INDIANAPOLIS — Aaron Rodgers’ first visit to Lucas Oil Stadium resulted in one of the most memorable games in Indianapolis Colts’ history.
With then head coach Chuck Pagano beginning treatment for leukemia just down the street at the IU Health Simon Cancer Center, Ring of Honor member Reggie Wayne caught 13 passes for 212 yards and the game-winning touchdown as the Colts rallied from a 21-3 halftime deficit to beat the Green Bay Packers 30-27.
It was the first great comeback of the Andrew Luck era, but only wide receiver T.Y. Hilton and left tackle Anthony Castonzo remain on the roster from that 2012 game.
When Rodgers and the Packers (7-2) return to Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday, it will be difficult to replicate the energy of that afternoon. Attendance is capped at 12,500 fans in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, and the emotional stakes are nowhere near as significant.
But the contest is no less important.
Indianapolis (6-3) is tied with the Tennessee Titans for the AFC South lead, and it’s halfway through a four-game stretch that likely will define this season.
For the third straight week, the league’s No. 1-ranked defense faces a hefty challenge. Rodgers has completed 67.8% of his passes for 2,578 yards with 26 touchdowns and just three interceptions. His 116.4 quarterback rating leads the NFL, and Green Bay ranks third with an average of 30.8 points per game.
“The way he still moves and his arm talent is still awesome and great — where it’s always been,” Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus said. “It’s a big challenge for us. But (his) instincts are definitely there. He has the arm talent and the instincts of when to throw the ball and when to get out of the pocket.
“He seems to have eyes in the back of his head to be able to escape a lot of rush. Instincts is definitely one of the words you would use to describe him.”
Rodgers has been sacked just 10 times, and he’s an expert at controlling the game at the line of scrimmage. He’s quite adept at using his cadence to pull opponents offside, and his understanding of how to attack the Cover 2 defense is among the best in the game.
Indianapolis linebacker Darius Leonard said no quarterback throws the “hole shot” — the deep route to the boundary receiver — better than Rodgers.
“Aaron Rodgers is a great quarterback,” Leonard said. “I’ve been watching the man since I was growing up, so that’s a bucket list check. Once you’re in the league, you want to play against the best, and he is one of the best to do it. I’m all pumped up for it. It’s definitely challenging.”
More often than not this season, the Colts have been up to the challenge. They rank second in the league with 1,788 passing yards allowed and lead the NFL with 11 interceptions. But they haven’t faced anyone on Rodgers’ level as a pure passer through the first nine weeks.
In addition to slowing down the Packers’ high-octane attack, Indianapolis also will need a big game from its own well-known quarterback.
Philip Rivers has been a reliable bellwether in his first season with the Colts. He’s thrown 10 touchdown passes and just two interceptions in Indianapolis’ six wins and one touchdown with five picks in the three losses.
The 38-year-old quarterback admitted there’s a little extra buzz in the air when matching up against one of the game’s greats. While Rivers is obviously focused on the opposing defense, Rodgers’ quick-strike ability does enter into his thinking.
“There is always an emphasis to protect the football, so if there is such thing as more of an emphasis, you want to have that against this quarterback and that team and their explosiveness,” Rivers said. “You don’t want to continue to put our defense in tough situations. You don’t want to give (Green Bay) an opportunity to bust a game open.”
Rivers did his job well in a 26-11 victory against the Packers last year with the Los Angeles Chargers. He was 21-of-28 for 294 yards without a touchdown or an interception.
But he doesn’t expect that contest to have much impact Sunday.
Another big game awaits against a high-profile opponent with the playoff chase beginning to heat up.
Still, Indianapolis insists its mindset never changes.
“In one sense, we know full well who we’re playing,” Colts head coach Frank Reich said. “In another sense, it’s a faceless opponent. It’s just the next opponent, and we’re trying to get better as a football team. We are continuing to try to improve and have our best football be this game coming up on Sunday. It’s the only one that matters.”