GREEN BAY — They all saw him at practice on Saturday morning, slinging the ball all over Clarke Hinkle Field, sending passes arching through the clear blue skies and looking like, well, himself.
For the Green Bay Packers, watching Aaron Rodgers’ first practice since breaking his collarbone was another reminder of what they’ve known all along over these past six weeks — that if they could just win enough games without him, then maybe, just maybe, Rodgers would come back in time to save their season and send them to the playoffs once again.
A day later, by their own admission, there wasn’t much pretty about the Packers’ 26-20 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Lambeau Field. It certainly wasn’t the type of game they’ve grown accustomed to with Rodgers, who has been designated for return from injured reserve but is still at least a week away from being cleared for game action.
Without him, backup quarterback Brett Hundley threw for only slightly more total yards (84) in the game than one of Rodgers’ patented Hail Marys usually flies. The defense, the running game and special teams had to carry the day, a rarity in these parts. And the Packers needed overtime to defeat a team they might’ve beaten by three touchdowns had their two-time NFL MVP been on the field.
Nevertheless, the Packers did what they had to do: They won, climbing back to .500 at 6-6, and they kept alive their NFC playoff hopes as their await their hero’s hopefully-triumphant return.
“It actually was pretty impressive,” said Rodgers’ friend/teammate/part-time commercial co-star Clay Matthews — speaking of Rodgers’ practice, not of Sunday’s win. “He was throwing just as high, if not higher than what you saw in Detroit a couple years ago. I don’t know, I’m not the head coach, I don’t know what his scans say, but he looks good.
“Obviously, Aaron’s the guy in Green Bay. I mean, there’s no doubt about it. He’s the guy throughout the NFL, arguably one of the best quarterbacks in the game right now. And he’s kind of carried this team for the better part of 10 years. But for us to kind of grind these games out … I think we realize we have to find a way to steal a few plays here and there. Hopefully, that pays dividends when he is — if he is — able to come back, just because I think we’ve had to overcome a lot of adversity.”
That they have, as Sunday marked just the Packers’ second victory since Rodgers fractured his right collarbone on Oct. 15 at Minnesota. In the interim, the Vikings (10-2) have all but locked up the NFC North, but coach Mike McCarthy’s non-scientific playoff formula — 10 wins and you’re in — is still in play. And after last week’s last-second loss at Pittsburgh, the Packers knew that meant winning out, as they did a year ago after Rodgers’ run-the-table premonition.
“Our first objective is to get to 10 wins, and we’ve got to win them all to get to 10 wins. Ten is a magic number when talking about playoffs,” said Hundley, who directed a tying 70-yard field goal drive and a 72-yard winning touchdown drive in overtime after the offense went three-and-out on the Packers’ previous three second-half possessions. “We’re just trying to get there. If we can get there then we can start worrying about what happens from there.
“I really don’t care how we got it done, but we got it done, (and) that’s all that matters.”
The formula Sunday included linebacker Kyler Fackrell blocking a punt to give the offense a short field en route to a Jamaal Williams 1-yard touchdown plunge; defensive end Dean Lowry’s improbable 62-yard fumble return for a touchdown; Williams (21 carries, 113 yards), fellow rooking running back Aaron Jones (one carry for the game-winning 20-yard touchdown in OT) and Hundley (seven rushes for 66 yards, including multiple big gains on read-option plays) combining for a season-high 199 total rushing yards; and the defense registering a season-high seven sacks, with 2.5 coming from Matthews in his return from a groin injury.
“I would definitely classify that as a grind-it-out victory. One we needed, we had to have,” McCarthy said. “Anytime you win, it’s confidence. How you win maybe gives you more confidence. So the fact you can win a different way, and you find a different way to win, it only galvanizes your football team and spreads the confidence throughout the locker room. When you have to win just one way, you know, you have to get the game to go down that road. But if you can find different ways to win, it makes your football team better over the long run.”
Asked what having Rodgers back at practice meant to his team, McCarthy said he looked “great,” and smiled.
“I think it definitely gives your football team a shot,” McCarthy said. “I know it was good for everybody and it was really good for him, too. I know he really enjoyed being back out there at practice.”
But with four games to go — at Cleveland next Sunday, at Carolina Dec. 17 in what could be Rodgers’ return, at home against the Vikings on Dec. 23 and at Detroit on Dec. 31 — they know there’s more work to be done.
“When he’s back at practice, he brings a great energy,” Hundley said. “We’re just praying that he gets better as fast as possible. But in the meantime, we’ve got to win games. That’s what it comes down to.”