The biggest surprise in the return of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers to the Packers' starting lineup is that head coach Mike McCarthy didn't look happier announcing it. This is a move that has significantly altered the NFC playoff picture. It's a decision that makes Green Bay as dangerous as they were in 2010, when they went from being an unheralded wild-card team to a Super Bowl champion. Maybe McCarthy didn't want to show too much excitement during his Thursday afternoon press conference, but he has to love his chances going forward.
As much as people want to ponder the outcome of Green Bay's regular-season finale with the Chicago Bears -- a contest that will determine the NFC North champion on Sunday -- there really isn't much to debate now. The Packers have arguably the best quarterback in the league back under center. The Bears had a chance to win their division outright last Sunday night, right before the Philadelphia Eagles beat them 54-11. You can talk about the possibility of anything happening in a rivalry game all you want. There is no way the Packers lose this game on Sunday.
The more intriguing question is what they are capable of once the playoffs begin. Even in a stacked NFC, there isn't a team that Green Bay can't beat with Rodgers in the lineup. They were 5-2 before he broke his collarbone in a 27-20 loss to Chicago on Nov. 4, with both losses coming on the road to playoff teams (a 34-28 defeat at San Francisco and a 34-30 loss at Cincinnati). They've also shown plenty of heart to stay alive the past three weeks, particularly in overcoming a 23-point halftime deficit in a 37-36 win over Dallas on Dec. 15.
The Packers should've been dead after going five straight weeks without a win following Rodgers' injury. Now they've found new life at a time when most people were probably wondering if Rodgers would ever return this year. The Packers had been waiting to see if he was capable of playing for most of the past three weeks until finally receiving clearance from team doctors on Tuesday. As McCarthy said, "This has been a stressful period for him."
"I felt like he looked like he was ready to play and now he is ready to play," McCarthy added. "He's thrown the ball very well going on three weeks. He's been working his feet, working his conditioning and getting ready for this moment. And the moment is here."
It really is difficult to believe Rodgers wouldn't have been playing this weekend. He'd waited too long and the stakes had become too high. The more the NFC North title window remained open -- with Detroit blowing its opportunity before Chicago ruined its chance at clinching -- the more Rodgers had to be praying for one last shot at redemption. The Packers had gone about as far as they could go with Matt Flynn running their offense.
We all know that the major challenge here, aside from Rodgers sustaining another injury, is rust. Few quarterbacks can be sidelined for seven weeks and not expect to lose a little bit of efficiency in their game.
"Aaron is a seasoned pro who knows the offense in and out," McCarthy said. "It's the little things [that will make the difference]. It's getting back into the fine details of the offense."