The 7-6-1 Green Bay Packers will have a huge game against the 6-8 Pittsburgh Steelers at snowy Lambeau Field on Sunday. Even with all the trials and tribulations of an injury-marred season, the Packers now control their own playoff destiny.
If the Packers can win their last two games of the regular season versus the Steelers on Sunday and then a week later against the rival Chicago Bears at Soldier Field, the NFC North title will be theirs.
That will be quite an accomplishment due to all the injuries that the team has had to overcome. The Packers already have 13 players on injured reserve and now will be adding defensive end Johnny Jolly, who suffered a neck injury last Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers has missed six straight games due to a fractured clavicle, plus wide receiver Randall Cobb has missed most of the season with a broken tibia, which he suffered in Week 6 against the Baltimore Ravens. Because of that injury, the Packers placed him on the injured reserve, designated to return list.
The good news for the Packers is that both Rodgers and Cobb have been practicing with the team as of late, although it appears that Rodgers has the best chance of getting back on the field first.
Maybe even this week.
Head coach Mike McCarthy talked about how good Rodgers looked in practice on Thursday, as he spoke to the media afterward, via Packers.com: "He looks sharp. He definitely looks better this week. He looks like he's ready to play."
But will No. 12 be activated to get on the field this Sunday versus the Steelers?
McCarthy answered that as well...sort of: "Aaron Rodgers practiced well today. We have the medical meetings on Wednesday and Friday, so we'll have a conversation tomorrow. Obviously, today he's still not medically cleared."
We will all find out the answer to that question on Friday, as Rodgers and McCarthy will meet with team doctor Patrick McKenzie to determine No. 12's playing status.
If Rodgers won't be able to play for a seventh consecutive week, the Packers will be led by Matt Flynn again at quarterback. In his three starts, Green Bay has won two consecutive games in a row, but that came after a disastrous outing in Detroit on Thanksgiving, when the Lions throttled the Packers 40-10.
But in the last two games, Flynn did a nice job of running the Packers offense. He threw five touchdown passes versus two picks for 557 yards against the Falcons and Cowboys.
He also helped the Packers forge a 26-26 tie against the Vikings in Week 12, as he entered the game in relief of quarterback Scott Tolzien in the third quarter with the Packers trailing 23-7.
Green Bay will be facing a formidable foe in the Steelers, who are ranked 11th in total defense in the NFL. Flynn and the Packers offense looked very good at times against the Falcons and Cowboys, but both of those teams are ranked near the bottom of the league in total defense.
For offensive success against the Steelers, the Packers have to continue to have a balanced offense, and that all starts with rookie running back Eddie Lacy.
Lacy has had a phenomenal season. Last week, he went over the 1,000-yard mark for the season, becoming the first Green Bay running back to accomplish that since the 2009 season. Overall in 2013, he has rushed for 1,028 yards and eight touchdowns and has a healthy 4.1 yards-per-carry average.
He has also caught 31 passes for an additional 236 yards.
No. 27 has not practiced all week due to an ankle sprain he suffered against the Falcons, and on Thursday, he wore a support boot to take stress off the ankle sprain.
Lacy is still expected to start against the Steelers, as McCarthy explained:
Just being smart with him. I'm not concerned. He's been through all the walk-throughs. This is pretty similar to the plan we had for Eddie last week, so we'll evaluate him in the morning and see what his practice reps will be.
If Flynn is the starting quarterback instead of Rodgers, the Packers should expect to see the Steelers put eight men in the box to try and stop the Packers running game, which is now seventh in the NFL, as they average just more than 130 yards per game.
Lacy is a big part of the reason why, as he is one of the leading candidates to be the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2013.
Last week in the game against the Cowboys, the Packers were down 26-3 at halftime. Things looked bleak for the green and gold. But Lacy jump-started the Packers' come-from-behind victory by busting out a 60-yard run on the first play from scrimmage in the second half.
That was the start of great things to come for the Packers in the second half. Flynn added four touchdown passes, while Lacy scored the winning touchdown, as Green Bay stormed back to beat Dallas 37-36 at AT&T Stadium.
Against the Steelers, the Packers will need the type of performance Lacy had in the game against the Cowboys, when he gained 141 yards on just 21 carries. In the six games that Rodgers has missed due to his collarbone injury, Lacy has rushed for 432 yards in 114 attempts. That adds up to a 3.8 yards per carry average.
Based on the season so far, Lacy should be able to have a good game on Sunday.
The Steelers currently rank 19th in the league in run defense, as they have given up an average of 115.6 yards a game. That's why the Packers can expect to see hard-hitting safety Troy Polamalu up near the line of scrimmage, especially if Flynn is under center.
Pittsburgh will dare him to beat its eighth-ranked pass defense.
If Rodgers takes the snaps, the Steelers won't be as aggressive in defending the run, especially since they know how lethal Rodgers can be in the passing game, as evidenced by his MVP performance against them in Super Bowl XLV.
The Steelers rank 18th in total offense in the NFL but have been improving steadily over the past few weeks, with the team running the no-huddle offense quite a bit in that time.
Like the Packers, Pittsburgh has endured a number of injuries to key personnel, especially on the offensive line. It currently has 12 players on injured reserve.
The Steelers also have a fine rookie running back in Le'Veon Bell, who has rushed for 646 yards and six touchdowns and also has 43 receptions for 388 additional yards.
The good news for Green Bay is that Bell is only averaging 3.3 yards per carry and the Steelers rank only 31st in the NFL in running the football. That is welcome news for the Packers, who have seen the rushing defense drop from fourth in the NFL prior to the game against the Bears—where Rodgers injured his collarbone—to 25th.
The weather forecast is calling for snow this Sunday at Lambeau Field. The game between the Packers and Steelers will be close, and it may come down to who wins the turnover battle.
Both teams are ranked near the bottom of the league in terms of creating turnovers, but the Packers have been much better as of late. Both of their back-to-back wins versus the Falcons and Cowboys were partly due to getting turnovers late in the game.
That may be what happens this Sunday, and it could make the difference in the outcome. Because with or without Rodgers, the Packers must win if they expect to keep their playoff aspirations in their own hands.
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