Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and quarterbacks coach Ben McAdoo, right, talk with head coach Mike McCarthy during practice Thursday in the Don Hutson Center. H. Marc Larson/Press-Gazette Media
Aaron Rodgers is back, and so are the Green Bay Packers’ chances of winning the NFC North championship and making some noise in the playoffs.
In the locker room Thursday, players tried their best to remain low-key over the news that Rodgers would start at quarterback for the first time since breaking his collarbone nearly eight weeks ago.
But there can be little doubt the team, as well as the entire organization, is positively giddy over the prospect of having its best player at the controls in Sunday’s winner-take-all battle against the Chicago Bears for the division title.
The presence of Rodgers changes everything. The Packers immediately have been transformed from a below-average team struggling to get by to a legitimate playoff contender.
Everyone in the locker room, including Rodgers, correctly pointed out that the return of one player guarantees the Packers nothing, and it will take a team effort to beat the Bears and earn a fifth consecutive playoff berth.
But the Packers are dangerous with a healthy Rodgers, arguably the best player in the NFL. He can ignite the offense and in the process take considerable pressure off a shaky defense.
Backup quarterback Matt Flynn and workhorse rookie running back Eddie Lacy helped keep the Packers’ playoff hopes alive when Rodgers was out by spearheading three dramatic comebacks in one-point victories over Atlanta and Dallas and a tie against Minnesota.
But there can be little doubt the Packers would have won all three of those games by wide margins had Rodgers been playing. Without Rodgers, the Packers compiled a 2-5-1 record. With him over that same stretch, they easily could have been 6-2 or 7-1 and owned a sparkling 11-4 or 12-3 record.
That’s why no one should be fooled by the Packers’ modest 7-7-1 record, least of all the Bears, who deep down had to be downcast by the prospect of Rodgers’ return.
Of course the Bears can win Sunday, but their odds have dropped dramatically based on their 2-9 record since 2008 when Rodgers is the starter against them and finishes the game.
“You still got to go out and win this game, but Aaron’s a guy who he’s a difference maker when he’s out on the field,” guard T.J. Lang said. “He can make big plays happen any given moment.”
Granted, Rodgers doesn’t play defense and can’t control missed tackles or blown assignments on that side of the ball. But the Packers’ offense guided by Rodgers is capable of controlling time of possession and keeping the ball away from the opponent. That alone will make the Packers’ defense better.
With Rodgers starting in the first seven games this season, the Packers averaged more than 30 points per game and boasted the No. 2 offense in the NFL. That puts pressure on opponents to keep pace, which increases the likelihood of mistakes.
In other words, Rodgers makes his teammates better and opposing teams worse.
“I mean, that’s why you pay him so much money because he makes everybody else better,” receiver James Jones said. “If he was just a one-man show and only made himself better, he probably wouldn’t be a $100 million man. But he makes this team a thousand times better.”
In most years, the Packers would have been out of playoff contention by now. But neither the hapless Detroit Lions nor the up-and-down Bears seized control of the division when they had the opportunity.
When the door was left open for the Packers in 2010 to sneak into the playoffs as the No. 6 seed, they ran the table to a Super Bowl title.
No one is ready to say that will happen again — the Packers would qualify as the NFC’s No. 4 seed if they beat the Bears on Sunday — but recent playoff history suggests it’s not out of the question.
Five of the past eight Super Bowl winners have been seeded No. 4 or lower, and the 2011 Giants won it all despite seven regular-season losses.
Who’s to say the Packers couldn’t get hot and stage another memorable postseason run? With an MVP-caliber quarterback like Rodgers on the field, anything is possible.
— email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @MikeVandermause.