Dougherty: Even with Aaron Rodgers, Packers' road to playoffs remains rocky
CLEVELAND – Somehow, the Green Bay Packers turned the most humiliating of defeats into an inspiring comeback win that saved their 2017 season for another week.
Now comes the hard part.
The Packers’ rally from a two-touchdown deficit in the fourth quarter to beat the Cleveland Browns in overtime was the ultimate survive-any-way-you-can victory. That it was against the NFL’s only winless team matters not a wit. A win is a win is a win, and the Packers’ only charge Sunday was staying in the hunt.
That, they accomplished.
Now they’re looking at the very real prospect of getting back Aaron Rodgers from a broken collarbone this week, and with that, a world of possibilities open. But at 7-6, they almost surely have to win their final three games, including the next two against NFC contenders: at Carolina (9-4) and at home against NFC North leader Minnesota (10-3).
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Even with Rodgers, beating those teams back-to-back is a bigger challenge than winning the last two weeks (both in overtime) against two of the NFL’s lesser lights with their backup quarterback. Rodgers will have not played in a game in two months, so you can’t be sure he’ll be at his sharpest. And assuming Davon House’s back injury from Sunday will sideline him for a while, they probably will be without two of their top three cornerbacks — Kevin King, who went on IR last week, is the other — in a league where pass defense is everything.
But for Rodgers’ return to matter, they had to win Sunday in what was a de facto playoff game, as coach Mike McCarthy acknowledged afterward.
“We’re excited to get out of here with a win, and we’re excited to keep playing,” McCarthy said.
We should point out there’s no guarantee Rodgers plays this Sunday, but it’s looking pretty likely. He’s been practicing for two weeks, so all that’s left is a CT scan this week that will show whether his collarbone has healed enough to allow him to play. When he broke his collarbone on the non-throwing side in 2013, he was cleared after seven weeks, so you have to think the odds are good he’ll be cleared this time with an extra week of healing and just as he’s also eligible to return from IR.
McCarthy hasn’t said when Rodgers will be scanned, but it might be as early as Monday so he knows whether Rodgers is playing when the coaching staff begins game planning for Carolina on Monday night.
“We love Aaron Rodgers, but I will not answer any questions about him today,” McCarthy said when asked if he expected Rodgers to play next week. “This is about winning the game, and he’s still in the medical situation and as soon as we have the information we’ll try to get it to you.”
As for the playoff race, the Packers have three teams ahead of them for the two wild-card spots in the NFC: Carolina (9-4), Atlanta (8-5) and Seattle (8-5).
But if the Packers win out, you have to like their chances. With 10 wins, they’d have the tiebreaker over Seattle and Carolina because they’ll have beaten both. They’d lose the tiebreaker against Atlanta.
So assuming the Packers get to 10 wins, then Carolina and Seattle would have to get to 11 to beat them out, and Atlanta to 10. And the chances of two of them accomplishing that don’t look good
For one, if the Packers get to 10, that means Carolina picks up a loss. Also, Atlanta and Carolina play in the regular-season finale, so unless there’s a tie, one of them is going to lose that one. If it’s Atlanta, the Falcons will have to win their other two, including against NFC South leader New Orleans, to get to 10 wins. And if Carolina loses to Atlanta, it can’t finish ahead of a 10-win Packers team.
Also, Seattle’s loss to Jacksonville on Sunday means that to finish ahead of a 10-win Packers team, the Seahawks have to win out against the Rams, at Dallas (with Ezekiel Elliott back from suspension) and against the Cardinals.
BOX SCORE: Packers 27, Browns 21 (OT)
MONDAY CHAT: Ryan Wood at 1 p.m.
So, the hardest part for the Packers isn’t whether all that will work out. It’s winning the next two weeks against good teams.
But they have a chance, which didn’t look likely in the first weeks after Rodgers went down. And it looked even less likely Sunday after Hundley had a brain cramp on a fourth-and-1 and turned to hand off to the strong side when running back Aaron Jones rightly went for a toss to the weak side. That botched play at Cleveland’s 10 took points off the board with the Packers already down 21-7 halfway through the third quarter and the Browns smelling their first win of the season.
But we’ve learned a few things about Hundley over the past eight games. Yes, he’s a young quarterback who has his limitations. But he also perseveres, stays poised and is tough.
He faced the nightmare scenario for this week: Down by two touchdowns against a winless team heading into the fourth quarter. The embattled Browns and their hungry crowd were feeling it.
But Hundley didn’t tighten up. After a mostly non-descript first three quarters, he played his best football with the game on the line in the fourth. What stood out was that to do it, McCarthy abandoned the run-oriented template he’d set for Hundley and went to a no-huddle spread offense that usually featured an empty backfield and four receivers and a tight end.
Hundley (111.2 rating) played fast, making mostly short rhythm throws and checkdowns. He took the Packers to two touchdowns in the final 13 minutes of regulation. He also didn’t have any turnovers, whereas his counterpart, rookie DeShone Kizer, threw a horrible, game-losing interception in overtime on an off-balance bomb as Clay Matthews hit him.
Assuming Rodgers plays this week, Hundley will have finished his run with a 3-5 record in the games he finished.
Best case, you’re probably hoping for 4-4 with your backup, so he didn’t do that. But he kept his team in the race, and that’s what matters most. Now it’s in Rodgers’ hands.