When news broke Thursday that quarterback Aaron Rodgers was slated to return Sunday for the regular-season finale against the Chicago Bears, the outlook for the rest of the Packers’ season changed dramatically.
Without Rodgers, the Packers went 2-4-1, not including the first Packers-Bears game in which Rodgers suffered a broken collarbone on the game’s first possession. Coming into that game, the Packers were 5-2 with a favorable schedule and perhaps the hottest quarterback in football.
But despite a newly-feared running game providing balance to their offense, the small crack in Rodgers’ collarbone looked like a death blow to the Packers’ season, as Seneca Wallace would be starting the following week against the Philadelphia Eagles and for the foreseeable future. But Wallace was forced out of the lineup after the first possession, giving way to recent practice squad call-up Scott Tolzien. Then, the Packers signed a recycled Matt Flynn, who would get his chance a few weeks later against the Minnesota Vikings.
Flynn quarterbacked the Packers to one of their most embarrassing defeats in recent memory—a 40-10 Thanksgiving thumping at the hands of the Detroit Lions. For a team who had two All-World quarterbacks for the better part of two decades, the 2013 season was a slap in the face for a (let’s face it) spoiled fan base.
But somehow, at 8-7-1 with one game to play and Rodgers ready to roll, the Packers remain in contention for the NFC North title. A week 17 win in Chicago would punch the Packers’ ticket into the postseason, and they’d host either the San Francisco 49ers or New Orleans Saints in the wild card round January 4 or 5.
And as is the case year after year in the unpredictable NFL, anything can happen in the league’s 12-team tournament.
Typically, there’s a “hot team” that hits its stride late into the season and enters the postseason with a head of steam, much like the Packers’ unlikely run to Super Bowl XLV in 2010. Last year’s Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens backed into the playoffs after losing four of their last five games, but once the regular season is over, a new season begins. The Ravens 2012 regular season didn’t end well, but their postseason ended with a flood confetti and a Vince Lombardi Trophy.
Are the Packers the odds-on favorite to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl? Absolutely not. Seattle, San Francisco and Carolina have been far more consistent than Green Bay throughout the 2013 season. But in my opinion, the team that took the field against the Minnesota Vikings Oct. 27—when Rodgers last played a full game—was capable of beating anyone.
If not for Rodgers’ injury, the Packers would have almost certainly been favored in every game over the second half of the season.
The Packers certainly aren’t guaranteed to get a win Sunday despite Rodgers’ return. Clay Matthews has been ruled out, which will hurt the Packers’ already struggling defense, and the Bears are a solid team with an explosive offense. But the rest of the NFC playoff field would likely prefer to travel to Chicago to face Jay Cutler and a porous Bears defense, rather than head to frigid Lambeau Field to take on a recharged Packers offense featuring Rodgers and Randall Cobb, along with battering ram Eddie Lacy on the ground.
Throughout the season, the Seattle Seahawks have looked like the most complete team in the NFC. They’ve been atop the standings behind steady quarterback Russell Wilson, a physical run game powered by Marshawn Lynch and one of the best defenses in the league. Combined with the best home-field advantage in the NFL, the Seahawks road to Super Bowl XLVIII looked relatively clear. But the Arizona Cardinals proved in week 15 that football can happen, as they defeated the Seahawks in Seattle despite four turnovers from their quarterback.
In the past decade, only twice has a No. 1 seed won the Super Bowl–the Saints did it in 2009, and the Patriots in 2003. The NFL’s postseason is March Madness in January. You can spend all your time salivating over Duke, Kentucky and the rest of the powerhouses, but then Butler happens. Because in a one-game scenario, anything can happen.
In the NFL, where the “any given Sunday” moniker rings true on a weekly basis, the talent gap is minimal compared to other sports. I’m of the belief that player talent is relatively equal with the exception of the true “star” players. The Packers may have two on the roster (Clay Matthews), but they certainly have at least one in Rodgers.
In 2011, everyone saw the difference between Peyton Manning’s Indianapolis Colts and Curtis Painter’s Indianapolis Colts. With Manning on the sideline, the Colts went 2-14 and “earned” the No. 1 overall pick in the draft.
This year, Rodgers’ value was put under the microscope, as Packers quarterbacks compiled the league’s worst QBR since Rodgers’ injury in week 10. With Rodgers, the Packers were barely keeping their head above water despite a slew of key injuries. Without Rodgers, the Packers cooled off to the tune of a 2-4-1 record in which three different quarterbacks started a game.
But now, Rodgers is back and the playoffs have officially begun for the Green Bay Packers; a win would earn a home playoff game next week and a loss would put a fork in the Packers’ roller-coaster 2013 season.
Flynn has given the Packers a spark post-Thanksgiving, as they’ve went 2-1 with a pair of one-point wins and a late-game loss against the Steelers. But while Flynn gives the Packers a chance to get by, Rodgers gives the Packers a chance to beat anyone.
Marques is a Journalism student, serving as the Sports Editor of UW-Green Bay\'s campus newspaper The Fourth Estate and a Packers writer at Jersey Al\'s AllGBP.com. Follow Marques on Twitter @MJEversoll.