NFC North Won't Be Decided Until Aaron Rodgers Returns

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NFC North Won't Be Decided Until Aaron Rodgers Returns
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Aaron Rodgers has missed the better part of the last three weeks to a fractured collarbone, and the Green Bay Packers have lost three straight games for the first time since 2008.

Once a team that looked capable of winning 12 or more games, Green Bay is now .500 this late in the season for the first time since Rodgers' first year as the starter. 

Yet the rest of the teams in the NFC North—provided a golden opportunity to run away with the division lead while the division's best player sits—have mostly failed to properly separate themselves from the back-to-back champions. The 5-5 Packers remain just one game back from the 6-4 Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions, making it likely that the division won't be decided until Rodgers returns.

There still isn't a set timetable for when that return will happen. 

Conservative estimates immediately following the injury pegged Rodgers' recovery timeline at somewhere between four to six weeks, per Mike Garafolo of Fox Sports. At four weeks, Rodgers would still miss Sunday's matchup with the Minnesota Vikings and next Thursday's showdown with the Detroit Lions. Six weeks would cost Rodgers an additional two or three games, and the Packers' season would likely be over upon his return.

There's a chance the Packers would even shut down their $110 million quarterback if the season was already lost.  

However, Rodgers has maintained throughout the process that no set time line is in place and that a return could come much sooner than expected. In fact, Rodgers recently hinted to Jason Wilde of ESPN Milwaukee that his goal all along has been to return Sunday against the Vikings, 20 days after originally fracturing his collarbone. 

“I haven’t given up hope on playing any week," Rodgers said last Tuesday. "It depends on how I heal and depends on what the next x-ray looks like."

Rodgers even suggested to Wilde that he could likely convince the team to let him play, even if the doctors weren't convinced he was ready.

“I think I’m going to know when I’m ready to play,” he said. “And I’m going to play.”

Thanks to the inconsistency of the rest of the division, Rodgers' return on Sunday or next Thursday could still save a Packers season that is quickly sinking without him. 

Power of 12: The Packers without Aaron Rodgers
W-L Points Scored Points Allowed
vs. CHI* L 20 27
vs. PHI L 13 27
at NYG L 13 27
Totals 0-3 15.3 27

*Rodgers played one series

Green Bay hadn't lost three games in a row since 2008, when the Packers did it twice, including a five-game slide from Week 12 to 16. And like the 2008 club, the Packers are now 5-5 ahead of Week 12. 

Back in '08, the Vikings seized the division by winning seven of their last nine games. This season, neither the Lions nor the Bears have taken full advantage of Rodgers' three-game absence. 

Detroit put together two straight wins, including a road victory over the Bears, but then fell flat against the 3-6 Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday. The Lions could have opened up a two-game lead over the Packers and a de facto two-game lead over the Bears, whom Detroit holds a head-to-head tiebreaker against.

Joe Sargent/Getty Images
The Lions blew a chance to separate from Green Bay on Sunday.

Instead, the Lions dropped a game they should were expected to win, leaving Green Bay a chance to beat the 2-8 Vikings Sunday and then ride into Detroit on Thanksgiving Day with an opportunity to jump over Detroit in the NFC North standings. 

The Bears haven't been as careless with their chances. Chicago beat a Rodgers-less Packers team in Green Bay and came from behind to beat the Baltimore Ravens at home Sunday. At 6-4, the Bears are still alive despite a litany of injuries that compares favorably to what Green Bay has dealt with. 

However, the Bears did drop a pivotal home game to Detroit in Week 10, and that defeat has put Chicago in a difficult spot in terms of tiebreakers atop the NFC North. Two losses to the Lions gives Detroit the advantage in terms of both head-to-head and division tiebreakers. 

Regardless of whether Rodgers plays next week, both the Lions and Bears need to take care of their own business. 

The Lions will welcome the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to Detroit in Week 12. Two weeks ago, facing the winless Bucs would have been as close to a guaranteed win as there was in the NFL. But Tampa Bay has since won two straight games, including Sunday's walloping of the Atlanta Falcons. 

The Bears will go on the road to face the St. Louis Rams, who are coming off a 38-8 shellacking of the Indianapolis Colts in Week 10 and the bye in Week 11. There will likely be a confident and fresh football team awaiting the Bears in St. Louis Sunday. 

The Packers get the 2-8 Vikings, who haven't won on the road this season and have more uncertainty at quarterback. Running back Adrian Peterson is also dealing with a groin issue. The Packers haven't won since Rodgers went down, but they'll likely be a slight favorite over Minnesota regardless if Rodgers or Scott Tolzien starts Sunday. 

Current NFC North Standings (through Week 11)
Overall Division Conference
Detroit Lions* 6-4 3-1 5-2
Chicago Bears 6-4 2-2 3-4
Green Bay Packers 5-5 2-1 3-4
Minnesota Vikings 2-8 0-5 1-7

* Lions hold head-to-head tiebreaker

Highlighting how Detroit and Chicago have failed to take control in the division is the fact that the Packers can still run the table and guarantee themselves the NFC North crown. If its season ended 11-5, Green Bay would ensure both Detroit and Chicago could finish no better than 11-5, too, and the Packers would then hold tiebreakers—either in the form of head-to-head wins (Detroit) or division record (Chicago).

And if Packers can beat Minnesota Sunday and return Rodgers for the important Thanksgiving clash in Detroit, winning the final six games of the season isn't a ridiculous stretch. 

Green Bay has never lost a game to Detroit in which Rodgers has started and finished, and the final four games—vs. Atlanta (2-8), at Dallas (5-5), vs. Pittsburgh (4-6) and at Chicago (6-4)—are all very winnable if Rodgers is available. 

The overriding factor remains of when Rodgers will finally return. Unless he somehow ends up on the long end of the recovery timeline, the NFC North will be decided with Rodgers back under center in Green Bay.

So far, the Bears and Lions have kept the door open for the Packers. While a three-game losing streak could have all but buried Green Bay, Chicago and Detroit now face the likely possibility of having to win the division once Rodgers is back in the fold. 

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