Dougherty: Packers still can make Aaron Rodgers' return worthwhile
What Mike McCarthy said Monday about his Green Bay Packers’ playoffs prospects pretty much holds true.
“If you don’t get to 10 wins, to me there’s nothing else to talk about,” he said.
But McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson have an added factor to consider in the next two or three weeks, and that’s when (or whether) to bring back Aaron Rodgers from a broken collarbone.
Rodgers is eligible to come off IR in two weeks, for the Packers’ Week 15 game at Carolina. That’s with three regular-season games to play.
Rodgers will be eight weeks post-surgery, which is on the front end of the window for when his collarbone should be healed enough to return. A doctor for another NFL team told me that eight weeks is realistic. It might take longer, but that Carolina game is at least on the table.
The question is, under what circumstances will it be worth it for Thompson and McCarthy to bring Rodgers back?
The Packers are 5-6 with five games to play. The easiest way to say it is, if they still have a shot at 10 wins when Rodgers is cleared, he should return, because there’s a pretty decent chance 10 wins gets them into the playoffs.
But if the best they can do is win nine, their playoff hopes get dicey. Then it comes down to how much help they get from other teams over the next two or three weeks. The playoffs could be a no go.
Put another way: If the Packers win their next two (Tampa Bay at home and at Cleveland), and then Rodgers is cleared, he should play. If they split these next two, it’s a maybe at best.
This might all seem like worthless talk about a team that’s 1-5 since Rodgers’ broken collarbone. The Packers are 200-to-1 odds to win the Super Bowl for good reason.
A five-game winning streak is a long shot. They’d first have to win two games with Brett Hundley. And even if Rodgers returns for the final three, will he be sharp enough after his layoff to beat playoff contenders Carolina, Minnesota and Detroit to finish the season? Doubt anybody is betting on all that.
But Hundley has played OK in two of the past three games, and the next two are their most winnable games since they beat Chicago three weeks ago. Then if Rodgers returns, well, anything’s possible.
So what will it take for the long-shot Packers to get from here to there?
With five games to play, there still are too many possibilities to game this all the way out. But let’s start with an assumption and a stat.
The assumption is that the Packers have to make it as a wild card. Minnesota is 9-2, so let’s assume the Vikings win the NFC North.
As for the stat, the NFL in 2002 went to its format of four divisions in each conference, with the division winners and two wild cards qualifying for the playoffs. In the 15 years since, 24 teams have won 10 games but not won their division. Of those 24, 17 qualified as wild cards and seven didn’t. So a lot more often than not, 10 wins gets you in.
From there, going through all the possibilities gets complicated and confusing. So we’ll try to keep it as simple as possible.
For now, the NFC’s division leaders are Philadelphia (10-1), Minnesota (9-2), the Los Angeles Rams (8-3) and New Orleans (8-3).
That leaves four NFC teams ahead of the Packers for two wild-card spots: Carolina (8-3), Atlanta (7-4), Seattle (7-4) and Detroit (6-5).
On its face, it would seem pretty tough for the 5-6 Packers to make it. They’ll have to climb over three teams for the final playoff spot.
But the much longer shot is winning five straight. If the Packers somehow pull that off, though, they actually should have a pretty decent chance to qualify.
The remaining schedules play a big part there:
Carolina (8-3): at New Orleans, Minnesota, Green Bay, Tampa Bay, at Atlanta.
Atlanta (7-4): Minnesota, New Orleans, at Tampa Bay, at New Orleans, Carolina.
Seattle (7-4): Philadelphia, at Jacksonville, Los Angeles Rams, at Dallas, Arizona.
Detroit (6-5): at Baltimore, at Tampa Bay, Chicago, at Cincinnati, Green Bay.
Look at Carolina and Atlanta. It’s far from a given that both will get to 10 wins. Carolina needs two, Atlanta three. But both have to play Minnesota plus have multiple tough games against good teams from the NFC South. That includes a head-to-head matchup in the last game.
The Falcons, though, have an edge over the Packers because they beat them in Week 2. So if the final wild card comes down to those two, the Falcons win the tiebreaker. But getting to 10 wins won’t be easy.
Seattle, on the other hand, has to finish the season without two of its most important defensive players, Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor. The Seahawks aren’t the same team without them and have three games against likely playoff teams. On top of that, the Packers’ win in the opener gives them the head-to-head tiebreaker.
Detroit is actually in the best position for a run. Four of its five final opponents are under .500, and the fifth is only 6-5 (Baltimore). But I don’t know if the Lions are good enough to sustain a run even against that schedule. Doubt it.
Regardless, as long as the Packers have a shot at 10 wins when Rodgers gets cleared, he should play. Because their playoff hopes will be real.
The bigger question is, what if the Packers lose before Rodgers gets the OK, so the best they can do is 9-7? The short answer is, they’d probably be a long shot. But again, those tough schedules for Carolina and Atlanta, plus Seattle’s injuries, just might keep the Packers in play.
In a nine-win scenario, the swing game might be the Packers at Carolina. If the Packers win — and you have to think they’ll need Rodgers to have any chance — they’d have the head-to-head tiebreaker over two teams (Seattle and Carolina). One (Atlanta) would have it over them.
To keep it simple, the Packers probably have to win the next two with Hundley at the helm. And say what you will, but Hundley has played OK in two of the last three weeks, so it’s hardly far-fetched to think the Packers might beat two teams that are a combined 4-18.
Winnable and actually winning are two different things. But this isn’t the stuff of miracles.
I can’t see anyone betting on the Packers to be playing in January. And so much depends on whether Rodgers can return for Carolina. That’s the biggest unknown of all.
But if McCarthy and Hundley can find a way to win the next two, the Packers still will have life. Then it all depends on if and when Rodgers takes the field.