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Aaron Rodgers' playoff wizardry for Packers makes Chicago green with envy

Aaron Rodgers' playoff wizardry for Packers makes Chicago green with envy
Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers after the playoff win over the Cowboys on Sunday, Jan. 15, 2017, in Arlington, Texas. (Ron Jenkins / AP)

While Bears fans lament who will design the offense for another losing season, the Packers draw plays in the dirt, completing not just a pass to win a playoff game but a mission to ruin Sundays for their rivals.

Which is worse, Chicago, watching the Packers play for the George S. Halas Trophy again or seeing quarterback Aaron Rodgers make it all look so easy?

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Suffice to say everybody in our football city sees the connection between green and envy.

"I said, everybody kind of run over to the left and get open — not exactly in those words, but that was basically the gist of it," Rodgers said, explaining the 35-yard pass to Jared Cook that set up Mason Crosby's game-winning field goal Sunday in a 34-31 victory over the Cowboys.

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Kind of run over to the left and get open. Simpler words never have been spoken in an NFL huddle. The 12-year-old kid inside every one of us could relate. All that was missing was Rodgers telling Cook to cut at the oak tree after Randall Cobb runs deep to the bushes.

Only 12 seconds remained in a tie game. Rodgers rolled left on third-and-20, throwing an off-balance strike to Cook within a toenail of going out of bounds. For the umpteenth time in his Hall of Fame career, Rodgers made the remarkable look routine. Regardless of down-and-distance or what the clock or scoreboard says, defenses never can R-E-L-A-X as long as No. 12 has one more snap.

Look at the pinpoint pass to Cook or the Hail Mary completion to Cobb against the Giants one week earlier, a desperation play the Packers apparently patented. Look at past heroics against the Cardinals, Lions and Vikings, et al.

And don't forget how Rodgers toyed with the Bears on Dec. 17, burning cornerback Cre'Von LeBlanc with a 60-yard bomb to Jordy Nelson that helped the Packers prevail at Soldier Field. LeBlanc might be the only guy in town enjoying this Packers run, realizing he isn't alone as his misery gets more company.

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Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson makes a 60-yard reception to set up the game-winning field goal ahead of Bears cornerback Cre'von LeBlanc in the fourth quarter Sunday, Dec. 18, 2016, at Soldier Field.
Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson makes a 60-yard reception to set up the game-winning field goal ahead of Bears cornerback Cre'von LeBlanc in the fourth quarter Sunday, Dec. 18, 2016, at Soldier Field. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)

Teams spend millions embracing analytics, coaches waste sleepless nights studying videotape and players practice for hours executing intricately designed schemes. The Packers do all this stuff, too, but when in dire need of something dramatic, they typically leave it up to Rodgers to improvise. They do the equivalent of what the Bulls did with Michael Jordan when trailing by a point on the final possession: Give Jordan the ball and get out of the way. Make something happen, superstar. Win.

And nobody in the NFL currently is better in those moments than Rodgers — nobody.

Not Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, perhaps the greatest winner in NFL history. Not Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, a two-time Super Bowl champion who keeps plays alive as well as Rodgers but lacks as many memorable finishes. Not Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, likely the league's most valuable player this season but the least likely of the four quarterbacks playing on Championship Sunday to come through in the clutch.

Rodgers, Brady and Roethlisberger enter the weekend with impressive legacies. Ryan arrives with an impressive resume. That's the biggest difference. As terrific as Ryan is, he suffers only by comparison. As much as anything, that's a product of Ryan playing in what could be the league's golden age of quarterbacks. Evidence comes when you rank the four remaining quarterbacks in terms of handling Sunday's playoff pressure: Ryan comes in fourth.

Roethlisberger would be third, more credible than Ryan because of his jewelry collection but not in the same realm as Brady and Rodgers. Choosing between Brady and Rodgers for No. 1 is like picking between Maui and Barbados for a winter getaway — there is no wrong answer. But consider Rodgers will take the field at the Georgia Dome on one of the hottest eight-game streaks in NFL history.

Since declaring the Packers would run the table after their last loss Nov. 20, Rodgers has thrown for 21 touchdowns compared with one interception and completed 68.9 percent of his passes for an average of 298 yards per game. The Packers are 8-0, all of them essentially elimination games.

Any ordinary year, Brady would be the quarterback most trusted among the four surviving; he has the most completions (756), passing yards (8,244) and touchdown passes (58) in playoff history. But this is an extraordinary streak by Rodgers, the stuff of legend, and Brady completed only 58.8 percent of his passes against the Texans.

Local optimists, stop trying to draw parallels to the Bears' dilemma. Yes, Sunday's four teams drafted and developed their franchise quarterbacks, something the Bears haven't done since Jim McMahon a generation ago. Sure, general manager Ryan Pace might alter that trend by drafting the right guy at No. 3 like the Falcons did in 2008 (Ryan) — or the wrong guy like the Titans did in 2006 (Vince Young).

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History makes confidence hard to come by in Lake Forest. When Rodgers was drafted 24th in 2005, for instance, the Bears chose Cedric Benson 20 picks earlier. And do you really want to be reminded that the Bears selected kicker Paul Edinger in the sixth round in 2000, 25 picks before the Patriots took Brady 199th?

Alas, the best quarterback left is the most familiar one to Chicagoans, if they still can bear to watch. Good luck enjoying the next two weeks debating the careers of Rodgers and Brady after the Packers and Patriots advance Sunday to Super Bowl LI in Houston.

The Packers' itinerary will be subject to change, just the way Rodgers likes it.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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