And just in time.
Rodgers' return from a fractured collarbone should provide a tidal wave of momentum ahead of Green Bay's winner-take-all clash with the Chicago Bears, a game that many will now expect the Packers to win to close out a wild season in the NFC North.
Packers head coach Mike McCarthy announced the return of his injured quarterback Thursday.
"We are preparing for the Chicago Bears with Aaron Rodgers as our starting quarterback," McCarthy said, via the Packers' official site. "We've done our due diligence. We've gone through all the evaluations. Aaron is ready to play."
With Rodgers back under center, the 7-7-1 Packers are now favorites to beat the 8-7 Bears on Sunday and clinch a home game in the NFC playoffs. A win in Chicago would also mean a third straight division title for Green Bay.
Rodgers' comeback figures to reignite an offense that was much less effective without him.
During Green Bay's first eight games, Rodgers led the Packers to the NFL's third-best offense in points (28.8/game), rushing yards (141.4) and third-down conversion percentage (46.4). Green Bay was also second in total yards (438.9) and fifth in passing yards (297.4).
Those numbers have declined over the last seven weeks, all without Rodgers.
After one start each from Seneca Wallace (0-1), two from Scott Tolzien (0-1-1) and four from Matt Flynn (2-2), the Packers have since dropped to ninth in scoring (25.6), fourth in total yards (395.4), eighth in passing yards (263.7), seventh in rushing (131.7) and 10th on third downs (40.4).
|QB Comparison, Green Bay Packers in 2013|
|*Injured Nov. 4|
The drops in the offensive rankings can be mostly attributed to the replacements at quarterback, who have expectedly struggled to keep up with Rodgers' earlier pace.
Wallace, Tolzien and Flynn combined to total just 1,760 net passing yards (251.4/game), eight touchdowns and nine interceptions over the last seven games. The Packers have averaged 21.7 points and 112.4 rushing yards, and the offense has converted on less than 35 percent of third downs over that same timespan.
On a more micro level, consider that the Packers have averaged 6.4 yards per play with Rodgers under center this season, and only 5.4 with any other quarterback. And according to ESPN Stats & Information, Rodgers is also good for nearly a full point per offensive drive:
One yard per play and one point per drive wouldn't appear to be wide improvements on the surface. But considering the Packers averaged 66 plays and over 11 possessions per game with Rodgers, the cumulative effect adds up quickly.
"Aaron obviously is very important to our team; history defines that clearly," McCarthy said.
Those improvements could add up especially fast against a Chicago defense that is allowing 35.6 points and 422.0 yards per game over the last five weeks.
Rodgers has enjoyed his share of success against the rival Bears, too.
Over 11 career games, Rodgers has eight wins, 19 touchdown passes and a passer rating of 102.1. He's completed 68.9 percent of his passes when facing Chicago, while also throwing less than one interception per game.
In fact, Rodgers has been so good of late against the Bears that Chicago hasn't beat the Packers in a game Rodgers has started and finished since September of 2010. Before his injury on Nov. 4, Rodgers had won six straight meetings and eight of the last nine against the Bears.
Chicago went on to beat the Packers in Week 9, a game in which Rodgers played just one series after Bears defensive end Shea McClellin sacked the Green Bay quarterback into the Lambeau Field turf. He hasn't played since.
The Packers offense now has a chance to be at its healthiest since that early November loss.
Running back Eddie Lacy has a troublesome ankle, but McCarthy said Thursday that he expects the front-runner for the NFL's Offensive Rookie of Year award to play against the Bears. Even with Rodgers back, a healthy Lacy would be expected to play a big role Sunday, as Chicago currently has the league's worst run defense.
That isn't just coach speak, either.
The Bears defense is ranked 32nd in rushing yards allowed (161.5) and yards per attempt (5.4), and 31st in rushing touchdowns allowed (21). Over the last five games, Chicago has given up an NFL-high 1,084 rushing yards, including a season-high 289 last Sunday night in Philadelphia.
Lacy, who is 88 yards shy of becoming the first Green Bay running back since Ryan Grant in 2009 to crack 1,200 rushing yards, rushed for a career-high 151 yards against the Bears earlier in the season. In fact, the Packers rushed for a season-high 199 yards during that 27-20 loss.
Even if Lacy can't go, the Packers would then call on James Starks, a starter on the 2010 Super Bowl team who is now averaging 5.2 yards per carry this season.
|Midgets of the Midway? Bears Defense, Last 5 Games|
|Points Allowed||Total Yards||Rushing Yards|
The return of another big name could help take some of the pressure off an uncertain backfield.
Receiver Randall Cobb has practiced each of the last two weeks and now appears closer than ever to coming off the injured reserve with designation to return list. He was hurt against the Baltimore Ravens in early October and hasn't played in the 10 games since.
At the time he was hurt, Cobb was on pace to catch 93 passes for 1,210 yards (both team highs) and six touchdowns. His biggest impact came from the slot, where Cobb had the NFL's fifth-best catch rate (76.5 percent) and seventh-highest yards-per-route-run average (2.10) this season, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
He can also help out in return game, although it is unlikely that the Packers would expose Cobb to any further risk on the punt or kick return units. His biggest impact would come on offense.
And what an offense the Packers could bring to Chicago, with Rodgers healthy, Lacy approaching 1,200 yards, Jordy Nelson, James Jones and Cobb back together and the emergence of both Jarrett Boykin (47 catches for 673 yards and three touchdowns) and Andrew Quarless (30 for 281 and two touchdowns).
Even if Rodgers deals with some early rust, the Packers have more than enough playmakers around him to keep everything moving until Rodgers gets comfortable.
The return of Rodgers also shifts the balance of quarterback play heavily back in Green Bay's direction.
Jay Cutler vs. Matt Flynn would have given the Bears the advantage, despite Cutler's historical struggles against the Packers. At home and in Marc Trestman's offense, Cutler would have been expected to beat Flynn, who was Green Bay's fourth option at quarterback and a player cut by both Buffalo and Oakland earlier this season.
Cutler vs. Rodgers is just as clear of an advantage for the Packers, who have dealt Cutler seven losses in eight tries. The Bears quarterback has tossed 16 interceptions against Green Bay—his most against any one opponent—and his passer rating when facing the Packers is just 61.5.
|Packed In: Jay Cutler vs. Green Bay Packers|
|Source: Pro Football Reference|
Since 2011—a span of three games—Cutler has thrown seven interceptions and completed just 51.8 percent of his passes against the Packers. He's 0-3 in those games with a passer rating of 54.2.
With Trestman and his ability to coach quarterbacks now in Chicago, Cutler shouldn't be expected to put together another clunker against Dom Capers' defense. But Cutler has been only marginally better this season compared to his entire career.
Cutler's passer rating in 2013 is 88.1, only four points above his career mark of 84.4. He's completing roughly two percent more of his passes, but his yards-per-attempt average is almost the same and the interceptions—11 in just 10 games—are still prevalent. Since returning two weeks ago, Cutler has tossed three picks—two of which have been returned for touchdowns.
For comparison's sake, consider that Rodgers has just one pick-six in his entire career, and he has just 12 total interceptions over the last two seasons combined.
Overall, Cutler has never led an offense to more than 21 points in any one game against the Packers. It might take at least that to beat the Packers on Sunday.
There's also no discounting the smaller positives Rodgers could bring, be it an increase in offensive plays, a decrease in time on the field for the defense, the benefit in terms of field position or increased efficiency in the red zone and on third down.
These small things are only part of the reason why McCarthy, who is always so selective in words, described his quarterback as the "best player in football" Thursday afternoon. His return might mean everything for the biggest game left on the 2013 schedule.
The overall effect of Rodgers should give the seven-win Packers a substantial advantage of the eight-win Bears on Sunday, in what is now the de facto NFC North title game.
An offense that got by with Flynn and a host of backups will now return one of the elite quarterbacks in the game and possibly get back the NFL's most dangerous slot receiver. It'll face a defense that has slumped to the bottom of the NFL in almost every important statistical category and a quarterback that hasn't beat Green Bay in over three years.
"We have a chance against our rivals," Rodgers said at his locker Thursday, via the Packers' official site. "What better way to go down there and get some redemption, and host a playoff game."
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