Aaron Rodgers looks to take care of the Detroit Lions on Sunday. Raymond T. Rivard photograph

Aaron Rodgers returns as do the Green Bay Packers' playoff hopes

Screen Shot 2013-12-26 at 1.40.44 PMGreen Bay Packers Head Coach Mike McCarthy took the podium at 1265 Lombardi Avenue the day after Christmas and got right to the point.

The Packers are preparing to play the Chicago Bears for the NFC North Division Championship with Aaron Rodgers as their starting quarterback.

With McCarthy’s announcement the Packers went from a 4.5-point underdog to a three-point favorite to beat the Bears at Soldier Field.

Needless to say Rodgers is a game changer.

Packers Nation not only presumes Rodgers and his colleagues will defeat the Bears, but expectations of a lengthy playoff run are mounting. Can Aaron Rodgers, with a fragile collarbone, lead a 7-7-1 team with a 26th-ranked defense to Super Bowl XLVIII?

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

First things first, the Packers need to defeat the Bears before any talk of playoffs or a Super Bowl appearance.

In many regards the Bears and the Packers are very similar teams. Like the Packers, the Bears have a very good offense, ranked eighth overallthey can put up points through the air and on the ground. Their receivers are extra-large and their running attack is potent. The wild card is quarterback Jay Cutler. With his gunslinger approach he has nearly single-handedly dashed the Bears’ playoff hopes. Moreover, a once proud defense has slipped and sits at 29th in the league, just slightly better than the Packers’ defense.

The biggest difference between these two teams is momentum. Though both are coming off losses in week 16, the Packers have been scrapping for wins while Rodgers was out and rallied around the efforts of backup quarterback Matt Flynn. From the outside looking in the Packers are a cohesive unit that was simply trying to tread water until their once-MVP quarterback returned to the field.

The Bears and their head coach, Marc Trestman, had to choose between the athletic and emotional consistency of their backup quarterback and the big play potential, yet emotional and unstable Jay Cutler. Cutler won out and one would have to wonder if there is division in the Bears’ locker room.

So in essence the Packers are fit to rally around the return of Aaron Rodgers, while Cutler’s arrival has been ho-hum and questioned. Provided Rodgers can stay on the field Sunday this gives the Packers a definite edge.

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Dallas CowboysRodger’s homecoming to the Packers offense almost instantly makes them better. His quick release can take the pressure off the offensive line. Similarly, Rodgers’ ability to stretch the field and make all the throws opens up Eddie Lacy and the running game; when clicking, the Packers offense is hard to stop.

As always the elephant in the room is the often futile efforts of the Packers defense. Unlike Jay Cutler, who believes Aaron Rodgers return to the field has no bearing on him because he plays offense; many have argued that Rodgers’ on-field presence has a positive effect on the Packers defense.

Michelle Noyer-Granacki at Bleacher Report did a nice study following the November 24th game against the Vikings and analyzed the effect Rodgers’ absence had on the defense. The gist of her findings are that when Rodgers is in the game their defense spends less time on the field, plays fewer downs and their opponents subsequently run a reduced number of plays. The result is opposing offenses gain fewer yards, accumulate a reduced number of first downs, complete lower percentage of their passes, and their rushing attempts shrink.

Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

One could surmise that Rodgers’ uncanny ability to control the ball and dictate the flow of the game is a benefit to the Packers defense. The other take-away is that when Rodgers is under center the Packers are nearly always ahead in the second half. When Rodgers is out  the Packers have often been playing from behind, which allows their opponents the luxury of running the ball and the clock. The Packers often counter the run game by stacking the box which subjects them to getting beat by the deep ball.

Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

Aaron Rodgers makes the Green Bay Packers a better football team, period.

His superior skills as a quarterback make an already good offensive unit even better. His ability to manage a game and control the ball provides the entire team an advantage.

Eight games ago Rodgers went down after just one series. The Bears narrowly defeated the Packers 27-20 despite the fact that the Packers’ then-backup quarterback, Seneca Wallace, was ill-prepared to take over the offense.

Sunday with the division championship at hand one must believe the Packers are in a position to succeed. If Rodgers can stay healthy I like the Packers playoff future.

 

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Tags: Aaron Rodgers Green Bay Packers Jay Cutler

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