It's probably only fitting that the already-battered Green Bay Packers would go into this season's final contest with a roster that is once again hurting.
During a year in which the Packers have been without Bryan Bulaga, DuJuan Harris, Casey Hayward, Jermichael Finley, Randall Cobb, Clay Matthews and Aaron Rodgers for a significant portion of the season, Green Bay will now take on the Chicago Bears in Week 17 with everything on the line—the NFC North title and a home playoff game—and more big names likely standing on the sidelines.
Rodgers, Matthews, Eddie Lacy and a number of complementary players are all dealing with their own bumps and recoveries.
Rodgers, who has missed seven straight games—and all but one series of another after fracturing his collarbone on Nov. 4—has an unknown status for Sunday. The Packers have been cautious with their $110 million asset, and it's unclear if he'll be medically cleared to start his first game in two months against the Bears.
Until the weekly guessing game is over, it should be assumed that Matt Flynn will start his fifth straight game Sunday. He is 2-2 with seven touchdowns, four interceptions and a passer rating of 86.1 since taking over.
A few other injuries are just as pressing.
Matthews lassoed down quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the first half of last Sunday's loss but re-injured his right thumb in the process.
The Packers outside linebacker originally broke the thumb during Week 5, then needed surgery to stabilize the bone and ended up missing four weeks. When he did return, a large cast made him largely ineffective, and only recently has Matthews started looking like the player he was to start the 2013 season.
He has a team-high 7.5 sacks.
It's safe to say the Packers won't have him available Sunday. But even though head coach Mike McCarthy called the problem a "repeat injury," he wasn't ready to make a definite ruling on Matthews Monday.
"His injury evaluation is still going on," McCarthy said, via the Packers' official site. "The training staff didn't feel very good about the injury, but we're still working through the process."
Ian Rapoport of NFL.com confirmed later Monday that Matthews did in fact rebreak his thumb, which would almost certainly keep him from playing Sunday or the next week if the Packers beat the Bears and move on the to the Wild Card Round of the NFC playoffs. Green Bay could put him on injured reserve as soon as this week.
Replacing Matthews has always been a difficult task, but the Packers can at least call on the likes of Mike Neal (five sacks), Nick Perry (four) or Andy Mulumba (zero). Each has played extensively at outside linebacker this season, although none of the three is a difference-making talent like a healthy Matthews. And Neal left last Sunday's loss with a stinger.
Earlier this season, the Packers went 3-1 and allowed an average of 315 yards and 22 points earlier in the season without Matthews. But the one loss did come at the hands of the Bears, who totaled 442 yards and six different scores in a 27-20 win.
Lacy's injury might actually be more important.
The rookie running back re-injured his right ankle against the Steelers. He came off the field in the fourth quarter and didn't return.
McCarthy didn't have a definitive answer to his status this week.
"Eddie is sore, which he has been pretty much the whole season," McCarthy said. "We're not going to practice on the field until Thursday, so I'll probably have a better feel for where he's at (then)."
Lacy has rushed for 1,112 yards and 10 touchdowns this season, each franchise rookie records. He's a front-runner to be the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year, and he's been vital to the Packers remaining competitive on offense without Rodgers.
Since Nov. 4, Lacy has 666 rushing yards, 830 total yards and seven touchdowns. He's fourth in rushing yards and tied for first in touchdowns (Zac Stacy, St. Louis Rams) over that eight-game span.
|Rookie Running: Eddie Lacy Since Week 9|
|Rushing TDs||7||1st (tied)|
|100-yard Games||3||5th (tied)|
|Source: Pro Football Reference|
His importance will be magnified against the Bears, who allowed Lacy to rush for a career-high 150 yards in the first meeting. Chicago is ranked dead last against the run this season, allowing 161.5 yards a game plus 21 touchdowns and a 5.4-yard average.
During their division-clinching opportunity in Philadelphia last week, the Bears gave up a season-high 289 rushing yards, including 100-yard outputs from both LeSean McCoy and Bryce Brown. Overall, Chicago has allowed 198 or more rushing yards in four of the last five games.
Without much doubt, a healthy Lacy would factor heavily into the Packers offensive game plan against the Bears Sunday. He has perfected patience in the zone run scheme—which is similar to what the Eagles run with Chip Kelly—and his ability to break tackles at the second level would set him up for potentially big numbers against Chicago.
If he can't go, the Packers would need a big day from backup James Starks.
Over 12 games this season, Starks has rushed for 405 yards and a career-high three touchdowns. He played the majority of the game in Week 2 after Lacy left with a concussion and rushed for 132 yards and a score. He also has four other games this season with 40 or more rushing yards, mostly in cleanup duty behind Lacy.
A violent, attacking runner, Starks has more than enough ability to rupture big plays against such a poor Bears run defense.
However, it's worth wondering if the Packers are simply too beat up across the board to go on the road to a division rival and win a playoff-like game.
In addition to Rodgers, Matthews and Lacy, Green Bay is dealing with injuries to Micah Hyde (shoulder) and Brad Jones (ankle/knee), two other starters.
Hyde has emerged as a valuable nickel corner and return man. He doesn't have a natural replacement in the defense, and the Packers are very limited in return options. A shoulder injury suffered on his 70-yard kickoff return in the fourth quarter last Sunday has made him questionable for Week 17.
Jones is more readily replaced, and the Packers defense might actually function better with athletic, big-hitting Jamari Lattimore inside. But Jones is still a starter, and the Packers would be mighty thin at inside linebacker if he can't play against the Bears. Lattimore, a former college defensive end, has battled his own injury issues this season.
It's also possible Cobb, who was originally placed on injured reserve with designation to return, won't be ready to come off the list by Sunday. He's practiced in a limited fashion over the last two weeks.
Of course, dealing with injury is nothing new to the Packers.
|Walking Wounded: Packers' Injuries in 2013|
|Player||Injury||No. Games Missed|
|QB Aaron Rodgers||Collarbone||7|
|LB Clay Matthews||Thumb||4|
|WR Randall Cobb*||Leg||10|
|TE Jermichael Finley*||Neck||9|
|CB Casey Hayward*||Hamstring||12|
|LT Bryan Bulaga*||Knee||15|
|RB DuJuan Harris*||Knee||15|
|WR James Jones||Knee||2|
|LB Nick Perry||Foot||5|
|*On Injured Reserve|
According to Tom Silverstein of the Journal-Sentinel, the Packers have had 12 starters miss 73 games, and 30 total players missed 153. Both figures compare favorably to 2012 and 2010, two other recent seasons in which the Packers were ravaged by injury.
This season hasn't been much different. In fact, the Packers went into last week with just 51 players on the active roster (they can have 53), mostly because Johnny Jolly and Brandon Bostick were both placed on season-ending injured reserve.
Overall, the Packers have 15 players on injured reserve. The 2010 team had placed 16 players on the list by the time Super Bowl XLV arrived. Matthews could eventually be No. 16 for this year's club.
"It's part of the journey. Every path is different, it comes at you so many ways," McCarthy said. "But it's an opportunity, particularly for our younger players, and we're counting on those guys to step up."
This Packers team came into the season beat up. Two starters—Bulaga and Harris—were placed on injured reserve before the calendar hit September.
The last four months have been more of the same, as Green Bay's once promising season has been consistently derailed by significant injury to irreplaceable players. Somewhat miraculously, the Packers still have a chance to win a division title in the season finale.
But to extend their season another week, Green Bay will once again need to overcome a litany of injuries. The 2013 Packers probably wouldn't have it any other way.
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