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Rodgers back in Bay Area with Packers for playoffs

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Rodgers back in Bay Area with Packers for playoffs

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) 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 on Saturday 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 Saturday.

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.''

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AP National Writer Nancy Armour in Green Bay, Wis., contributed to this story.

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Kurt Warner believes Dwayne Haskins has the skill set to be a franchise QB

Kurt Warner believes Dwayne Haskins has the skill set to be a franchise QB

When the Redskins selected Dwayne Haskins with the No. 15 overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, the organization hoped their investment in the passer would result in Washington finding its franchise quarterback of the future.

Whether Haskins becomes that franchise quarterback is still up for debate, as the signal-caller had an up-and-down rookie season. But the Ohio State product seemed to improve by the week and ended the season playing his best football, giving fans hope for the future.

Kurt Warner, a Super Bowl-champion quarterback who had to wait several years before getting his first NFL shot, believes Haskins can eventually develop into that franchise QB for the Burgundy and Gold.

The Super Bowl-winning quarterback joined the Redskins Talk podcast on Tuesday, and spoke highly of the 22-year-old's ability.

"The skillset, without question, is there," Warner said. "We saw that in college, we saw that in moments last year."

Warner explained that one of the things he looks for in young passers is their week-to-week improvement. That's something Haskins did very well towards the end of the 2019 season.

"To me, that's what greatness is all about," Warner said. "It's not about coming into the league and being a finished product. It's about working and getting better all the time."

In his final two games, Haskins threw for 394 yards, four touchdowns, and zero interceptions on 72 percent completion rate. He was on his way to the best game of his brief career in Week 16 against the Giants before an ankle injury ended his afternoon in the third quarter.

"What I saw with Dwayne this year, he did improve game by game," Warner said. "As he got more comfortable with the NFL, as he got more comfortable with the system, he played better and better and made them more competitive each and every time out."

The 2020 offseason is crucial for Haskins. It's his first full offseason in the NFL, and seems poised to make a jump in Year 2. 

Haskins dealt with a lot in 2019, rookie or not. Five weeks into the season, his head coach was fired. He wasn't named the starter until Week 9, only due to injury to Case Keenum. Entering his second season, Haskins has a new head coach, new offensive coordinator, and new position coach.

There's little carryover from a season ago. Very few organizations that constantly change in the NFL are successful. 

"For young quarterbacks or players in general, you want to be able to find something you’re comfortable with and grow in," Warner said. "Hopefully this is the only move they make during Dwayne's career and he can get comfortable in that offense and hopefully one day be playing in the Super Bowl as well."

Warner knows plenty about waiting to get his opportunity; he didn't get his first shot in the NFL until he was 28. But he was put into an offense nicknamed 'The Greatest Show on Turf" that featured plenty of weapons -- Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce, and Torry Holt -- which allowed the inexperienced Warner to thrive.

In his first season as the Rams starter, Warner threw for a league-high 41 touchdown passes on an 8.2 percent touchdown rate, with just 13 interceptions. His 109.2 quarterback rating was the NFL's best that season. The Rams went on to win the Super Bowl, defeating Tennessee.

"I think the other component is finding the right situation, the right system for you," Warner said. When I got back into the NFL with the Rams, I was 28 years old when I got my first start. I was able to have a lot of success early because I found myself in the right system. The offense did what I did well. It played to my strengths."

Washington doesn't have the weapons that Warner's Rams did, but the Redskins have several young assets -- Terry McLaurin, Derrius Guice and Steven Sims -- that have shown promise. Getting Haskins in the right system, one that caters to his strengths, will be crucial in the development of the young passer.

"I believe that is key for players, especially at the quarterback position. You've got to find a system," Warner said. "In this case in Washington, they need to build a system around what Dwayne Haskins does well. That's how you thrive. That's how you get to and win Super Bowls."

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'Still unbelievable': Ex-Redskins Bashaud Breeland and Kendall Fuller reflect on Super Bowl journey

'Still unbelievable': Ex-Redskins Bashaud Breeland and Kendall Fuller reflect on Super Bowl journey

Bashaud Breeland and Kendall Fuller spent a combined six seasons with the Redskins, yet neither corner won a playoff game during their tenures there.

Therefore, you can excuse them if they're having a hard time expressing what it's like now being in the Super Bowl together with the Chiefs.

"It's still unbelievable," Breeland told JP Finlay at SB LIV's Media Night on Monday. "I can't even find the words to fathom how I feel about this opportunity."

In fact, the last time Breeland and Finlay chatted, the former was literally asking the latter where to purchase tickets for the NFL's biggest spectacle. He shouldn't have much trouble getting inside of the stadium this time around, though.

"I ended up not even going to that game," he said. "I told myself I wasn't going to the Super Bowl until I got a chance to play in it. Couple of years later, it came true."

Breeland's path to the Chiefs was quite bumpy. After playing for the Redskins for four years and departing after 2017, he inked a well-earned three-year deal with the Panthers. However, he cut his foot during a trip to the Dominican Republic, causing him to fail his physical with Carolina and voiding his contract.

Breeland eventually joined the Packers halfway through 2018, and then he signed with the Chiefs this past offseason. His compensation with Kansas City doesn't come close to what he could've had with Carolina, but a Super Bowl appearance plus his two interceptions and two fumble recoveries in 2019 could help him cash in when free agency begins in a few months.

Fuller, meanwhile, took a much more direct route to the now-AFC champions. The Burgundy and Gold's 2016 draft selection was a part of the shocking Alex Smith trade and he's now concluding his second campaign with his second pro team.

The fact that the pair is reunited again and one win away from reaching the top of the sport isn't lost on Fuller, especially after some of the struggles they experienced with the Redskins. 

"It's been fun," he said. "After we won the AFC Championship game, me and [Breeland] were just kind of sitting on the bench looking at each other, knowing how far we came."

The key to K.C.'s rise, according to Breeland, has been their unity. The almost 28-year-old didn't directly call out Washington for lacking a similar closeness, but his comments don't exactly require much parsing to realize the comparison he's making.

So, while he and Fuller are obviously looking ahead to the 49ers, the following comment from Breeland's brief reflection on his past is telling about what the Redskins need to fix on their end.

"Throughout crunch time, everybody pulls together," Breeland explained. "I've been on different sidelines when things go bad, a lot of people start bickering and pull apart from each other. Those were the times that [this team] got closer and pulled together the most."

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