Packers' Aaron Rodgers knows clock is ticking, seeks to savor every moment of 'special' season

Over the course of his prolific and sometimes vexing career, Aaron Rodgers has experienced five NFC Championship Games -- only one of them on the friendly and frozen tundra of Lambeau Field. And that experience was one he'd love to forget.

Thirteen years ago, on a sub-zero January night in Titletown, Rodgers watched helplessly and dismally as the favored Green Bay Packers suffered a 23-20 defeat to the New York Giants that turned on a Brett Favre interception on the second snap of overtime. Rodgers, then Favre's third-year backup, had been entrusted with a specific sideline duty, one he eventually forsook amid the minus-one temperature and 23-below wind chill.

"Oh my god, I was trying to take notes on my little pad, and I couldn't do it," Rodgers recalled in a recent interview. "I was trying to take my glove off to take notes and my hand was freezing -- I couldn't do it. I abandoned the notes in the second quarter. That was the second-coldest I've ever been (exceeded only by an early-December game in Chicago that same season), and it was such a miserable end to that season, because we had such a good team."

It was the last time Rodgers would back up Favre, who was traded the following August in the wake of a messy effort to rescind an earlier retirement and reclaim his job. In the ensuing 13 seasons, Rodgers would join Favre, a first-ballot Hall of Famer, in the pantheon of the greatest quarterbacks the sport has known; in a few weeks, he'll likely match him by winning his third Most Valuable Player award.

More importantly, he's searching for a second Super Bowl ring, beginning Saturday in Green Bay, where the top-seeded Packers host the sixth-seeded Los Angeles Rams in a Divisional Round clash (4:35 p.m. ET on FOX).

And if the Pack gets the W, Rodgers -- at long last -- can play for a conference title in the stadium he loves most. The California-raised quarterback is convinced that, even without fans, Lambeau Field represents a huge advantage for the home team.

"It's a different animal coming to Green Bay in the wintertime," he said.

A decent chunk of Rodgers' playoff history has occurred away from Titletown. Most notably, he guided the Packers past the Chicago Bears in the 2010 NFC Championship Game at Soldier Field -- a third consecutive road playoff triumph -- en route to his MVP performance in the Packers' Super Bowl XLV victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The following season, Rodgers and Green Bay rolled to a 15-1 record and captured the conference's No. 1 seed. A Divisional Round defeat to the Giants -- yep, them again -- cost the Packers a chance to host the conference title game, and their subsequent appearances (2014, Seattle; 2016, Atlanta; 2019, San Francisco) have all been on the road.

Each was depressing, in its own way. The Packers' epic collapse and subsequent overtime defeat to the Seahawks in the '14 title clash still stings. The games against the Falcons and Niners got out of hand early and never became particularly competitive.

Rodgers, 37, is now at a point in his career at which nothing can be taken for granted. He has attacked the 2020 season with a renewed appreciation for his situation and his craft, a mentality he credits for helping him perform at such a high level.

"I've really tried to savor every moment this year and enjoy the heck out of everything, like just hearing the sounds and feeling the interactions in the locker room and just enjoying those moments," he said. "It's not necessarily, 'Look, this is my last year in Green Bay,' but I know that my time in the league is way closer to the end than the beginning, and I just want to really savor all the things that make our game what it is, and the experience what it is.

"It's so much more than just playing on Sundays or Mondays or Thursdays -- or Saturdays, as we did this year. It's the joking in the locker room, it's the banter, it's the meaningful conversations, side conversations in practice -- special things that a lot of people don't get to see, that you're going to think about when it's all said and done.

"I don't think that this is my last year by any means, but I'm definitely enjoying everything as much as I can this year, especially with how strange it's been without fans."

Rodgers was forced to confront his future in Green Bay on the first night of last April's draft, when the Packers traded up to select Utah State quarterback Jordan Love with the 26th overall pick. Though Packers head coach Matt LaFleur insisted that Rodgers remained the "leader of this football team, and my expectation is that he will be for a long time," the man who once replaced Favre understood the obvious overtones.

Stuck at home for much of the spring and summer, like many other Americans confronting a global pandemic, Rodgers had a lot of time to think. To hear him tell it, that process was invaluable.

"I think that's part of the story for sure," Rodgers said of his growth while being quarantined. "Usually in the offseason, I love traveling, seeing new cultures and environments, and meeting new people all over the world, and I didn't really get a chance to do that after March. So, it was a very introspective time for me to look at myself in areas I wanted to grow, and things I wanted to learn about.

"Other than watching Tiger King and maybe (going) once through The Office again, it was a good time to focus on reading books, meditation and silencing my mind a bit instead of over-stimulating, which I think is easy for so many of us who need a distraction. I kind of wanted to sit with my feelings and thoughts and process them instead of mindless television or mindless social media."

Specifically, Rodgers worked to push past any negative thoughts about his football future -- or present -- that crept into his mind after the team used a first-round pick on his potential successor.

"You know," he said, "especially after the draft, it was important for me mentally to get to a place of freedom with that -- freedom from bitterness, freedom from expectations, freedom from future thinking -- and I feel like I did. It gave me a really good peace and calm about the season and to be able to focus. I've been trying just to have a lot of gratitude every day at work and to enjoy all the little moments that much more.

"There are things that are out of my control, and I understand that, and I appreciate it. I'm not fighting against it, and I haven't harbored any angst or frustration with anybody in the organization. I'm really content with where I'm at, and I feel like it's helped me to be very clear-minded all year.

"I think it's no surprise that I've been able to play so well, because there haven't been those distractions. I haven't been thinking about next year. I haven't been thinking about decisions that need to be made. I've just been enjoying the little things, been enjoying the coaches in the room, been enjoying my teammates -- and the other stuff will take care of itself. I'm not worried about it, and I harbor actually zero bitterness about it. And that's just allowed me to have a really calm and genuine peace about the situation."

On the field, Rodgers has wreaked havoc upon opposing defenses, completing a league-best 70.7 percent of his passes for 4,299 yards and an NFL-high 48 touchdowns -- with only five interceptions. His 121.5 passer rating is the second-best single-season mark in league history, topped only by the 122.5 he put up in 2011. That was the first of his two MVP seasons, and he'll likely earn a third when this season's honor is announced the night before Super Bowl LV.

To LaFleur, the decision is a no-brainer.

"I don't know how anybody's playing any better than he is, week in and week out, and I'm not even talking about the numbers," LaFleur told me last month. "He does so many little things. We put a lot on him. And he makes every single player around him better."

After a long, mostly prosperous -- but sometimes stressful -- partnership with former Green Bay (and current Dallas) head coach Mike McCarthy, Rodgers has thrived in LaFleur's offense, working out some early stylistic challenges (remember The Audible Thing?) -- to the point where the quarterback has carte blanche at the line of scrimmage.

As LaFleur told me in October, "He definitely has free rein. So, if he sees something and can get us out of a bad play, yeah, he will get us out of a bad play. And he's done a great job of it."

Free rein, free mind -- Rodgers has it all going on right now, and has the Packers right where they want to be. Fresh off a bye, they'll face a Rams team coming off an impressive Wild Card Round road victory over the Seattle Seahawks, with a potential NFC Championship Game clash against Tom Brady (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) or Drew Brees (New Orleans Saints) on deck.

In that scenario, Rodgers would finally get to start a game at Lambeau that can send him to the Super Bowl -- and have an opportunity to provide a fantastic finish to a surreal and utterly satisfying 16th NFL season.

"I'm just really proud of the work I've put in over the offseason," Rodgers said. "Not just the physical stuff, but the mental stuff, (which) has really allowed me to play free this year. And it has been a really enjoyable season on the field, even though it's been very strange.

"I can't say it's been the most enjoyable season in terms of the atmosphere and environment and all the things that make playing at Lambeau Field special, but as far as the on-the-field stuff goes and making the most of it, it has been a really special year."

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