he has that wisdom. He knows what it takes to get there. He knows what it takes week in and week out to continue on that journey."
Standing in that path to the Super Bowl now is the quarterback who has played in more of them than any other, Tom Brady.
Rodgers has never looked at QB matchups as the head-to-head confrontations frequently portrayed in the media, but he understands the storyline when two future Hall of Famers at the game's most spotlighted position take the field together.
Back in the spring, when Brady left New England and signed with Tampa Bay as a free agent, the thought certainly crossed Rodgers' mind that they'd be adversaries again, and perhaps with some high stakes. They had only crossed paths twice (in 2014 and '18) until this year, when they met a third time in October and now again in by far their most significant showdown.