“I got all my flights and hotels ready once I found out,” Rogers said of his selection as a starting cornerback. “But I’m so ready to cancel all that stuff.”
The last thing Rogers and seven of his fellow Pro Bowlers on the San Francisco 49ers want to be doing next week is frolicking in the Hawaiian tropics. The former three-sport star at Butler High much prefers practicing for the Super Bowl a week later in Indianapolis. To make it there, the Niners have to beat the New York Giants today in the NFC Championship game at Candlestick Park.
“I’m really hungry for it,” Rogers said. “It starts Sunday. I’m not looking to the Super Bowl right now. We’ve got this one game to take care. I’m really hungry for the NFC Championship right now and we’ll see where it goes from there.”
Rogers has been this close to a championship before. As a senior at Auburn in 2004, the Tigers won the Southeastern Conference Championship at the Georgia Dome. But despite a perfect record, Auburn was denied a spot in the BCS title game played between Southern Cal and Oklahoma. It settled for a Sugar Bowl victory to finish 13-0 and ranked No. 2 in the final polls.
But the NFL doesn’t choose its champions by balloting, and Rogers is eager for the opportunity.
“When it really counts in college and the NFL, I haven’t played in one,” he said of the shot at the championship. “… I’ve never been this far. Only been to a second-round game and lost. I didn’t take it for granted but always thought I’d have the opportunity to come back and play in another playoff game. Guys don’t hardly ever go to the playoffs (much less) the championship game, whatever side you’re on. Guys who’ve been here five and six years haven’t been to the playoffs. So it’s a blessing and an unbelievable feeling and we’re trying to take full advantage of it.”
After six seasons with the Redskins, who drafted him No. 9 overall in 2005, Rogers signed with the 49ers as a free agent after the off-season lockout ended. He’s been a major factor in transforming San Francisco back into a Super Bowl contender.
Rogers registered six interceptions this season, only two shy of his cumulative total in six seasons in Washington. He’s been a leader on a defense that ranked tops in the NFC during the regular season, finally displaying the talent that earned him the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s best defensive back his senior season at Auburn.
“I’m back playing football like I did in college and high school,” Rogers said of the step up his game took in 2011. “I’m just enjoying myself and having fun. Any opportunity to make a play or an interception, I’m just trying to take advantage of it.”
Part of his success might be that he’s wearing contact lens for the first time during games. But Rogers believes that it’s being isolated from distractions living on the West Coast for the first time.
“Family comes out to all my games still, but I’m just out here by myself,” he said. “It clears your mind of everything. Friends just can’t take that hour flight and come see you. You can’t go home when you want to go home so quick. So I’m just out here by myself and concentrating on football. I haven’t even gone out into the city. I go home, eat, get into my playbook or watch film and get ready for the next day. It’s just about football.”
Playing for a franchise that is 5-0 in Super Bowls has been another boost to Rogers’ confidence, and this team is hoping to draft another chapter in San Francisco’s storied history. Last week’s epic 36-32 victory over the New Orleans Saints was a huge first step.
Facing record-setting quarterback Drew Brees, the 49ers survived a scoring flurry that accounted for four lead changes in the final four minutes. It looked bleak when Rogers was desperately trying to chase down Saints tight end Jimmy Graham on a 66-yard touchdown pass with 1:37 remaining that put New Orleans back ahead 32-29.
“It was frustrating,” Rogers said of his futile attempt to catch Graham. “I was like, ‘Man, we just gave this game away like that.’ You start thinking about all the stuff the defense did wrong. We gave that to them.”
Rogers quickly realized that not catching Graham was probably fortunate.
“If I would have got him down at the 10 or 15, they had a minute and 40-some seconds, they could have ran down the clock and no telling what happens,” Rogers said. “Looking at it now, that he did go in it just gave our offense another chance to go put some points on the board and they made an unbelievable drive.”
That 85-yard drive and the win has already earned a spot with Dwight Clark’s catch from Joe Montana in Niners annals, but to really rank requires backing it up with a world title.
“There’s just history all over this organization and we’re just glad to be a part of it,” Rogers said. “That game will go down in history. But we’ve got this game we hope to get in the books and have one more game after that.”
After Brees threw 63 passes against them last week, the 49ers secondary dodged having to face MVP candidate Aaron Rodgers today. Instead, Rogers will face a familiar quarterback in Eli Manning, who he’s played regularly going back to their SEC days.
“Eli is playing unbelievable ball,” he said. “I’ve had respect for him ever since I played against him at Ole Miss. His last name speaks for itself as a quarterback. People don’t give Eli the credit he deserves even with the Super Bowl. We’re going to be ready for those guys.”
With any luck, Rogers can be a Pro Bowler in name only and won’t have to be ready to catch a flight to Hawaii after the game.