These are the times when Aaron Rodgers has to carry the Green Bay Packers.
He has done it in the past, just like Brett Favre did before him. And like Tom Brady has for the better part of two decades with the New England Patriots.
The Packers are in a bad run of injuries going into Sunday’s home game against Cincinnati. It’s hardly unprecedented in the NFL, and they’re not alone in their problems. The Philadelphia Eagles, for instance, probably will be without three starting defensive backs Sunday against the New York Giants.
But Brady drove home an NFL truism last year, that most players — even Pro Bowl players — aren’t indispensable in today’s game. He and the Patriots won the Super Bowl even after losing tight end Rob Gronkowski halfway through last season.
So it falls on Rodgers to be the difference this week for the undermanned Packers. He’s almost universally regarded as one of the two best quarterbacks in the game, and these are the kind of circumstances when the Packers need him to show it.
Coach Mike McCarthy’s team is about as banged up as you can be for any given game. That’s not to declare the Packers’ injury status as dire — viewed through a longer lens, they’re still in good shape. None of their key players has a long-term injury.
Compare that with the Indianapolis Colts, whose quarterback Andrew Luck (shoulder) still hasn’t practiced this season. Or the Kansas City Chiefs, who lost star safety Eric Berry (torn Achilles) for the season. Or New England, which lost receiver Julian Edelman and its top pick in this year’s draft, linebacker Derek Rivers, to season-ending ACL tears. Or the Chicago Bears, whose most talented receiver, Kevin White, sustained what’s probably a season-ending injury for the third straight year.
That’s not the Packers.
Nevertheless, they are in rough shape in the short term.
They opened their game Sunday at Atlanta without both starting tackles (David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga), then early on lost their best defensive player (Mike Daniels) and best receiver (Jordy Nelson).
Bulaga (ankle) and Nelson (quad) returned to practice Wednesday, but Bakhtiari and Daniels didn’t. Bakhtiari is the Packers’ best offensive lineman and plays the most important position on the line. Daniels is the closest thing the Packers have to an indispensable player on his side of the ball.
Two other important starters also sat out practice Wednesday: one of their best pass rushers, Nick Perry (hand), and starting receiver Randall Cobb (chest).
So depending on how things go this week, the Packers could be missing a couple or more of their best players Sunday.
To which the Bengals and the rest of the NFL will collectively yawn. This happens to everybody at some point in a 16-game NFL season.
This is when teams with elite quarterbacks still need to win games. So it falls on Rodgers, who has a reputation as an off-the-charts competitor, to find a way to elevate his teammates. He knows as much.
“There's an expectation of a style of play and a performance that we all have for ourselves and for each other,” Rodgers said Wednesday.
Rodgers was in an even tougher position last week and couldn’t do it against one of the best teams in the league, the Falcons. In that case, he would have had to outplay another of the game’s best quarterbacks, Matt Ryan.
For four years now, ESPN.com’s Mike Sando has consulted a large panel of coaches and high-ranking executives in the NFL to rank quarterbacks in one of five tiers. This year, the 50 panelists collectively voted Ryan in the top tier, at No. 5 overall, behind Brady, Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger and Drew Brees.
This week, though, Rodgers’ opposing quarterback isn’t Ryan but Andy Dalton, who early this season is maybe the most maligned quarterback in the league.
Dalton went from a 10-3 regular-season record and third-best passer rating (106.3) in 2015 to 6-9-1 and a 91.8 rating last season. In Sando’s rankings that come out in August, Dalton fell from the last spot in Tier 2 (No. 15 overall) to Tier 3 (No. 19) this year. Last month, Sando described a consensus that Dalton is a “win with,” not a “win because of,” quarterback.
That was before the start of this season. In two games, Dalton and the Bengals’ offense have been a disaster. Cincinnati hasn’t scored a touchdown yet. Dalton has thrown four interceptions, and his 47.2 rating is worst in the NFL among passers with at least 20 attempts.
Bengals coach Marvin Lewis is hoping the change this week at offensive coordinator from Ken Zampese to Bill Lazor will resurrect Dalton. But either way, the talent gap between the Bengals’ quarterback and Rodgers is immense.
For years, we saw Favre regularly will his team to victory. We’ve seen Rodgers do the same, most recently while winning the last six games of last season to qualify for the playoffs.
It’s rough times like these when the NFL’s best quarterbacks earn their pay and make their reputations. The Packers might be short-handed Sunday, but this is a home game they need to win regardless. Against Dalton, Rodgers has to make the difference.