ATLANTA -- The usual chatter has already emerged, reflecting a tired and clichéd story line for people who either don't trust their eyes or need a trip to their local Lens Crafters. It goes something like this: Aaron Rodgers silenced the critics Saturday night, putting himself in the upper echelon of NFL quarterbacks with a masterful performance in the Green Bay Packers' 48-21 rout of the Atlanta Falcons.
Those of us who have been watching Rodgers play the past three seasons know he long ago ascended to those heights. If anything, this silly discussion of Rodgers' standing among his contemporaries will cloud the reality of what happened at the Georgia Dome.
If you want to debate whether or not Rodgers is now among an irrelevant grouping of the NFL's top quarterbacks, then go ahead. The larger point is this: Rodgers put the Packers within a game of the Super Bowl with one of the best postseason performances in a generation.
In leading the Packers to a rout of the NFC's top seed, Rodgers completed 31 of 36 passes for 366 yards. Some details:
He completed all 10 of his attempts on third down.
His 86.1 completion percentage ranks fifth-best in postseason history.
He is one of 15 quarterbacks to complete at least 31 passes and one of 21 to have thrown for at least 366 yards in a playoff game.
"Aaron was unbelievable and our whole offense was unbelievable," Packers defensive end Ryan Pickett said. "They're playing great at the right time of the year. They're clicking on all cylinders. That's going to make it tough for somebody to beat us."
More than anything, that's what I took from Saturday night's game. It doesn't matter to me whether or not Rodgers now stands on a mythical stage with Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and maybe Ben Roethlisberger. What's important is that Rodgers is providing the Packers both the opportunity and the bravado necessary to win the Super Bowl.
"When our big dog is rolling," said receiver Donald Driver, "the rest of us just roll behind. When he's playing the way he played tonight, no one can stop us. We know that now. We know it. ... We've got the swagger going now. We don't know where we're playing. But whoever we're playing, they better be ready."
We'll find out Sunday whether the Packers will play the Chicago Bears or the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game. Regardless of the opponent, the Packers know they have the single-most important ingredient to a championship team: An elite-level quarterback who has elevated his game at the time when it matters most.
Rodgers has a 134.3 passer rating in the 2010 postseason, having thrown six touchdowns and, according to ESPN Stats & Information, completing 33 of 38 passes against four or fewer pass rushers.
Against the Falcons, Rodgers led the Packers on four scoring drives of at least 80 yards, including two that answered early Atlanta touchdowns. He completed 11 of 12 passes that traveled at least 11 yards downfield, and by my count, he spun away from four potential sacks with mobility that continues to surprise opponents.
"He was on fire," coach Mike McCarthy said. Rodgers referred to it as a "special night" and added: "The way I prepare, the way our coaches prepare, we expect to play well. Maybe not this well. But it was one of those nights when, where things weren't working, when things weren't open, I was able to move in the pocket and avoid some of those free [blitzers] and make plays. So it was just a special night."
Rodgers joked that he was able to use the eyes in the back of his head to evade a few of those blitzers, including Falcons sack leader John Abraham on two plays. But I think we can chalk it up to a quarterback finding the kind of elite zone that simply isn't reached that often, the kind that led Phil Simms to complete 22 of 25 passes for the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXI, or the one that led Joe Montana to take the San Francisco 49ers downfield for a game-winning pass to John Taylor in Super Bowl XXIII, for instance.
Rodgers said he thought the performance ranked "in the top three or four" of his career. He cited a game at Cal in which he completed 23 consecutive passes (a 2004 loss to USC), among others. Well, sorry. No college game compares with the pressure of starting in the NFL playoffs in the building of your conference's top seed.
In 18 of the past 20 seasons, the NFC's No. 1 seed has won in the division round. The league's seeding usually makes it a good bet, but the Packers are not the typical opponent a No. 1 seed faces in this round. You could poke some holes in their special teams, and perhaps in the consistency of their running game. During the regular season, their offense had some struggles.
But the team we saw Saturday night has every right to expect a Super Bowl championship. Moving through the post-game locker room, I heard several players marveling about Rodgers' final numbers, even those who have played next to him for multiple years.
"The man is awesome," Driver said.
"When he has time, it's almost like they can't stop us," said guard Josh Sitton.
"We're a championship-caliber football team," McCarthy said.
Without Rodgers, they wouldn't be.
That's what's important.