USA TODAY's Sean Leahy and Scott Zucker examine if the Bears can hold off the Packers on Sunday.

Aaron Rodgers is a superstar QB out to join Super Bowl club
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Aaron Rodgers and the Packers visit the Bears in the NFC title game on Sunday.
By Streeter Lecka, Getty Images
Aaron Rodgers and the Packers visit the Bears in the NFC title game on Sunday.
GREEN BAY, Wis. — The hottest quarterback among the Super Bowl XLV tournament's final four teams owes one of the most memorable postseason performances to a vivid imagination.

Lying on his couch last week, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers says he visualized playing arguably the hardest position in sports with a video-gamer's ease.

Dream it, do it.

In Green Bay's 48-21 throttling of the top-seeded Atlanta Falcons, Rodgers converted those images from his fertile mind into reality. He shredded the Falcons for three touchdowns and 366 yards passing in what former Super Bowl-winning quarterback Phil Simms called the finest quarterback play he's witnessed.

Rodgers merged fastidious preparation and a powerful arm into the fifth-best postseason completion percentage of all time, hitting on 31 of 36 passes (86.1%).

"In the sixth grade, a coach taught us about the importance of visualization," Rodgers said. "When I'm in a meeting, watching film or laying in bed before I go to sleep, I always visualize making those plays.

"A lot of those plays I made in the game, I had thought about. As I laid on the couch, I visualized making them."

Rodgers was inspired watching video of reigning Super Bowl MVP Drew Brees puncturing the Falcons' aura of home invincibility in the New Orleans Saints' Week 16 win.

"It wasn't like I surprised myself," Rodgers said. "I was surprised by the ability to be as accurate as I was on the run at times. But the plays I made in the pocket where I was able to avoid sacks, I visualized the majority before I made them."

So, has Rodgers, whose sixth-seeded Packers face the second-seeded Chicago Bears in Sunday's NFC Championship Game, gone so far as to envision hoisting a Lombardi Trophy?

"I've dreamt about winning a Super Bowl since I was a kid," Rodgers said. "Growing up in Northern California, being a Joe Montana fan, watching him win (four) Super Bowls was something you hoped for every season. And it often happened.

"But I want to get through this one first. Then we'll start thinking about other stuff."

Simms cited Rodgers' spin move away from linebacker Stephen Nicholas on third-and-13, and his 15-yard, third-quarter strike off a rollout to receiver James Jones as prime examples of the quarterback's MVP-caliber play.

"Rodgers made a couple of plays against the Falcons that were incredible," the CBS analyst said. "His arm is borderline spectacular, and his feet put him over the top."

When Rodgers spun out of three potential sacks, it was a microcosm of how he has handled every Green Bay trial by fire — and Brett Favre — with endearing cool.

Rodgers more closely resembles two-time Super Bowl winner and mentor Bart Starr than Favre in his grounded comportment. Now, the resilient quarterback has stepped into his own light as an elite Packers star.

Taking Favre's place

The 27-year-old son of Chico, Calif., chiropractor Ed Rodgers and homemaker Darla was raised on a blue-collar work ethic and the importance of finishing what he started. His dad was an offensive lineman at Chico State who played semipro ball before going to chiropractic school at 38 to put his three sons through college.

The first test of Rodgers' character was that endless wait inside the NFL draft green room in 2005, when the former University of California quarterback, projected as a potential first overall pick ahead of Alex Smith, tumbled to 24th overall.

Then, Rodgers ran the scout team for three years behind Favre. It appeared to be his turn after Favre's tearful retirement news conference in March 2008, but Rodgers was put under more duress when the 16-year Packers icon abruptly unretired in training camp.

Green Bay had settled on Rodgers, however, and the Packers traded Favre to the New York Jets.

"When you step into a Hall of Famer's shoes like Aaron's had to in Green Bay and then perform as well as he's performed, it just goes to show what he's made of," Hall of Fame quarterback and two-time Super Bowl winner John Elway said.

"I've played golf with Aaron, a class kid with that demeanor that he's able to handle all the different things that have come at him. He's just moving into his prime. We saw how good he can be the other night."

Rodgers, who signed a six-year, $65 million contract extension in October 2008, threw 28 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions this season. He has carried a 10-6 team that lost 15 players to injured reserve.

"The Packers are the team to beat, and I'm talking about the Super Bowl," Elway said. "Aaron's playing with a lot of confidence and is one of those guys you're happy to see doing very well."

Rodgers came back strong after missing a Dec. 19 loss to the New England Patriots with a concussion. He has thrown 11 TD passes and one interception in the four wins since, completing 72.7% of his passes.

"I came back with a renewed energy," he said. "When you go from being a backup three years to the starter, you relish those opportunities."

Through it all, Rodgers worked hard and took the high road.

"Aaron's a pretty humble guy," said Packers fan Patrick O'Leary, 45, a Cedarsburg, Wis., orthopedic implant salesman. "The way Favre carried himself the last four, five years, people around here think he's a diva.

"Packers fans are really appreciative of Aaron's demeanor with the way he handled that Favre situation. He's a class act."

Said Marine Corporal Brian Nelsen, 21, who has served tours in Iraq: "Rodgers is building his own legacy. And he's done it his way."

General manager Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy's faith in Rodgers has been justified by his six postseason touchdown passes and one rushing TD, compiled while outplaying the Philadelphia Eagles' Michael Vick and the Falcons' Matt Ryan.

"Aaron's throwing darts," said Elway, the former Denver Broncos quarterback who is now the club's executive vice president.

A Pro Bowl snub fanned the competitive flames, but NFC Pro Bowl quarterbacks Vick, Ryan and Brees will be home watching Rodgers lead his team in the NFC title game.

"Aaron is a Pro Bowl quarterback and deserved to be there," Packers left guard Daryn Colledge said. "He didn't get the opportunity, so I think he's taking that out on everybody. He can't be in the Pro Bowl, then he might as well play in the Super Bowl."

Rodgers' patience and resilience have proved as strong as his arm.

"He's definitely the quarterback we all hoped he would become," McCarthy says. "He's definitely developed into a special player. He does it the right way. He's everything we hoped he'd be."

No texting with Cutler this week

This week, Rodgers was stung by a blogger's criticism after a video surfaced of the quarterback walking past a female cancer patient on his way to the Packers' charter flight to Atlanta. Rodgers had earphones on, was being escorted by security guards and never heard Jan Cavanaugh's request.

During a Tuesday appearance on The Dan Patrick Show, Rodgers explained how he never saw Cavanaugh, whom Rodgers had signed autographs for one week earlier.

"It was tough because that's not the person I am and not the person my parents raised me to be," Rodgers said. "The majority of the things I do I like to do without a lot of media attention because I don't want it to be about me. It's about the cause.

"The fans who know me in town from going out to eat or buying groceries at the Piggly Wiggly know me. It's tough to take character shots when I don't feel they're accurate and they really hurt."

Rodgers' friendliness extends to the opposition.

Rodgers and Bears quarterback Jay Cutler struck up a friendship before Cutler arrived in the NFC North in an April 2009 trade from the Broncos.

Rodgers' youngest brother, Jordan, is a junior at Vanderbilt, Cutler's alma matter.

"The biggest thing that helped our friendship was the way Jay helped me with my brother's transition at Vanderbilt," Rodgers says. "He's a good guy. I have a lot of respect for Jay. (But) we probably won't text this week."

He might want to send Cutler an IM about how to deal with Soldier Field. Rodgers' visualization powers will be sorely tested Sunday by the Bears' fourth-ranked scoring defense and a torn-up field, the antithesis of the ideal setting of the Georgia Dome last Saturday.

"The biggest thing for Aaron is when you play like that, can he come down from that, avoid all the adulation and wipe the slate clean?" Simms said. "Because outside on that field in Chicago, it'll be different."

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