Saturday could be Day 1 for Aaron Rodgers to return to practice. Or not. (Don Wright/Associated Press)

Early Sunday evening, before the crowd had filled the seats at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field, Aaron Rodgers walked out, as has been his habit since breaking his collarbone, and strolled around a bit. This time, though, he had a purpose. Instead of playfully tossing a football, he rared back and fired it, showing off just how well he is progressing six Sundays after breaking the collarbone above his throwing arm.

Rodgers reportedly threw about 40 passes, with the longest covering around 50 yards, over a display that lasted 10 to 15 minutes. It was especially significant because the two-time MVP is eligible to return to practice Saturday and will be eligible to play in a game Dec. 17, provided his collarbone heals and the Packers remain in the running for a playoff berth. Whether Rodgers will actually practice Saturday is another matter and one that Coach Mike McCarthy hesitated to address.

“We’ll see,” McCarthy told reporters Monday. “I mean, he’s still going through — there’s a protocol. There’s targets we’re trying to hit each and every week. I think they’re working [on it], and it’s segmented. The A-No. 1 priority is to get him healthy. Practice is not something we’re really focused on right now.”

Rodgers, who was injured when he was tackled by Anthony Barr of the Minnesota Vikings, underwent surgery Oct. 19 and was placed on injured reserve, which meant he must sit out eight weeks, the next day. (Although he could come off the list Friday, the Packers don’t practice on Fridays; they prefer Saturday practices.) During surgery, the collarbone reportedly was strengthened by the implantation of two plates and 13 screws (a figure that Rodgers mentioned in an appearance with Conan O’Brien and later said might have been exaggerated for TV).

Since then, there has been what McCarthy called a “step-by-step process” for his recovery. “There’s a plan laid out for Aaron, just like the other guys on IR,” McCarthy said. “He’s knocking it out of the park. He’s going at it 120 miles an hour. We’ll see what the end of the week brings.” Still, his appearance on the field was a boost for his teammates, who lost by three points to the AFC’s top playoff seed.

“I think it [was] a great opportunity,” McCarthy said. “I mean, think about it: You’re on a rehab process and the ability to throw in an opponent’s stadium. Everything that they’re doing is calculated between the training room, the strength and conditioning room and Aaron. . . . So far, so good.”

Rodgers initially tempered expectations for his recovery time, basing it on his experience with his broken left collarbone in 2013. That injury was to his non-throwing shoulder and he returned in time to lead the Packers into the playoffs.

“First of all, I want to be healthy; that’s the most important thing,” Rodgers said in early November. “But if we’re healthy in eight weeks [after the injury] and it would make sense to come back, then I’m going to come back.” He added that, just as in 2013, “there won’t be a decision made until that bone is healed, so it’s not even a conversation if it’s not where it needs to be.”

As for the other component to a Rodgers return, the team remains in the mix for a wild-card berth with a 5-6 record but would most likely have to run the table over the last five games to qualify for postseason play. They’ll play the Buccaneers on Sunday at Lambeau Field, then the Browns in Cleveland, the Panthers in Carolina (when Rodgers would conceivably be eligible to play), the Vikings at Lambeau (in a Saturday night game Dec. 23) and the Lions in Detroit.

Whatever happens Saturday, it’s unlikely to be very visible because the team’s practices that day are not open to reporters. However, the Packers would have to inform the NFL because Rodgers would count as the second of  two players designated to return from the IR list. The other was lineman Jason Spriggs, who returned Sunday in the loss to the Steelers. Getting Rodgers back would be significant, but is it worth the long-range risk?

For now, there’s a schedule, and Rodgers’s passes fit that timetable.

“The biggest thing right now is range of motion and the strength, which ultimately won’t be the issues as we get to the end of this season,” Rodgers said Nov. 3. “It will be the bone healing. But there’s a timetable. I believe I can practice in six weeks based on the schedule. So if I’m at a place at that point healing-wise and [able] to throw, then I’ll be out here. And if I’m not, I won’t.”

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