In a must win situation, just how will the 7-6 Green Bay Packers and the just cleared to play Aaron Rodgers fare against the 9-4 Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday?
Based on some historical data, I would say quite competitively.
First, both teams have a lot to play for on Sunday. The Packers need a win to keep their postseason hopes alive, most likely as a Wild Card, while the Panthers still can win the NFC South and perhaps get a first-round bye in the NFC playoffs.
The Panthers and the New Orleans Saints both are 9-4, but the Saints own the tiebreaker over the Panthers because of beating them head-to-head twice and also because of a better divisional record.
The Packers have a slim chance of winning the NFC North, but the Minnesota Vikings would have to lose all three of their remaining games (including one vs. the Packers at Lambeau), wile the Packers would have to win all three of their remaining games.
The Wild Card appears the most likely route for the Packers to get into the playoffs, as the Packers will hold a head-to head edge on the Panthers with a victory, plus have that same edge on both the 8-5 Seattle Seahawks and 7-6 Dallas Cowboys currently if all ended up with a similar record at season’s end.
Currently the Packers are seeded ninth in the NFC playoff picture, but a lot could change in three weeks. No matter what, the Packers have to run the table, just like they did in the 2016 season, to make the postseason.
Which takes me to the historical data.
In 2016, the Packers were 4-6 and needed to win all of the remaining six games to make the playoffs. Not only did they do that, but they also won the NFC North. Plus, the Packers also won two games in the postseason to advance to the NFC title game before they lost for the first time in two months.
So winning out in 2017 is definitely possible, plus the team is already on a two-game winning streak thanks to back-to-back overtime wins the past couple of weeks keyed by backup quarterback Brett Hundley.
But how will Rodgers perform coming back from a broken (right) collarbone and against a stout Carolina defense, which is ranked fifth in the NFL in total defense.
Again, let’s go back to historical information.
Rodgers has done this before, as he also broke his (left) collarbone in 2013. In the first game back after the injury, which happened to also be a do-or-die situation in Week 17 vs. the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field, Rodgers performed very well overall.
In that particular game, a lot rode on the outcome. The winner would win the NFC North and the loser would go home.
Rodgers wasn’t sharp early in that game, but as the contest wore on, his performance improved. No play was bigger than the one that No. 12 made with just 46 seconds to go in the game and the Packers facing a fourth and eight situation from the Chicago 48-yard line and trailing 28-27.
Rodgers rolled left and eluded a sack from future teammate Julius Peppers, with some help from fullback John Kuhn on a chip-block, and he threw long to wide receiver Randall Cobb for a game-winning 48-yard touchdown pass with just 38 seconds to go.
In the 33-28 victory, Rodgers threw for 318 yards and also two touchdown passes to go along with two interceptions. Rodgers had only a 85.2 passer rating in the game, but he was clutch when he needed to be, which also included running for a key first down on the game-winning drive.
In an ironic twist, after playing with the Packers from 2014 through 2016 (25 sacks, 10 forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries and two interceptions for touchdowns), Peppers now plays with the team that drafted him, the Panthers. And now once again, Peppers gets to face Rodgers in his first game back coming back from a broken collarbone.
Peppers is currently tied with Mario Addison in leading the Panthers in sacks so far in 2017 with 9.5. Carolina is tied for third in the league with 40 sacks.
Now let’s look at how Rodgers has fared against the Panthers. Overall in his career versus Carolina, Rodgers is 2-2, but has played very well. In those four games, Rodgers has thrown 12 touchdown passes compared to just two picks for 1,230 yards. That adds up to a 112.2 passer rating against the Panthers.
But let’s peel back the onion even more and look at two fairly recent games against the Panthers, when Rodgers faced up against Cam Newton at quarterback and a number of the defenders he will be facing on Sunday were playing.
The first occurred in 2014 at Lambeau Field in Week 7. In a 38-17 victory by the Packers, Rodgers threw three touchdown passes without a pick for 255 yards. His passer rating for the game was 154.5.
Then, in Week 9 of the 2015 season at Bank of America Stadium, the same year the Panthers were on their way to the Super Bowl, Rodgers threw four touchdown passes versus one interception for 369 yards (96.6 passer rating), as the Packers lost to the Panthers 37-29.
So, based on all that, what will happen when Rodgers and the Packers face the Panthers on Sunday?
Well, just the fact that Rodgers will be in the lineup makes the Packers much better, even though Hundley kept the playoff hopes of the Packers alive by going 3-4 in seven starts.
The new and improved running game behind Jamaal Williams the last five games (352 yards rushing and three touchdowns) makes the offense much more versatile.
The play-action pass should be very effective this Sunday, as should the screen pass, which has also been a nice weapon as of late for the Packers.
Speaking of the passing game, Williams has also been an asset there as well, as he’s had 18 receptions for 193 yards and two more scores in the past five games.
Since Rodgers has been out, Davante Adams has become the No. 1 receiver on the Packers with Hundley at quarterback, while both Cobb and Jordy Nelson have had secondary roles. With Rodgers under center now, I believe No. 12 will distribute the ball better to all of his receivers, which also includes the tight ends.
The offensive line of the Packers has been solid as of late, with Jason Spriggs playing okay at right tackle now that Bryan Bulaga is out for the season (torn ACL). The rest of the line remains intact with left tackle David Bakhtiari, left guard Lane Taylor, center Corey Linsley and right guard Jahri Evans doing their usual reliable work.
Before he broke his collarbone in Week 6 versus the Vikings, Rodgers was having another MVP-type season, as he had thrown 13 touchdown passes versus three picks for 1,385 yards (103.2 passer rating).
So, how do I see this game? The defense of the Packers definitely has holes, both in stopping the run and with injuries in the secondary. I believe that Newton and company will get their fair share of points against the D of the Pack, but I also think that Rodgers and company will do the same against a very good defense.
Will that mean a win for the Pack? That I can’t say for certain, but this could be the type of game that comes down to the final possession.
Just like the Week 17 game against da Bears in Chicago in 2013.