Week 15 Preview: Aaron's Return Inspires Hope

“Hope is a dangerous thing,” Morgan Freeman mutters to Tim Robbins in The Shawshank Redemption. “Hope can drive a man insane.”

For two months, it seems like we’ve been holding on to an increasingly insane version of hope. The 2017 season has been all but lost for most of that time, with the Packers teetering on the brink of mathematical elimination from the playoffs for weeks now.

But at that very brink, Aaron Rodgers now returns. If he’s indeed Gandalf the White like Josh Norman says, he could be coming back at the turn of the tide.

The road ahead for the Packers is arduous. They need three wins against three teams with records above .500. Two of those three games will be on the road. One will be against the team that sent Rodgers to injured reserve to begin with. On top of that, they need a lot of help from other teams as well.

But to the extent that they can, the Packers are in control. ESPN’s Rob Demovsky reports the Packers would have a nearly 90% chance of making the playoffs if they win out. Those are hard odds to ignore, and it’s more than enough to let a little hope creep back into the picture.

Yes, it’s going to be hard for the Packers to get to the playoffs. Yes, they need help to get there. But with Rodgers back, the Packers have hope. And hope, can also be a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.

Five Things to Think about During Sunday’s Game

1 - ESPN’s Power Football Index gives Green Bay an 89 percent chance to make the postseason if the Packers win their next three games. Given that the Packers are currently ninth in the NFC standings and only the top six teams make the playoffs, it’s impressive the odds would even be that high.

2 - After last week’s comeback victory over the Browns, the Packers have now achieved something for the first time in team history. Green Bay has won three games this season when they’ve trailed by 14-plus points.

3 - The Packers have won six straight games in the month of December, with their last loss in the year’s final month coming against the Cardinals in 2015. Since Mike McCarthy was named head coach in 2006, Green Bay holds the league’s second-best record (35-13) in the month of December.

4 - Panthers sack artist and former Packers defender Julius Peppers needs just a half a sack to become the fourth player since 1982 to record ten seasons of double digit sacks. Peppers signed a one-year, $3.5 million contract with Carolina this offseason after finishing a three-year, $26 million contract with Green Bay.

5 - How many points will it take to beat the Panthers? 21? 28? The Packers have scored over 23 points in five road games, tied for the best mark in the NFL. Green Bay’s only road contest this season where they failed to score 23 was against the Vikings when Rodgers exited early with the infamous collarbone injury.

Who Could Be an X-Factor?

Jon says Jordy Nelson

Through five games with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, Jordy Nelson had nabbed six touchdowns and was on pace for a respectable, if slightly diminished, year. With Rodgers out of the lineup for the past two months, though, Nelson has looked every bit a 32-year old receiver with a surgically repaired knee.

Nelson still has the skills to destroy zone defenses, though, and with Rodgers back he could again become a dangerous part of the passing game.

Gary says Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones

The Packers running game will likely spend most of the week being largely ignored by the media because of Rodgers’ return to the lineup. However, this pair of rookie running backs has helped keep this team afloat while Rodgers healed.

This season, Green Bay has scored touchdowns on ten play drives ten different times, the third best mark in the league. While keeping the ball away from Aaron Rodgers has proven to be one way to beat the Packers, a strong running game helps counteract an opponent’s plan to play keep away.

What Happened Last Time the Packers and Panthers Played?

The last time the Packers and Panthers met, the 2015 was just beginning to take a turn for the worse. The Packers opened the season 6-0, but following their Week 7 bye, they were destroyed on the road in Denver.

They fell behind early in Carolina in Week 9, only to mount a nearly miraculous comeback. Thanks to a few key completions by Aaron Rodgers and at least one heroic catch by James Jones, the Packers rallied to within eight points with just under four minutes to go.

After a key Damarious Randall interception, the Packers found themselves deep in Panthers territory, and just a few plays later found themselves in a goal-to-go situation. After a few failed shots at the end zone, it all came down to 4th and goal from the 4-yard line.

And then it happened: Aaron Rodgers got scared.

Who’s Going to Win on Sunday?

Jon says the Packers will win somehow.

Sooner or later, the Packers are going to stop bouncing back in do-or-die situations. They battled back from the brink in 2010, staved off the loss of Aaron Rodgers in 2013, survived a rough patch to make the playoffs in 2015, and ran the table in 2016. At some point, they’re just going to run out of chance.

This year may be that time, but I don’t think it will happen as a result of Aaron Rodgers’ first game back. Sure, the Panthers are a very good team, but I don’t want to be the guy who bets against Rodgers in his first game back.

Gary says the Packers win comfortably.

Aaron Rodgers’ return changes almost everything about this Green Bay team. While Rodgers was away, McCarthy and the coaching staff likely had to work a little harder to create opportunities for the Packers to score and stay in games. We will see Sunday just how much of that work will carry over with the game’s best quarterback at the helm.

I had the pleasure of being in attendance for the 2015 matchup at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, and I saw firsthand the light bulb that went on when the Packers’ offense started to move the ball against the Panthers. Not much has changed for Carolina on the defensive side of the ball from a personnel perspective since then, so it’s likely Green Bay at least has a good sense of what may and may not work this time around.

Given the momentum shift that Rodgers’ return will provide, I think this one goes the Packers’ way.

For Further Listening

This week on Blue 58, we took a look at the Panthers, who figure to be a formidable opponent for the Packers. Their success on defense all starts up front. Listen along with us below: