Rodgers, the team’s star quarterback and a two-time N.F.L. most valuable player, broke his collarbone in Week 6. Losing such a crucial player meant the Packers’ season was quickly written off by just about everyone, despite their 4-2 record.
But lo and behold, the Packers managed to hang around the N.F.C. playoff race, going 3-4 with Brett Hundley at quarterback. Hundley’s numbers were not great, but he and the team were good enough to stay alive and give Rodgers the opportunity to return as the savior.
Now Rodgers is off injured reserve and has been cleared to play on Sunday against the Carolina Panthers. The team has not announced if he will start this week, but fans are screaming for his return.
But the wild-card race is crowded; there are three teams ahead of the Packers at 9-4 or 8-5, and two other 7-6 teams. Only two of those will get in. The New York Times Playoff Machine gives the Packers only a 9 percent chance of getting into the postseason. Fivethirtyeight.com is even less optimistic, rating their chance at 6 percent.
With that many candidates, the calculus is fairly simple: The Packers are probably going to have to win all three of their remaining games. But if they do, they have a very good chance indeed: 92 percent, according to the Machine.
Of course, the news that a team only has to win out, doesn’t make it so. The Packers will begin with a stern test against the Panthers in Charlotte on Sunday. At 9-4, the Panthers are fighting for a division title.
Few players can affect a betting line as much as Rodgers; when he was hurt, the line on the team’s next game shifted by 10 points immediately. The line for Sunday’s game, surely influenced by Rodgers exuberance, opened with Carolina favored by only 1 or 2. But hard-nosed bettors have come down heavily for the Panthers. The line has moved significantly, to as much as 6.
The Packers then get to return home, but must play the Vikings, who lead the division by three games and look like Super Bowl contenders. Then it’s back on the road again to play the Lions, who, like the Packers, are 7-6 and fighting for the playoffs.
That’s three tough games. Even with Rodgers under center, it’s hard to see a clear path to 3-0.
But Rodgers has done something like this before. Last season, with the team 4-6, he spoke of running the table. Remarkably, the Packers did, winning six consecutive games and advancing to the conference championship.
Could the Packers sneak in with a 2-1 record this season? It’s not impossible, but they would need a lot of help, including a string of losses by teams like the Cowboys, the Lions, the Falcons and the Seahawks. The Machine says that if the Packers must lose, it would be best to lose to the Vikings, who they aren’t going to catch anyway. In that situation, the Packers have at least a puncher’s chance: about 8 percent.