SANTA CLARA, Calif. — It is not lost on Aaron Rodgers that he plays for a franchise whose address is 1265 Lombardi Drive, plays to bring a trophy that is named for the legendary Packers coach named Lombardi back to a charming green-and-gold place they proudly call Titletown USA.
That is all the motivation any man needs. Of course, the prospect of a second Super Bowl championship for him and a fifth for the Packers is on the line in Sunday’s NFC Championship game.
But what if hell hath no fury like a young man scorned, a man who now has a chance to deny the 49ers a shot at joining the esteemed company of the Patriots and Steelers with a sixth Super Bowl at the same time?
From the time Rodgers was a 3-year-old in Chico, Calif., he wanted to be Joe Montana. And he would have lived his dream, if the 49ers had taken him with the first-overall pick of the 2005 draft. Instead, they took Alex Smith, which left Rodgers to squirm in the green room for what seemed like an eternity before the Packers rescued him with the 24th pick.
The 49ers haven’t won a Super Bowl since the 1994 season, and now Rodgers gets this unprecedented opportunity to remind Montana’s old team what could have been and what they have missed.
This is the fourth time Rodgers has been 60 minutes from the Super Bowl, but the first time he has encountered the 49ers standing between him and 60 minutes from the Lombardi.
This is also a legacy game before a legacy game for Rodgers. A second ring nine years after his first ring would tie him with Bart Starr and put him one up on Brett Favre and earn him the title of Greatest Packers Quarterback of the modern era, if not forever.
He has come a long way from the night they booed Rodgers in Green Bay following the Favre trade to the Jets in the summer of 2008, after three long years waiting his turn.
Rodgers has stopped looking like the best quarterback on the planet, never so much as when the 49ers limited him to 104 passing yards and routed the Packers on Nov. 24.
But no one inside Levi’s Stadium on either side is expecting anything other than the iconic marksman who followed the iconic gunslinger and can still fill the air with magic bullets. Rodgers is 10-7 in the playoffs. He was clutch when clutch was needed last week against the Seahawks. He is still dangerous.
“When I was 5 and I watched Joe Montana take the Niners down the field against the Bengals and throw a touchdown to John Taylor for the win,” Rodgers said on gal pal Danica Patrick’s podcast, “I remember thinking, that’s what I wanted to do. Then fast forward to 14 and I’m watching MJ, Michael Jordan, last game with the Bulls, and he crosses up [Bryon] Russell at the foul line and drains a mid-range shot, and that’s what I always said, ‘I want to do that. I want the ball in the clutch moments.’ ”
He is 36 now, and he knows you better seize the moment when you have it staring you in the face, because you are never promised another one.
He won’t soon forget how the Packers had the ball and a 12-point lead on the Seahawks with five minutes left in the 2014 NFC Championship game. And lost in overtime.
“It’s going to be a missed opportunity that we’re probably going to think about the rest of my career,” Rodgers said afterward.
A 44-21 nightmare followed in the 2016 playoffs against the Falcons when Niners coach Kyle Shanahan was the Atlanta offensive coordinator.
“For us, to get all the way where we got after being 4-6 was spectacular, but it’s all about championships when you play in Titletown, and the expectations are high and we’re disappointed we didn’t finish it off,” Rodgers said afterward.
Favre has Favre Pass in Green Bay, and whether Rodgers finishes this one off or not, he will have a street named after him one day as well as a gold jacket and Canton bust. The Packers got him a defense and a new head coach three years his elder to replace Mike McCarthy, and the new head coach unleashed running back Aaron Jones to help him and Davante Adams. No one knew for certain how the marriage between Matt LaFleur and Rodgers would work out. It’s worked out just fine.
Rodgers threw 26 touchdowns against four interceptions during a regular season when he was not Lamar Jackson or Patrick Mahomes and often won ugly. The Packers didn’t need him to be their two-time league MVP.
Against this opponent, against this savage pass rush, against Richard Sherman, they will. If he can remember how to be Hall of Fame Aaron Rodgers, if he is considerably better than Jimmy Garoppolo, the Packers will have a chance. Titletown will be watching, and cheering the kid it booed once only because he wasn’t Favre.
“I felt like I’d waited for three years to do something,” a young Rodgers would say once, “that I always wanted to do since I was 3 years old watching Joe Montana and running pass patterns with my dad in the backyard.”
On the day his agonizing draft wait had finally ended, Rodgers was asked: “How disappointed are you that you will not be a 49er?”
And Rodgers said: “Not as disappointed as the 49ers will be that they didn’t draft me.”
If you couldn’t join ’em, beat ’em, and then go try to bring that Lombardi Trophy home.
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