The biggest surprise in the return of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers to the Packers' starting lineup is that head coach Mike McCarthy didn't look happier announcing it. This is a move that has significantly altered the NFC playoff picture. It's a decision that makes Green Bay as dangerous as they were in 2010, when they went from being an unheralded wild-card team to a Super Bowl champion. Maybe McCarthy didn't want to show too much excitement during his Thursday afternoon press conference, but he has to love his chances going forward.
As much as people want to ponder the outcome of Green Bay's regular-season finale with the Chicago Bears -- a contest that will determine the NFC North champion on Sunday -- there really isn't much to debate now. The Packers have arguably the best quarterback in the league back under center. The Bears had a chance to win their division outright last Sunday night, right before the Philadelphia Eagles beat them 54-11. You can talk about the possibility of anything happening in a rivalry game all you want. There is no way the Packers lose this game on Sunday.
The more intriguing question is what they are capable of once the playoffs begin. Even in a stacked NFC, there isn't a team that Green Bay can't beat with Rodgers in the lineup. They were 5-2 before he broke his collarbone in a 27-20 loss to Chicago on Nov. 4, with both losses coming on the road to playoff teams (a 34-28 defeat at San Francisco and a 34-30 loss at Cincinnati). They've also shown plenty of heart to stay alive the past three weeks, particularly in overcoming a 23-point halftime deficit in a 37-36 win over Dallas on Dec. 15.
The Packers should've been dead after going five straight weeks without a win following Rodgers' injury. Now they've found new life at a time when most people were probably wondering if Rodgers would ever return this year. The Packers had been waiting to see if he was capable of playing for most of the past three weeks until finally receiving clearance from team doctors on Tuesday. As McCarthy said, "This has been a stressful period for him."
"I felt like he looked like he was ready to play and now he is ready to play," McCarthy added. "He's thrown the ball very well going on three weeks. He's been working his feet, working his conditioning and getting ready for this moment. And the moment is here."
It really is difficult to believe Rodgers wouldn't have been playing this weekend. He'd waited too long and the stakes had become too high. The more the NFC North title window remained open -- with Detroit blowing its opportunity before Chicago ruined its chance at clinching -- the more Rodgers had to be praying for one last shot at redemption. The Packers had gone about as far as they could go with Matt Flynn running their offense.
"Aaron is a seasoned pro who knows the offense in and out," McCarthy said. "It's the little things [that will make the difference]. It's getting back into the fine details of the offense."
The upside for the Packers is that Rodgers isn't coming back to win this game all by himself. Rookie running back Eddie Lacy has become a force in the backfield, rushing for 1,112 yards and 10 touchdowns. If he's not hindered by a nagging ankle injury, Lacy should create significant problems for a Bears team that has the league's worst rushing defense. The Packers haven't been immune to their own defensive issues but they have found ways to create critical turnovers at important moments. Even with star linebacker Clay Matthews out because of an injured thumb, it's conceivable that they'll continue that trend.
More than anything, the Packers have the faith that comes from beating the odds. Prior to the season, nobody would've believed this team would have a shot at the playoffs if Rodgers was going to miss seven games and other key starters (Matthews, left tackle Bryan Bulaga, tight end Jermichael Finley, wide receiver Randall Cobb) would be sidelined for significant periods of time, as well. The Packers have used three different quarterbacks and needed a bunch of timely breaks simply to stay alive. They know they've created their own good fortune by not letting self-doubt corrupt their collective spirits.
The 2010 Packers had to beat the Bears just to make the postseason. They then played three straight road games before facing Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XLV. That Green Bay team also didn't have any real believers outside the state of Wisconsin until it blasted Atlanta in the divisional round of the playoffs. This team will be flying under the radar until it has a similarly impressive victory.
What the Packers do have is confidence and character. A win over Chicago means a wild-card playoff game at Lambeau Field. Then there's another opportunity to make a statement in the divisional round of the postseason, with Rodgers two games into his comeback. In other words, maybe it wasn't such a big deal that McCarthy couldn't smile on Thursday.
From the way things look in Green Bay right now, he'll have more opportunities in the coming weeks.