Aaron Rodgers stood on the Green Bay Packers’ sideline Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium, a hooded sweatshirt draped from his body and a beanie cap on his head. For most the afternoon, he watched an opportunity slip away, his chance to leave an imprint on the NFL season evaporating against the lowliest opponent. Slowly at first, and then suddenly at the end, it all changed.
Through a series of small miracles, a chain of events that would have been implausible if the Cleveland Browns had not been the benefactor, the Packers sent a shudder through the NFC. Rodgers was headed for another three weeks of irrelevance, of remaining an observer and cheerleader. And then the Browns combusted, and Aaron Rodgers became the most dangerous man in the NFL.
A spectator for the past two months, Aaron Rodgers will almost certainly have his say on the 2017 NFL season. The Packers’ furious, 27-21 overtime victory over the Browns kept them alive in the loaded NFC playoff chase. That means Rodgers can come off injured reserve next week with a heartbeat. For so much of the season, and so much of Sunday, it seemed improbable Rodgers would play meaningful December football. Now, barring a surprise, he will.
The Packers trailed the winless Browns, 21-7, at the end of the third quarter. With less than six minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Packers punted away down, 21-14. With 36 seconds left, they remained down a touchdown and faced third and two at the Cleveland 6-yard line.
At the end of regulation, backup quarterback Brett Hundley scampered to the goal line for a first down, then whipped a quick pass to Davante Adams for the touchdown. In overtime, the Packers intercepted an ill-conceived, tipped pass by DeShone Kizer. Six plays later, Hundley swung a screen pass to Adams, who burst ahead 25 yards into the end zone and continued right into the tunnel, a literal walk-off touchdown.
The Packers had no business winning, except the Browns – now 0-13 this year and 1-28 since the start of last season – are in the business of losing.
For Green Bay, the result kept them in the running of a powerhouse playoff field. The Packers improved to 7-6, which keeps them outside playoff position but in the hunt.
The rest of the week’s results didn’t go Green Bay’s way. The Packers still need a playoff contender to come back to them. The Falcons won their eighth game. The Panthers won their ninth. Even the Lions and Cowboys also won their seventh game. The Packers immediately turned into massive fans of the Jacksonville Jaguars, who were playing the 8-4 Seahawks in the late afternoon.
But the comeback gave them a chance as Rodgers returns, which is all Green Bay wanted after Week 6, when Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr slammed Rodgers to the turf and broke his right collarbone. Hundley said his only goal was to have the Packers still be alive when Rodgers returned. “And we’re still in it,” Hundley said Sunday.
Green Bay has not officially activated Rodgers, and Coach Mike McCarthy remained coy after the victory whether Rodgers would start next week against the Panthers, when he is eligible to come off injured reserve.
“We love Aaron Rodgers, but I won’t answer any questions on it today,” McCarthy said. “It’s still a medical thing. As soon as we have information we’ll try to give it to you.”
But Rodgers has been practicing the last two weeks, since the first day he was eligible to come off. Both teammates and McCarthy have spoken in glowing terms about how Rodgers looks. By all appearances, Rodgers will play next week.
Hundley got the Packers there with a couple wobbly tires, a smashed taillight and a dented bumper. The Packers went 1-4 in his first five starts, and they needed a desperate comeback last week against lowly Tampa Bay, too. But now Rodgers will take over, with a glimmer.
The Packers close at the Panthers, home against the Vikings and at Detroit. The Panthers game will be massive. If the Packers can beat Carolina and win out, it would give them 10 wins with a victory head-to-head against the Panthers. The Panthers close against the Bucs – a likely victory – and at Atlanta, a difficult test. There are a ton of moving parts in the NFC picture, but there’s a simple path for Green Bay: Beat the Panthers, hope the Falcons beat Carolina in Week 17 and hope the tiebreaker is good enough to give them the six seed.
Even that might not be enough, depending on so many other results. But the Packers do have hope, and better yet they have Aaron Rodgers, about to trade his sweats and cap for a helmet and shoulder pads.
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