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Sunday’s game will be Aaron Rodgers’ first start vs. Steelers since Super Bowl XLV

Green Bay Packers vs Pittsburgh Steelers, Super Bowl XLV

The NFL’s schedule rotation, even with the addition of a 17th game for the 2021 season, is still relatively predictable. NFC teams play their AFC counterparts once every four years — with the exception of the newly-added 17th game — and those games rotate between venues.

Thus, the Green Bay Packers’ upcoming game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Lambeau Field will be the two teams’ first meeting since 2017 and the first in Green Bay since 2013. But because of the timing of those games and the two major injuries Aaron Rodgers has suffered in his career, that makes this week 4 matchup an interesting historical footnote.

Simply put, Aaron Rodgers has not played against the Steelers since Super Bowl XLV.

That game is arguably the best of Rodgers’ career and is one of the best games ever played by a quarterback. Pro Football Focus still has it as the best grade for a quarterback in a Super Bowl in their grading history. Not surprisingly, Rodgers earned game MVP honors in the Packers’ 31-25 win after a performance that saw him put up 24 completions on 39 attempts for 304 yards and three touchdowns.

Yes, the Packers played the Steelers during the 2015 preseason, a game that Rodgers actually saw a brief bit of playing time in. However, the two regular season meetings between these legendary NFL franchises since then have come with Rodgers sidelined. But despite starting Green Bay backup quarterbacks in each of the two meetings over the last decade, the Packers were competitive in both games, with each one coming right down to the final play of the game.

A thriller in the snow

In 2013, Rodgers suffered a broken collarbone in week 9 against the Chicago Bears, leading to the trio of Seneca Wallace, Scott Tolzien, and Matt Flynn starting the next seven games. After the Packers’ thrilling comeback victory at Dallas in week 15, the Steelers came to a snowy Lambeau Field in week 16 as the Packers clung to their playoff hopes.

Rodgers would not return in time for the matchup with Pittsburgh, so Flynn got the start in a game that would have a thrilling finish. After a pick-six by Cortez Allen put the Steelers up by 10 points late in the third quarter, the Packers rebounded to tie the game midway through the fourth. However, Troy Polamalu sacked Flynn deep in Packers territory just before the two-minute warning, and Le’Veon Bell punched in a go-ahead touchdown with less than 90 seconds remaining.

Green Bay was not done, though, as rookie Micah Hyde took the ensuing kickoff back 70 yards to the Steelers’ 30-yard line. But after reaching the one-yard line with just seconds to go, a false start penalty pushed the Packers’ last-ditch attempt back to the six and Flynn’s pass to Jarrett Boykin fell incomplete as the clock hit zero.

The 38-31 loss would not spell the end for the Packers’ playoff dreams that season, however. Although it dropped them to 7-7-1, the Chicago Bears lost in a 54-11 blowout to the Philadelphia a few hours later on Sunday night, setting up a winner-take-all showdown for the NFC North title in week 17. Rodgers returned for that game and delivered one of his signature moments to send the Packers into the playoffs.

Jamaal Williams’ coming out party

Four years later, the 2017 Packers ended up with a Sunday night matchup with Pittsburgh on the calendar for week 12. However, as it was four years earlier, it would come without Rodgers, who would again break his collarbone during a game against a divisional rival. This time it was the Minnesota Vikings’ Anthony Barr with the hit, and it came in week six.

That led Brett Hundley to start the next several games, and the Packers went 1-3 in the next four following Rodgers’ injury. That stretch culminated in a brutal 23-0 home loss to the Baltimore Ravens in week 11, setting up expectations that the 8-2 Steelers would blow out the 5-5 Packers at Heinz Field on Sunday Night Football.

Instead, the Packers got an efficient passing day from Hundley and used a heavy dose of rookie running back Jamaal Williams to keep the game close all throughout. Green Bay got three touchdowns on explosive passing plays, first a 39-yarder from Randall Cobb early before Williams burst loose on a screen pass for a 54-yard score, seemingly making a statement that the Packers would not go down easily. Davante Adams added a 55-yard touchdown early in the second half, but the Packers’ defense gave up four touchdown passes to Ben Roethlisberger as the Steelers took a 28-21 lead midway through the fourth quarter.

Hundley would lead the Packers on a long, steady drive over the next six minutes, completing seven of eight passes before Williams plunged into the end zone from four yards out to tie the game just before the two-minute warning. Green Bay was able to get a stop and force a punt near midfield with about 90 second remaining, but a first-down sack from rookie T.J. Watt scuttled the Packers’ hopes for a go-ahead score, and the Steelers took timeouts to force Green Bay to punt. In a similar manner to how Rodgers led the Packers to a win in Sunday’s Packers-49ers game, Roethlisberger hit his favorite target, Antonio Brown, on a pair of chunk plays to set up a long field goal to win the game at the buzzer.

The 2021 edition

Heading into this week’s game, the Packers and Steelers seem to be moving in opposite directions. Green Bay dropped a dud in week one before a convincing win in week two over the Lions and a thriller in San Francisco last Sunday night. The Steelers beat a top AFC contender, the Buffalo Bills, on opening weekend, but are now coming off consecutive losses to the Raiders and Bengals.

Rodgers appears to be fully healthy and was playing back at his 2020 level last Sunday. Notable is that the one regular season game he did play against Pittsburgh took the form of a loss — another thrilling game in 2009 that the Steelers won 37-36 on a final-play touchdown.

Meanwhile, Roethlisberger appears to be struggling and has been ineffective when throwing the ball deep, which should allow the Packers’ defense to load up against the run and challenge Big Ben to do just that, where their talented secondary will have opportunities to make plays on the football.

Still, looking back at that 2017 game is instructive that the Packers cannot take the Steelers lightly. Still, Pittsburgh remains the only NFL team that the Packers have not beaten in the regular season with Rodgers at quarterback, though that Super Bowl victory matters far more than any one regular season game.