Aaron Rodgers is returning for the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, just in time to save the season. Rodgers, who insists he is not coming back to do that, will get the start when the Packers visit the Carolina Panthers in a matchup key to keeping their slim playoff hopes alive.
“Hopefully it gives a lift to some of the guys, but I’m not coming back to save this team,” Rodgers told reporters. “I’m coming back to play quarterback the way I know how to play it. Hopefully, we all raise the level of our play collectively and find a way to win these three games.” The star quarterback missed the last seven weeks while recovering from a broken right collarbone and returns to a Green Bay squad that went 3-4 in his absence and sits one game out of a wild-card spot in the NFC with three to play. The Packers are chasing - among others - the Panthers, who occupy the No. 5 spot in the conference but have a shot to win the NFC South and possibly earn home-field advantage in the first round of the playoffs with a strong finish. “I told our guys, ‘It doesn’t matter if (Rodgers) plays, we’ve still got to play the Packers,’” Carolina coach Ron Rivera told reporters. “If he’s the quarterback, great. If he’s not, great. I don’t think to us that should be a big deal. They said that he was going to be back for our game. That’s what we expected.”
TV: 1 p.m. ET, FOX. LINE: Panthers -2.5. O/U: 47
ABOUT THE PACKERS (7-6): Rodgers can’t officially be activated until Friday but spent the week practicing with the first team and breezed through his rehab with the help of some mental toughness. “Obviously, what he does physically and his ability on the field, but just the way he not only conducts himself mentally and emotionally to get ready for a game, but you can see the same intensity, the awareness, the education ability to get into other things to enhance his opportunity to get back,” Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy told reporters of Rodgers. “It’s probably, in my opinion, his greatest asset. His mental toughness is, you’d like to say, old-school. ... This guy could have played mentally in any generation in the National Football League. That’s a big part of why he’s ready today.” The Packers don’t have an easy schedule the rest of the way, with away games at Carolina and Detroit sandwiched around a date with the Minnesota Vikings.
ABOUT THE PANTHERS (9-4): Carolina has its own former NFL MVP at quarterback in Cam Newton, but it is the running game that is keeping the Panthers in playoff position. Running back Jonathan Stewart took home his second NFC Offensive Player of the Week Award after running for 103 yards and three touchdowns in a 31-24 win over NFC North-leading Minnesota last week, and Newton is a big contributor to the running game as well. “I have no problem with running the football,” Newton told reporters. “I feel as if I’ve always taken care of that part. Contrary to what another person may think, football is a physical sport, so I can get just as sore in the pocket as I can get sore outside the pocket. I’m just trying to put as much pressure on the defense as possible to give them certain things that a lot of other quarterbacks can’t give them.”
1. The Packers are hurting in the secondary with CBs Demetri Goodson (hamstring) and Davon House (shoulder, back) both questionable.
2. Panthers LB Shaq Thompson (foot) and G Trai Turner (concussion) are both doubtful.
3. Carolina earned a 37-29 win the last time Green Bay visited on Nov. 8, 2015.
PREDICTION: Panthers 28, Packers 24