In Aaron Rodgers, the Falcons will face the NFL’s Michael Jordan

Falcons linebackerVic Beasley Jr. sacks Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers during the second quarter on Sunday, Oct. 30, 2016, in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton/

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Falcons linebackerVic Beasley Jr. sacks Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers during the second quarter on Sunday, Oct. 30, 2016, in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton/

He’s not the greatest quarterback of all time, even of his time. (Tom Brady has been better; Peyton Manning was better.) He won’t be the NFL’s most valuable player. (Matt Ryan will, on merit.) He has half as many Super Bowl rings as the underdog quarterback in the other conference championship game. (Ben Roethlisberger has two.) But there’s something about Aaron Rodgers that makes him different from any other quarterback the game has seen.

The best NFL quarterbacks win with precision and cunning. Rodgers can do that, but he can also beat you because he fuses technical mastery with physical gifts in a way no quarterback ever has. (Michael Vick had a mighty arm and ran even faster, but his career completion percentage was 56.2.) Rodgers has the arm, the legs, the technical acumen and the sangfroid to improvise.

Michael Jordan wasn’t the greatest performer in the history of team sports because he could jump over everybody, though he could. He was also supremely skilled, and he invariably had the ball in his hands when it mattered. An NFL quarterback has the ball in his hands until he throws it, and no NFL quarterback is as terrifying as Rodgers in those moments before he delivers. Because he mightn’t just make the throws every good quarterback can make; he might just make one you figured was impossible.

If this sounds like hyperbole, go back to the penultimate play of Green Bay’s astonishing victory over Dallas. It was third-and-20 with 12 seconds remaining. Rodgers had just suffered a blind-side hit that coulda/shoulda been a game-losing sack/fumble. Somehow he held the ball, surely his second-best play of the frantic game. Now he rolled left, which makes throwing more difficult if you’re right-handed, which he is.

The pass Rodgers loosed wasn’t one of his Aroldis Chapman heat-seekers. Watch the replay, and you’ll note that the ball wobbles a bit. He was four feet inside the left sideline when he delivered. A defender was closing. He threw low and straight down the sideline – imagine slinging a ball 35 yards down a hotel hallway while about to bang into a wall – to a tight end bearing down on that sideline.

Watch yet again, and you’ll see that the ball is actually out of bounds when Jared Cook pulls it to his chest, but Cook – a Ram castoff touched by the spirit of Tony Gonzalez in the biggest moment of his career – manages to drag both big toes. If that ball is an inch too low or too high or too wide, the game goes to overtime. That throw and catch are why the Packers will be the visiting team in the final game staged in the Georgia Dome. Montana-to-Clark in January 1982? This was better. This was beyond belief.

This – and other stuff like it – is what Aaron Rodgers (and only Aaron Rodgers) can do. In October, Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel opined that Rodgers "should be considered a good veteran quarterback scuffling to regain his elite form," and this wasn't a fanciful contention. McGinn, the most respected newspaper analyst writing about the NFL, backed his claim with cold numbers.

The week before Thanksgiving, the Packers dropped their fourth game in succession. (The first was the 33-32 hairbreadth loss in the Dome.) They trailed Detroit and Minnesota by two games in the NFC North with six to go. That’s when Rodgers said, “I feel like we can run the table,” his words based on seemingly nothing. They’ve run it all the way to the NFC championship game.

Since the Packers were 4-6, Rodgers has 21 touchdown passes and one interception. He hasn’t had Eddie Lacy to run the ball since mid-October and didn’t have Jordy Nelson on Sunday in Arlington, but as long as the Packers have Mr. State Farm, they have a chance. They lost to Dallas 30-16 on Oct. 16. They beat the same Cowboys in Jerry World because their quarterback wrought another wonder.

Green Bay’s defense isn’t as good as the Falcons’. (Dallas had 429 yards Sunday.) Its running game has been entrusted to Ty Montgomery, who wears No. 88 because he was drafted as a wideout, and Christine Michael, who was cut by Seattle. If we go man-for-man, Sunday’s game shouldn’t be close. The Packers have the one man capable of making it so.

This isn't to suggest the Falcons' quarterback is an empty chair. Ryan has been magnificent. He matched Rodgers throw for throw on Oct. 30, and his pass to Mohamed Sanu was the winner. Still, my thought when I checked the clock that Sunday was, "They left too much time" – not that 31 seconds is all that much, but with Rodgers you never know.

They withstood his final flings that day, and I believed they’ll win again Sunday. But honesty compels me to report that I’d have liked their Super Bowl chances even more were they headed to Dallas. You never want to face Michael Jordan. They will.

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