Peter King said:
Aaron Rodgers is grateful for Pat McKenzie.
When the game for the NFC North championship was over Sunday at Soldier Field, and when the Packers—who won only twice in the two months Aaron Rodgers was missing with his broken collarbone—were back in their locker room after a 33-28 victory helped rescued by Rodgers, he found team physician Pat McKenzie in the din of a happy place.
Rodgers bearhugged McKenzie.
“I’ll keep what was said between us,” he told me. “But I will say it was a good moment. I have so much respect for that man.”
Waitwhat? Rodgers broke the collarbone Nov. 4 against Chicago, and for the past month, every week in Green Bay has been full of wonder over whether McKenzie, the Packers’ team physician, would clear Rodgers to return to play. No clearance in Week 13. None in Week 14, None in Week 15. None in Week 16. As time went on, you could see the frustration in coach Mike McCarthy, and you could practically hear the grinding of the teeth when Rodgers would make his public pronouncements. The season was slipping away, and Rodgers wanted to play. Though Rodgers said most of the right things in front of the cameras, there were whispers that he thought McKenzie was being too cautious with him.
For years, players have thought team doctors worked for the team first and the player a distant second. That’s what was at the core of the head-trauma case that the NFL and former players settled for $765 million last summer—that doctors and teams were putting players back into the game for years when they knew there was some danger in doing so. And so here was McKenzie doing what players have wanted for years—a doctor putting the player first and the team second—and he felt the pressure from inside and outside the organization (and from Rodgers’ teammates, subtly) to put the savior back on the field.
“Pat and I are really close,” Rodgers said, “and now I respect him even more, after we went through this. Sometimes, doctors need to step up and save players from themselves, and I felt that’s what Pat did in this case. I felt every week he was doing what was in my best interests, even thought I didn’t agree with him all the time—not at all. All the time, we were looking at the same stuff on the scans [the MRI results and X-rays], and he was saying what had to be said. It wasn’t easy, but I can tell you, it paid off today.”
It paid off because Rodgers wasn’t in pain during the game, he said. “I felt really good,” he said. “I never took any big shots all day.” He was sacked three times, but never a shot that landed him on the area that was hurt 48 days earlier. The game was an odd one for Rodgers, because though he wasn’t and didn’t feel rusty, he made two uncharacteristic throws in the first 16 minutes that got intercepted and threatened to put Green Bay too far behind. “Poor decisions,” he said. “But I expect to play better as we go along—and I’ll have to this weekend. But as the game went along, I felt good, and I really got into a rhythm.” It helped that James Starks and Eddie Lacy were so effective (68 of 80 yards on a third-quarter scoring drive came on the ground), and Rodgers didn’t have to do everything himself.
Down 28-20 early in the fourth quarter, Rodgers hit three of three on the first touchdown drive of the quarter. With 6:24 left, he took the ball at his 13, down 28-27, knowing that with Matt Forte having a big day on the other side this might be his last chance; Chicago could eat a lot of clock with Forte moving the sticks. Coach Mike McCarthy clearly was not willing to take a chance at getting the ball back. He went for it on 4th-and-1 from the Packers 23 and again on 4th-and-1 from the Green Bay 44. Fullback John Kuhn converted the first one, barely, and Rodgers hit Jordy Nelson for six at the two-minute warning on the second. But Rodgers missed two throws downfield, close calls; the first was an underthrow to an open Andrew Quarless, and the second, on 3rd-and-8 with 51 seconds left, was a throw behind Jordy Nelson, also open in the middle of the field. Uncharacteristic misses by a man playing a high-pressure game for the first time in seven weeks.
Last chance: 4th-and-8 at the Bears 48. Rodgers didn’t expect what he got. He had three receivers to the left and one to the right—and the Bears decided to blitz heavy. Three extra men coming. “They rushed seven,” he said. “I was going to Jordy right away, but all that changed when they brought seven.” As Julius Peppers steamed in, unblocked, from Rodgers’ left, Kuhn dove at him to try to save the sack. Good move. Rodgers spun out of it and Peppers just got one hand on him. The Bears clearly were trying to stop the short completion, stop the Packers from converting, and safety Chris Conte sat near the first-down line, the Bears 40, stunned to see Randall Cobb—in his first game back, too, after rehabbing a broken leg—streak past him.
“I just wanted to be sure I didn’t underthrow him,” Rodgers said.
He didn’t. Good throw. Touchdown. One of the biggest of Rodgers’ life.
“If I don’t get that block from John … ” he said. [You can read more about the block, and the play, later today from The MMQB's Greg Bedard, who was at the game for us.]
“I guess this is what the league wanted when they started scheduling all those divisional games for the last week of the season, right?” Rodgers said.
And so now 12-4 San Francisco comes to 8-7-1 Green Bay for a late Sunday afternoon game. The long-range forecast is for snow showers Saturday and a wind-chill temperature between zero and 5 degrees at kickoff Sunday. “They’re saying maybe six inches of snow,” Rodgers said. The California kid sounded happy.