Silverstein: With the return of a few injured players, this Packers team could be special
GREEN BAY - Now that Goal No. 1 (the NFC North title) and Goal No. 2 (NFC home-field advantage) have been achieved, the Green Bay Packers have established themselves as a favorite to win Super Bowl LVI.
It’s not so different from where they were a year ago, when they were the No. 1 seed in the NFC, or the year before that, when they were the No. 2 seed.
Both of those seasons ended at the site of the NFC championship game, but in both of those instances the Packers did not enter the playoffs with an ace up their sleeve. They were exactly who many thought they were, a good but not special team.
If they’re going to be special this time around, they’re going to need some combination of Jaire Alexander, Za’Darius Smith, David Bakhtiari, Billy Turner, Randall Cobb and Josh Myers back on the field when they play in a divisional round game the weekend of Jan. 22-23.
Following the Packers’ home-field-clinching 37-10 victory Sunday night over a hapless Minnesota Vikings team missing its starting quarterback, nose tackle and a cornerback, quarterback Aaron Rodgers said Cobb’s return is imminent and Alexander’s is getting close.
He said Bakhtiari has made progress after two setbacks with his surgically repaired knee and believes there’s a chance Smith could return from a back injury that has allowed him to practice just twice since the players reported for training camp in July.
In less than a minute, Rodgers provided more information on those players than coach Matt LaFleur has all season, and for the first time in a while the prospect of three Pro Bowlers, a three-year starter on the offensive line and a second-round pick isn’t a flip of the coin.
“I really feel like there's a possibility to get a few of those guys back for the stretch run,” Rodgers said after completing 29 of 38 passes for 288 yards and two touchdowns. “And that's exciting. We'll see this week where those guys are at, but it'd be fun to get those guys back.
“Obviously, Randall is going to be back, whether or not he plays this week. It's kind of up to him and the medical staff. But you know, you think about ‘Z’ and Jaire and David and Josh, you know, that could make things really interesting for us on both sides of the ball.”
It could make the Packers more than interesting, it could make them special.
The Packers had the makings of a special team when the season started, but they kept losing some of their best players as the season went while at the same time waiting for Bakhtiari — the best left tackle in football — to return from a torn ACL he suffered around Christmas of 2020.
Smith bowed out after 18 snaps against New Orleans in Week 1 and had to have surgery, leaving his entire season in doubt.
Alexander was lost to a right shoulder separation against Pittsburgh in Week 4 and after a month of rehab decided to forgo surgery and pursue a return. He has been practicing for three weeks — the first week of which was just individual drills — and was activated Wednesday. He was added to the COVID-19 list Sunday, but he could be back in time for practice Wednesday if he’s asymptomatic. He has been playing both cornerback and receiver as part of his rehab.
Myers suffered a left knee injury Oct. 17 that the Packers or Myers’ representatives have refused to identify, and he first showed his face in practice the week of the Christmas Day Cleveland game, albeit only as part of the rehab group working out on the side.
Left guard/tackle Elgton Jenkins tore an ACL against Minnesota on Nov. 21 and won’t be back this season.
Bakhtiari started practicing Oct. 20, was activated Nov. 10 and then became a no-show the next three weeks, during which news of him having another procedure on the knee leaked. He returned to practice Dec. 15 and then mysteriously disappeared two days later and has only been seen on the sideline at games.
But apparently he’s nearing return.
“Dave’s been progressing, doing some stuff on the side,” Rodgers said.
Cobb and Turner both suffered injuries over the last month — Cobb a core muscle strain that required surgery and Turner a left knee injury believed to be a torn MCL. Cobb returned to practice ahead of the Vikings game and Turner joined Myers in the rehab group at practice, so he’s making progress with his recovery.
“I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn that there's a possibility for all four of those guys (Smith, Alexander, Bakhtiari and Myers to return),” Rodgers said. “Randall, for sure, is coming back and he looks great. I mean, I would have thought if this game was a playoff game he would be out there on the field.
“So, it's exciting, knowing that there's a good deal of guys who are close to coming back and may come back and could really help us.”
There’s some question how far the Packers could go as is.
They’ve ground through the last three games, taking a long time to beat Chicago, holding off Baltimore at the end of the game and needing four interceptions to beat Cleveland by two points at home.
The victory over the Kirk Cousins-less Vikings was nothing to write home about either. It was 6-0 midway through the second quarter before the Packers put together three touchdown drives in a row to blow Mike Zimmer’s team out of Lambeau Field and send it home 7-9 and with no chance of making the postseason.
Given the Packers have home-field advantage locked up, next Sunday’s game against the 2-13-1 Lions means nothing in the standings. But it could be the precursor to the Packers getting some of their best players back, even if it’s only for a few series.
How much guys who have been sidelined for most of the season can help the Packers is up for debate. Rodgers came back from a broken collarbone in 2013 and in his first game back threw the winning touchdown pass to Cobb in Chicago that secured a playoff berth.
In 2017, Rodgers came back from another broken collarbone but wasn’t close to the same guy and couldn’t push the Packers over Carolina in a loss that knocked them out of the playoffs.
Both times, however, it gave the team the confidence it had a chance to win. The return of Pro Bowl players such as Smith, Alexander and Bakhtiari doesn’t guarantee great production from any of them, but it does add something just having them around.
“I felt that when I came back for that Week 17 game vs. Chicago in 2013, it gave us an extra jolt,” Rodgers said. “Like when they knew I was on the field, my guys expected us to win. Same thing in Carolina. Now I didn’t play well in Carolina, but I think there was an expectation like ‘OK, No. 12 is back, this means something. We’re going to win.'
“I think there is that psychological boost when you see a No. 69 (Bakhtiari) or 55 (Smith), 23 (Alexander) and see those guys return. I think it means something and those guys can take some comfort in that as I did when I came back that you’re giving your teammates some confidence by putting your jersey on and being back on the field.”
This team already knows it can win — it’s won so many tough games: at San Francisco, at Cincinnati, at Arizona, at Baltimore, vs. the Los Angeles Rams — that even if those injured players can’t come back or aren’t effective, it doesn’t mean the regular season was for naught.
It’s one reason LaFleur can feel pretty good about going into the playoffs with this group. With some of the excellence it is missing, this group has managed to compete in every game but one.
“It's hard to win one game in this league,” receiver Davante Adams said after breaking his franchise record for receptions. “So, to be able to do that (win home-field advantage) back-to- back years and then come in Week 1 and kind of get blown out the way we did (38-3 loss to New Orleans) and take a strong look in the mirror and then come back and deal with injuries, I mean, some of our best players have missed the like significant time. Hopefully, we get these guys coming back here shortly.
“But just being in the type of environment that we've been in, whether it was going on the road, playing some of these games in these hostile environments, or just battling through what we battled through or just kind of ups and downs within a game. We've kind of seen it all at this point.
“So, we’re definitely ready for this stretch.”