Packers seek big finish with Rodgers back in the saddle

Amid great anticipation and with more delay than their coach and a few million fans would have preferred, the Green Bay Packers on Tuesday announced — nothing.

It was the protagonist himself who took care of that.

With a post on his Instagram account, quarterback Aaron Rodgers revealed that after having spent almost two months on injured reserve with a broken collarbone, he’s been medically cleared to play in Sunday’s game at Carolina.

Coach Mike McCarthy, among others, was elated with the news. He and countless fans were getting antsy over the slow trickle of reports related to Rodgers, with McCarthy joking at a press conference Monday that if he didn’t hear a decision from the medical team by Tuesday, they would be putting the team doctor on injured reserve.

Ultimately, a dramatic stage has been set for the Packers, who look to extend the two-game winning streak forged with Brett Hundley under center.

The level of production in the Packers’ offense took a dip after Rodgers’ injury, as expected. Throughout his various growing pains, Hundley brought the Packers to 7-6 and in position – distant though it may be – to make a run at a ninth consecutive playoff appearance.

“(Hundley) plays his best football when the game’s on the line, and you can’t teach that,” McCarthy said. “He’s a winner.”

Hundley went 3-4 as a starter, to be precise, including two straight overtime victories. In Sunday’s 27-21 win at Cleveland, which came after trailing 21-7 in the fourth quarter, Hundley completed 35 of 46 passes with three touchdowns and no interceptions.

McCarthy is due credit for preparing a game plan that allowed Hundley to flourish, and for a successful challenge that overturned a completed pass that would have given the Browns – still up by a touchdown at the time – a first down with less than three minutes to play.

“A good challenge,” McCarthy said, adding, “Good game management. I look forward to reading about it in the paper.”

It was a comical swipe at the detractors who had turned their frustration onto the coach for not having a fail-safe Plan B when his best player went out with an injury.

Interestingly, the Packers went from a 2½-point underdog on Monday night to a 5-point underdog Tuesday morning, then back to a 3-point after Rodgers’ announcement. Keep in mind that not even the insiders have a real clue this season; these are the same sharp eyes that saw New England as an 11-point favorite in their Monday night loss to Miami.

With Carolina and the Packers both fighting for a seat at the postseason table, and with the Packers’ leader back in action just in time, a highly animated scrum is about the only sure bet for Sunday.

The Packers’ long-shot push to make the playoffs goes beyond the pride of merely qualifying for a ninth straight season. Any team that gets in really could win it this year, including – or maybe especially – the Packers with a healthy Rodgers.

A good illustration of how off-kilter and up for grabs things are this season was Jay Cutler outplaying Tom Brady last Monday, while the thoroughly average Miami Dolphins laid a proper whipping on the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots.

With Philadelphia’s loss of quarterback Carson Wentz, an MVP candidate central to the Eagles’ 11-2 start, the playoff picture is even hazier. Who’s the alpha in the NFC? The Vikings had their eight-game win streak snapped last week, and the Saints, Rams and Seahawks also lost.

Don’t overlook Carolina. Lately the Panthers, who ended Minnesota’s win streak, have played more like the 2015 Super Bowl team than last year’s washouts. They need this one as bad as the Packers do, and quarterback Cam Newton is on a mission of redemption after the Super Bowl defeat and the Panthers’ 2016 splat to the NFC South basement.

Staring down the barrel of three tough games to close out the regular season, the Packers only need to win them all. This plot is lifted almost word for word from last year’s script, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Some reruns are fun to watch.

Veteran sportswriter Gary Seymour’s column appears weekly in the Leader. He can be contacted at sports@wolfrivermedia.com.