SAN FRANCISCO – The anxiety-filled green room and draft day seem so long ago now to Aaron Rodgers.
Still, on this weekend, any lingering feelings of frustration about how far he dropped will be directed right at the team that passed him up with the No. 1 pick nearly eight years ago.
Rodgers brings the high-scoring Green Bay Packers (12-5) to Candlestick Park tonight to face No. 2 seed San Francisco (11-4-1) in prime time for a place in the NFC Championship game. He’ll take the field in the very venue where he became a regular fan as a boy rooting for Hall of Famers Jerry Rice and Steve Young.
Rodgers, who appeared in a preseason game at Candlestick in 2008, will play his first meaningful game at the stadium at last, as an eighth-year pro. He will look to avenge a 30-22 season-opening home loss to the 49ers.
“It will be fun. I went to a few baseball games there growing up, and saw a game there when I was in college,” Rodgers said. “Stadium’s got a lot of tradition. Looks like we’re kind of fortunate with the weather right now. Still wonder what that’s going to be like.
“But it will be a night game, it will be loud, it will be a great environment and it should be a good show for the fans.”
Rodgers is putting on quite a show, all right.
He returns to Northern California, where he became a college star for California across San Francisco Bay in Berkeley, with a healthy cast of receivers and the swagger of a Super Bowl champion.
When Rodgers dropped to No. 24 in the 2005 draft after Alex Smith went No. 1, he was asked about his disappointment. He so matter-of-factly said, “not as disappointed as the 49ers will be that they didn’t draft me.”
Now, everybody in the Bay Area and beyond will be watching his every move again.
He already upset some friends he couldn’t accommodate with tickets. Family first, with everybody else making the 4-hour trek from his hometown of Chico left to fend for themselves.
Most important, of course, is getting Green Bay one step closer to another Super Bowl. Last season’s chance at a repeat championship came to a screeching halt at the hands of the Giants in this very round at Lambeau Field.
The Giants came to San Francisco the next week and won the NFC title game, 20-17, in overtime.
Just as the Niners moved on from that heartbreaking loss and used it as a motivational push each day this season, the same goes for Rodgers after being slighted by his beloved San Francisco on draft day.
“It’s been a long time since the green room,” Rodgers said. “I have a lot of good memories growing up watching Steve Young and Joe Montana on TV and the Super Bowl wins and being a 49ers fan. That was a team I enjoyed watching and dreamt about playing for. I’m eight years removed here, and obviously I’m really happy with the situation I’m in.”
A lot has changed in that time for San Francisco, too.
The QB the 49ers picked ahead of Rodgers – Smith – spent the season’s second half on the bench as coach Jim Harbaugh promoted second-year pro Colin Kaepernick. He will make his playoff debut today.
In an odd twist, Kaepernick was born in Milwaukee and adopted before moving to California at age 4. Yes, he began as a toddler Cheesehead, then changed allegiances “when I got drafted,” Kaepernick said.
He has never met Rodgers. He still knows plenty.
Even San Francisco’s opportunistic, ball-hawking defense realizes just how hard it will be to rattle Rodgers or get him off his game. He hasn’t thrown an interception in five straight games and 177 passes. His receiving corps is intact again at last, each of the big four of Greg Jennings, Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson and James Jones capable of game-breaking catches and career performances.
Jennings has 19 receptions for 226 yards and three touchdowns over the last three games.
The 49ers will need big performances from Aldon Smith and Justin Smith, the defensive pass-rushing menace expected back after he missed the final two regular-season games with a partially torn left triceps. Not to mention their talented seconardy.
Beating some of the NFL’s top quarterbacks hasn’t proven too much for San Francisco so far. Aside from the win against Rodgers in the opener, the Niners beat Drew Brees in New Orleans and shocked Tom Brady in New England.
“We’ve played some of the best quarterbacks this year and have done well,” linebacker Patrick Willis said. “This Saturday is going to call for our best. We can’t afford to not play our best football, play our best defense. There’s no tomorrow, there’s no next week.”
Harbaugh has been impressed just how well Kaepernick seems to understand the magnitude of this task, while also remaining unfazed by the added hype and attention.
“It’s a bit savant-like the way he’s handling it so far this week,” Harbaugh said. “So, that’s really encouraging.”
Poll the players and coaches around the 49ers and everybody believes Kaepernick is perfectly ready for his biggest game yet.
“I don’t think we’re going to see any big eyes,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said.
This was the matchup everybody expected in last year’s NFC championship game until New York came along and spoiled both teams’ plans.
Back in September, San Francisco linebacker Ahmad Brooks said the win at Green Bay might be an “eye opener” and “maybe we’ll see them again in the NFC championship.”
He was only one week off.
Now, San Francisco wants to make sure it is still standing next week.
“We still feel we’re just as good as we were last year,” Willis said. “Hopefully this is a new season.”
Same sentiments are coming from the Green Bay side. The Packers won three road games on the way to their championship two years ago, so why not keep a good thing going away from Lambeau Field?
And coach Mike McCarthy is counting on Green Bay being better equipped to pound the ball in the run game.
“We have to be,” the coach said, “it’s the playoffs.”
AP National Writer Nancy Armour in Green Bay, Wis., contributed to this story.