After eight very long games Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers finally got the medical clearance he was looking for and will return to the field on Sunday in Chicago.
With the return of Rodgers the Packers went from four point underdogs to three point favorites in the matchup that will decide the winner of the NFC North. The Packers have gone through three quarterbacks since Rodgers got hurt in Seneca Wallace, Scott Tolzien and Matt Flynn. They went 2-4-1 in games without Rodgers, but managed to stay in the division race due to major help form the Lions and Bears.
Rodgers' return as perhaps the best quarterback in the NFL should be a huge boost for the Packers. Rodgers' backups have been able to move the ball pretty well in his absence, but the major problems have been turnovers, red zone efficiency and third down efficiency.
Wallace, Tolzien and Flynn combined to throw for 8 touchdown to 10 interceptions and a 78.0 passer rating. Rodgers hasn't thrown more than 10 interceptions in a full season since 2010 when he only threw 11.
The Packers have only scored 21.7 points per game without Rodgers as compared to 28.7 points per game with him. The red zone is a place where having a backup quarterback really shows. There is not as much space in the red zone, so the throws have to be made into tighter windows, and that is where Flynn really struggled. Also, the Packers only converted on less than 35% of third downs without Rodgers.
The Packers are averaging a full more yard per play (6.4) with Rodgers than without him (5.4). Also, according to ESPN Stats & Info the Packers average 2.63 points per drive with Rodgers and 1.67 without him. With an average off 11.7 drives per game that equates to 11.2 points more with Rodgers than without him.
Rodgers comes back to face the perfect opponent for him. He has historically owned the Bears even when they had a good defense, and now they have a deplorable defense. Rodgers is 8-1 in his career against the Bears, with 19 touchdown passes and a passer rating of 102.1.
Rodgers should also be getting Randall Cobb back in the slot and Eddie Lacy should be good to go as well. Lacy should have a field day if healthy, as the Bears rank 32nd in the NFL allowing 161.5 rushing yards per game. He had a career-high 151 yards rushing in the first meeting after Rodgers went down in the first series.
Lacy should be able to take the pressure off Rodgers in his first game back. If he is not healthy enough than James Starks should be able to do the same, as he is averaging 5.2 yards per carry this season.
The offensive line has been a concern for some people, but other than Don Barclay they have been performing fine. Josh Sitton an T.J. Lang have combined to form one of the top guard duos in the NFL this season and David Bahktiari has been a revelation at left tackle.
The line was being hurt by Flynn holding the ball way too long and locking into receivers. A perfect example of that was on the last play of the game against Pittsburgh when Flynn had Jordy Nelson wide open on a slant in the slot, but he never looked at him and threw the slant on the outside incomplete to Jarrett Boykin. Rodgers does hold onto the ball too long at times, but at least he goes through all his progressions.
With Rodgers back the team needs to keep the same sense of urgency. They cannot relax just because he is back. Any team with Rodgers is a contender because he can get hot at any time and carry a team. The biggest concern for the Packers right now is the pass rush without Clay Matthews and with Nick Perry and Mike Neal banged up. The run defense also must improve in a major way.
Usually there has been a "hot" team that gets on a roll and wins the Super Bowl lately. Teams playing on Wild Card Weekend have had much more success than the top seeds lately. Rodgers gives the Packers the opportunity to be that "hot" team. The Seahawks and 49ers, the perceived two best teams in the NFC, looked very beatable last week. You just never know.
The Packers are very fortunate to be where they are right now. They are not big favorites to get to the Super Bowl, but all the NFC teams have showed that they have flaws. Rodgers gives the team hope that anything is possible again. That is all you can ask for with what the Packers have had to go through this season.