The return of Aaron Rodgers, franchise player

LANDOVER, Md. -- Aaron Rodgers has a pretty good life, you know, even when he is not starring in those insurance ads that appear every eight minutes on your TV screen. He plays quarterback for the Green Bay Packers, which might be preferable to playing center field for the New York Yankees, and when he is in the mood to head out for dinner and a movie he gets to ask Olivia Munn to go with him.

Oh, and Rodgers doesn't have to worry about sportswriters and other self-assigned legacy gatekeepers constantly reminding him about the need for a Super Bowl ring -- he checked off that box five years ago. And yet if you've been watching Rodgers look overly burdened over the past two and a half months (outside of that Hail Mary heave against Detroit) while his onetime 6-0 Packers were busy losing six of their final 10 games, you might have wondered if he'd be willing to trade his gig for yours.

Rodgers was suffering before this playoff game with Washington, that much was clear. Although he was wearing the body language of a man betrayed by his co-workers, of a quarterback who could do only so much with slow receivers and a soft offensive line, Rodgers might have forgotten the chief responsibility outlined in the small print of a franchise player's contract.

He is supposed to elevate the lesser lights around him; that's why the Packers gave him the $110 million extension.

Sunday at FedEx Field, Rodgers honored that responsibility in a way that he hadn't for much of the regular season. He overcame an early sack for a safety and an 11-0 deficit to throw for two touchdowns and a 2-point conversion to lead Green Bay to a 35-18 victory over the Redskins and a return date with the Arizona Cardinals, who all but reduced Rodgers to a tackling dummy last month in a 38-8 rout.

The quarterback says he believes his team will punch back in the rematch. "It's huge for us," Rodgers said of Sunday's result. "I talked a lot the last couple of weeks about being able to turn it on, and a lot of [reporters] probably thought that was lip service. But we just needed a game like this to get our mojo back, and we got our confidence going.

"I said this week it just takes one. It just takes one performance to get us going back in the right direction, and believing that we can make a run."

A run? No, people didn't think the 2015-16 version of Aaron Rodgers was strong enough to make a deep postseason run.

In fact, the stat sheet said Kirk Cousins entered the building as the better quarterback. Cousins was the one who threw for more than 4,000 yards this season, the one who completed nearly 70 percent of his passes (Rodgers checked in at a lowly 60.7 percent), the one who was packing the 101.6 rating (Rodgers was at 92.7), and the one who was averaging a healthy 7.7 yards per attempt (Rodgers was at 6.7, down 1.7 from last season and near the bottom of the league).

But as much as the films never lie, sometimes box scores do. Cousins walked in with the superior numbers and the hotter hand and the fresher catchphrase ("You like that" > "Discount double check"), and still no right-minded neutral observer would have considered him the best quarterback on the field.

There was evidence the Redskins suspected as much. "He's going to stay struggling," Washington's Jason Hatcher said, "and then in the playoffs, he's a different monster. He showed that tonight. ... He's a special quarterback -- everybody knows that."

Rodgers didn't look so special this season without Jordy Nelson and without an offensive line good enough to prevent him from being sacked 46 times. He needed to be a different player against Washington. He needed to validate his greatness all over again, and he needed to enhance a postseason record that could've used some work.

Though Rodgers did win his Super Bowl ring after the 2010 season, a loss to the Redskins would've left him with a 6-6 postseason record and four one-and-dones, including the unforgivable home loss to the Giants as a 15-1 defending champ. Perhaps that was weighing on him early in the game, when his coach, Mike McCarthy, said Rodgers was getting ahead of himself as he took the safety and then missed some throws into a gusting wind, including one wayward attempt, the quarterback said, "that would've been out of bounds on a Canadian field probably."

The Green Bay defense made a goal-line stand and kept the score manageable until Rodgers found his footing in the second quarter and hit James Jones down the middle for 34 yards. The Packers were playing fast, trying to unnerve the Washington defense, when a quick snap caused the home team to commit two penalties -- 12 men on the field and offside -- before Rodgers took advantage of the free play to spin out of trouble and find Randall Cobb in the end zone for a 12-yard score.

The game changed for keeps right there. Rodgers connected with Davante Adams for a 10-yard touchdown, Eddie Lacy ripped off some critical runs, and suddenly the Packers of January looked like the Packers of September. On his way into the locker room, Cobb was among the Packers who mocked Cousins' victory cry by shouting, "You like that. You like that."

A good time was had by all on the visiting side. Rodgers was seen smiling and pumping his fists in the final minutes; he projected a vibe of sheer relief rather than unmitigated joy. "He was just Aaron," Jones told a circle of reporters in the corner of his locker room. "He has such a high standard. ... He spoils you guys, and he's a future Hall of Famer. He spoils you. One bad throw, and you guys are all over him."

And yes, we would've been all over Rodgers had he lost to Cousins, a postseason newbie, in this one. The Packers emerged from their Week 17 loss to Minnesota with a more favorable wild-card matchup than the division champs, who faced the Seahawks and subhuman weather conditions in Minneapolis, and they needed to take advantage of it. "There was a time there down 11-0," Rodgers said, "when people could've started to have that doubt creep in. But it didn't happen today."

The winning quarterback said his up-tempo offense "became a snowball kind of going downhill," and one that Washington was powerless to stop. He said the Packers "know how to win these games," and neglected to mention that they know how to lose them, too, as they did in shocking fashion last year against Seattle.

But that gutting defeat wasn't on the mind of any Packer. Jones was asked if this team reminded him of the 2010 championship team, and though the receiver said it was a little early in January to make that kind of connection, he added: "But the confidence of this team, and the swagger of this team? Yes."

Aaron Rodgers is the one who represents that confidence and swagger. If he wants to win his second ring with this group, against the odds, he'll need to abandon an approach this season that was more conservative than Ted Cruz's.

He has to deliver plays -- big, daring plays that make his teammates seem bigger, stronger and faster than they really are. Nobody said it was going to be easy, but hey, in the end, that's why the Packers pay him the big bucks.