So, will Rodgers’s expected return catapult the Packers into the playoffs?
Rodgers should provide a significant upgrade from Hundley. Before his injury this season, he was averaging a strong 7.8 adjusted yards per attempt, right in line with his typical recent figures. Hundley posted a poor 5.3. Rodgers had 13 touchdowns against three interceptions before getting hurt; Hundley’s ratio was eight to eight.
But the wild-card race is crowded; there are three teams ahead of the Packers at 9-4 or 8-5, and two other 7-6 teams. Only two of those will get in. The New York Times Playoff Machine gives the Packers only a 9 percent chance of getting into the postseason. Fivethirtyeight.com is even less optimistic, rating their chance at 6 percent.
With that many candidates, the calculus is fairly simple: The Packers are probably going to have to win all three of their remaining games. But if they do, they have a very good chance indeed: 92 percent, according to the Machine.
Of course, the news that a team only has to win out, doesn’t make it so. The Packers will begin with a stern test against the Panthers in Charlotte on Sunday. At 9-4, the Panthers are fighting for a division title.
Few players can affect a betting line as much as Rodgers; when he was hurt, the line on the team’s next game shifted by 10 points immediately. The line for Sunday’s game, surely influenced by Rodgers exuberance, opened with Carolina favored by only 1 or 2. But hard-nosed bettors have come down heavily for the Panthers. The line has moved significantly, to as much as 6.
The Packers then get to return home, but must play the Vikings, who lead the division by three games and look like Super Bowl contenders. Then it’s back on the road again to play the Lions, who, like the Packers, are 7-6 and fighting for the playoffs.
That’s three tough games. Even with Rodgers under center, it’s hard to see a clear path to 3-0.
But Rodgers has done something like this before. Last season, with the team 4-6, he spoke of running the table. Remarkably, the Packers did, winning six consecutive games and advancing to the conference championship.
Could the Packers sneak in with a 2-1 record this season? It’s not impossible, but they would need a lot of help, including a string of losses by teams like the Cowboys, the Lions, the Falcons and the Seahawks. The Machine says that if the Packers must lose, it would be best to lose to the Vikings, who they aren’t going to catch anyway. In that situation, the Packers have at least a puncher’s chance: about 8 percent.
Rodgers is excited to be back, and loyal Packers fans are thrilled. But the team still has a mountain to climb.