Pack take slim playoff hopes to Cleveland

Nobody on the Green Bay Packers’ coaching staff will be too upset with the defense at practice this week if the scout team moves the ball on them. They’ll be up against a pretty good quarterback.

Eight weeks after suffering a broken collarbone on his throwing side, quarterback Aaron Rodgers is back, practicing with the group of teammates simulating the offense that the Cleveland Browns will run Sunday afternoon at FirstEnergy Stadium.

Rodgers’ return is consistent with the initial guess that it would only happen this year if the team still had a shot at making the playoffs. He’s gone from “likely out for the season” on the injury report to this week’s “his rehabilitation is progressing and he is eligible to return Dec. 17.”

With a 6-6 record and three tough games following the Browns, the Packers’ playoff chances are still remote, although you don’t need a very long memory to say you’ve seen them pull it off before. If they go to Carolina at 7-6 with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, an entertaining finish to the season is assured.

The Packers earned their sliver of a morsel of a playoff shot with the 23-20 overtime victory over Tampa Bay last Sunday — an inelegant win, but unanimously more satisfying than the pretty loss at Pittsburgh. Quarterback Brett Hundley threw for just 84 yards with an interception but made big plays when it mattered.

Defensively, the Packers had seven sacks, including a combined 4.5 from Clay Matthews and Kenny Clark in their returns from injury. Defensive end Dean Lowry brought back a fumble 62 yards for a touchdown, and the special teams got into the act with Kyler Fackrell’s blocked punt.

The Browns don’t have to game plan for Rodgers, but they will have to deal with a mobile Hundley and not one, but two explosive running backs. Jamaal Williams ran for 113 yards and a score against the Bucs, and Aaron Jones, in his first game back from injury, closed it out on his only carry, a 20-yard TD romp in overtime.

Cleveland would seem to be the panacea for a Packers team desperately needing a win. The reliably dismal Browns haven’t been above .500 since 2007, a stretch during which they’ve gone 38-118. That’s 80 games below sea level, a .243 win percentage. They’ve won two of their last 39, with no wins this year.

There’s the rub. In the same vein that the Packers are fighting for their lives, Cleveland feels the heat of the countdown to infamy. The 0-12 Browns have four chances left to avoid joining the 1976 Tampa Bay Bucs and the 2008 Detroit Lions in the annals of futility. They will be pulling out all stops against Hundley and the Packers.

The Packers’ winning out to finish the season would be a feat comparable to their dramatic finish last year. Even with a healthy and sharp Rodgers back in business, though, the road is rocky, with games at Carolina and Detroit sandwiched around a home date with Minnesota. The Vikings’ defense keeps improving, as shown last week in holding Atlanta without a touchdown on its home field.

In the event that the Packers are one of multiple teams tied at 10-6, the hope is that they’re tied with Seattle and/or Carolina — both over which the Packers would hold the tie-breaker — and not New Orleans or Atlanta, who have the tie-breaker edge on the Packers.

The Packers may have left themselves with too many ifs on the table this time around, and the Rodgers issue is moot if they don’t take care of Cleveland. Sunday may not be a showdown for the ages, but for a Packers team that very recently looked lost, a December game with everything on the line is big enough.

Veteran sportswriter Gary Seymour’s column appears weekly in the Leader. He can be contacted at sports@wolfrivermedia.com.