Head coach Mike McCarthy says the Green Bay Packers are in the semifinals of the makeshift tournament that is the race to the finish for the NFC North title.
Green Bay may have to wait until the championship bout to have its slugger ready for action.
Not that McCarthy is going to allow his players to look ahead to a potentially juicy showdown with the rival Bears in Chicago to end the regular season Dec. 29.
To have any shot of coming out of seemingly nowhere to play for a third straight division title, the Packers probably have to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday at Lambeau Field.
"It's a game we have to have," McCarthy said Wednesday. "It's at home. It's against a physical football team. So, we're just kind of staying on target (with) what's right in front of us."
At 7-6-1 on the strength of one-point comeback victories the last two weeks, Green Bay trails division leader Chicago (8-6) by a half game. Both teams control their destiny, whereby winning their remaining two games would give one or the other the outright title.
The third-place Detroit Lions (7-7) are on the outside looking in for the time being after falling at home in the closing seconds to the Baltimore Ravens on Monday night. The Lions could overtake the two teams in front of them by winning their last two games and having the Bears and Packers lose once.
As close to a must-win scenario Green Bay has for the interconference matchup with the AFC North's Steelers (6-8) this weekend, it isn't necessarily going all in.
Star quarterback Aaron Rodgers still hasn't received medical clearance to resume playing. Rodgers, who has been sidelined since suffering a broken collarbone Nov. 4, is on a similar rehab, practice and evaluation schedule as he was last week.
If the rest of this week plays out the same, that would mean Rodgers' having to receive unhappy news from team doctor Pat McKenzie on Friday and be told the team must sit him for a seventh consecutive game.
"We're going to take the week," McCarthy said after practice Wednesday. "We're going to take the same process or a similar process that we took last week.
"Aaron is doing better," McCarthy added. "(But) he still has not been cleared by the medical staff. He was a limited practice participant (today), so a similar work pattern that he did last week. (He) threw the ball extremely well, looked sharp. He's getting better."
And, like last week, the team pushed back Rodgers' usual weekly media availability on Wednesday to Thursday.
That left replacement quarterback Matt Flynn to hold court with a big group of reporters Wednesday and repeat lines similar to what he uttered before the last three games.
"My mindset is I'm starting (Sunday)," Flynn said. "Obviously, we all hope Aaron plays, but my mindset is I'm starting, just so I can prepare myself."
Flynn is on a two-game roll in the starter's role, rallying the Packers back from double-digit halftime deficits to the narrow victories over Atlanta and Dallas, the latter of which resulted in a 37-36 win after the Packers trailed 26-3 at halftime against the Cowboys on the road.
Rodgers jumped in for a few team reps with the first-string offense in practice Wednesday, but the workload was in Flynn's favor for being sufficiently prepared to go against the Steelers if that call is made later this week.
"(We) don't really know what's going on with (Rodgers) and his status, but I think everybody's kind of got prepared to go forward with Matt, and I think he's earned the chance to be that guy until Aaron is ready," right guard T.J. Lang said.
"(A) tough, tough situation he's in," Lang added about the ongoing saga for Rodgers. "He's been wanting to play for a couple weeks now. He's just got to make sure that everybody's on the same page - medical staff, (general manager) Ted Thompson, Mike, all those guys are comfortable with the decision. But, until he gets back, Matt's done a nice job."
The best news of Wednesday was receiver Randall Cobb received the go-ahead from the medical staff to practice with his teammates again.
McCarthy said Cobb participated in limited fashion as the playmaker took the next step toward possibly playing again this season. Cobb is on the injured reserve-designated to return list, sidelined since he sustained a fractured tibia in his right leg in the Oct. 13 win at Baltimore.
"I'm really just taking it day to day now, just trying to get back to the flow of practice and get back to doing team things," Cobb said.
While encouraged by his work Wednesday and his progress in the recovery from the injury, Cobb made it clear that he hasn't been cleared for game-day action, whether it's Sunday or the following week at Chicago. He started running again only last week.
"You've got to be fearless playing this game, and I have to get to a point where I'm not thinking about my knee and I'm not worried about what I'm doing on the field," Cobb said.
SERIES HISTORY: 33rd regular-season meeting. Packers lead series, 18-14. Pittsburgh has won the last three regular-season encounters, including a 20-10 outcome in its most recent visit to Green Bay in 2005. The Packers, however, prevailed in the teams' last matchup - 31-25 in Super Bowl XLV on Feb. 6, 2011, at Cowboys Stadium in North Texas. It's the only time the championship-rich teams have met in the postseason.
--Eddie Lacy is refusing to make a big deal out of a few choice words uttered by Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin this week.
Tomlin told reporters in Pittsburgh that "it was an easy decision for me" to take fellow halfback Le'Veon Bell over Lacy when the Steelers had the No. 48 overall pick in the second round of the NFL Draft in April.
Bell and Lacy, who went to the Packers late in the second round at No. 61, were the second and third running backs taken in the draft after the Cincinnati Bengals selected Giovani Bernard at No. 37.
With two weeks left in the regular season, Lacy has outperformed Bernard, Bell and every other back in this year's rookie class. Green Bay hosts Bell and the Steelers on Sunday at Lambeau Field.
Lacy leads all rookies with 1,028 rushing yards, ranking seventh in the league. He needs only 78 yards to break John Brockington's team rookie record of 1,105 rushing yards in 1971.
When asked Wednesday about Tomlin's perceived slight, Lacy responded, "That doesn't say nothing to me. They picked the guy they wanted, and I landed here. I'm very happy here, and I'm doing good here. So, I think it worked out for me.
"You can use (Tomlin's comments) for motivation, but I'm not one to use external factors for motivation."
Lacy received NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors Wednesday after he rushed for 141 yards - his second-highest output this season - in Green Bay's 37-36 comeback victory at Dallas last Sunday. Lacy's one-yard touchdown run with less than two minutes left decided the outcome after the Packers erased a 26-3 halftime deficit.
"Eddie is a special player," said Matt Flynn, the Packers' starting quarterback the last three games with Aaron Rodgers sidelined because of a broken collarbone. "I have a front-row seat to watch him run, and it's fun. Right now in December, you've got to have it - you've got to have the running game."
Flynn also was nominated for the offensive player of the week award. He engineered five straight touchdown drives in the second half of Sunday's game against the Cowboys, finishing 26-of-39 passing for 299 yards and four touchdowns.
--Packers head coach Mike McCarthy admitted Wednesday that he is "concerned about a letdown" for his team going into Sunday's game after it matched the biggest comeback for victory in team history last time out.
"History will tell you your team is open for that," McCarthy said. "Any time you rise to a level of performance that our team rose to in the second half (Sunday) you have to be ready for a letdown. So, that's something I look at every single week when I set the practice plan, exactly how much we're going to do, and we address it with our football team."
Green Bay can ill afford to stumble against the Steelers in its final home game of the regular season.
By rallying late for a pair of one-point wins the last two weeks on the heels of a five-game winless streak, the Packers are in contention for a third straight NFC North title. They are 7-6-1, a half game behind front-runner Chicago (8-6).
Green Bay will play the Bears in Chicago in the regular-season finale Dec. 29, but a loss to Pittsburgh this weekend could crush the Packers' division-title aspirations. The Bears would wrap up the division with a win Sunday night at Philadelphia and losses by Green Bay and third-place Detroit (7-7), which also plays earlier in the day.
If the Bears lose to the Eagles, a win by Detroit at home over the New York Giants coupled with a Packers loss to the Steelers would put the Lions in the driver's seat to win the division if they were to prevail at Minnesota in Week 17.
"We can't afford to lose (Sunday)," Packers right guard T.J. Lang said. "These last two weeks, (with) come-from-behind wins, it's been a lot of fun. (But) we've got to make sure our focus is on this week."
--History is on Green Bay's side to avoid that feared letdown this weekend.
The Packers have never lost their final regular-season home game in McCarthy's tenure since 2006.
Green Bay's winning streak in regular-season home finales is at eight games, going back to 2005. That's the second-longest active streak in the league - the Baltimore Ravens have won 10 in a row.
The Packers' last loss in their final home game of the regular season was 28-25 to the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2004.
BY THE NUMBERS: 50 - Average number of points scored by the Packers in their final regular-season home game the past two seasons. They outlasted the Detroit Lions 45-41 in the 2011 season and pounded the Tennessee Titans 55-7 last year.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's tough rooting for other teams in the league. But, hey, man, late in the season, you're going to take any help you can get. ... (We) got a little help from Baltimore. That's nice. But, we understand we still have to take care of our business. So, getting a little help definitely was nice, but it still comes down to what we do on Sundays, not what other teams do." - Right guard T.J. Lang, on watching with delight the Ravens' 18-16, last-minute win at Detroit on Monday night that aided Green Bay's pursuit of the NFC North title.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--RB Eddie Lacy was named NFC Offensive Player of the Week on Wednesday, the first such honor for the rookie. Lacy's one-yard touchdown run with less than two minutes to play capped Green Bay's incredible comeback from a 26-3 halftime deficit as it pulled out a 37-36 win at Dallas on Sunday. He finished with 171 yards from scrimmage, including 141 rushing yards, and became only the second Packers rookie to hit the 1,000-yard rushing plateau in a season. Lacy didn't practice Wednesday for precautionary reasons as he deals with a lingering sprained right ankle. Lacy is expected to be OK for Sunday's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
--ILB A.J. Hawk needs only 11 tackles to set Green Bay's all-time record. Hawk, who has a team-high 138 tackles this season, has 1,010 tackles in his eight-year pro career. He is on the heels of former teammate Nick Barnett, who ranks No. 2 in team annals with 1,014 tackles. John Anderson is the record holder with 1,020. Hawk has produced at least 10 tackles in eight games this season.
--DE Josh Boyd has played his way into the rotation on the defensive line down the stretch in what had previously been a mostly obscure rookie season for the fifth-round draft pick out of Mississippi State. The 6-foot-3, 310-pound Boyd was in for a season-high 32 plays on defense in the 37-36 comeback win at Dallas on Sunday, capitalizing on the opportunities that came after veteran starter Johnny Jolly sustained a game-ending shoulder injury in the first quarter. Boyd came up with three solo tackles (one for loss) and one hit on Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo.
--QB Aaron Rodgers (collarbone) still hadn't been cleared by the team's medical staff Wednesday, creating uncertainty yet again whether this will be the week he's able to resume playing. Rodgers practiced in limited fashion Wednesday as the Packers get ready to host the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday. A determination likely won't be made until Friday at the earliest for Rodgers' status against the Steelers after he's missed the last six games because of the fractured collarbone on his non-throwing left side. For now, Matt Flynn is preparing to make another start this weekend.
--WR Randall Cobb (leg) practiced Wednesday for the first time since he suffered a broken tibia in the Oct. 13 win at Baltimore. Head coach Mike McCarthy said afterward that Cobb, who remains on the injured reserve-designated to return list, would have been classified as a limited participant on the injury report. It's unclear whether Cobb would be able to play as soon as Sunday, when the Packers host Pittsburgh in a key game in their pursuit of the NFC North title.
--DE Johnny Jolly (shoulder/neck) didn't practice Wednesday as the team started its on-field preparations for the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday. The veteran starter dropped out of the 37-36 comeback win at Dallas last Sunday with his injuries in the first quarter and didn't return. His status for the upcoming game is up in the air.
--OLB Nick Perry (foot) was held out of practice Wednesday. The team has been careful about not having Perry do much during the week to preserve him for game day as he deals with the lingering injury.
--ILB Brad Jones (ankle) didn't practice Wednesday. Jones aggravated his ankle injury in the 37-36 comeback win at Dallas last Sunday but returned for the rest of the game. He wouldn't seem to be in danger of missing the game against Pittsburgh on Sunday.
--DT Ryan Pickett (knee) had limited participation in practice Wednesday. The veteran starter has endured knee soreness the last several weeks, but it hasn't kept him from playing every week.
--DE/OLB Mike Neal (abdomen) was held out of practice Wednesday. The team has kept Neal off the field on a good number of practice days the last several weeks, preserving him for game day.
--TE Brandon Bostick (foot) didn't practice Wednesday. The young backup suffered his game-ending injury late in the first half of the 37-36 comeback win at Dallas last Sunday. Bostick's availability for the upcoming game against Pittsburgh on Sunday is uncertain.
--DE C.J. Wilson (ankle) returned to practice Wednesday as a limited participant. Wilson didn't play the last three games.
As it has the past few weeks, Friday again looms as the day when all of those waiting with bated breath will learn whether Aaron Rodgers will finally have the green light from team doctor Pat McKenzie to play this weekend. If McKenzie puts up the stop sign for the seventh straight week, Matt Flynn will have the reins again to try to help the unflappable Packers stay in contention for the NFC North title. Flynn is riding high after directing five straight touchdown drives in the second half to turn a 26-3 halftime deficit into an improbable 37-36 victory at Dallas on Sunday. Flynn's execution after a miserable first half featured a lot of rhythm-friendly quick throws in the short to intermediate areas and getting the tight ends (namely, Andrew Quarless) involved for the second straight game. It's a blueprint that can be effective against the Pittsburgh defense as well and combatting the zone blitzes and loaded boxes the Steelers figure to present as they try to slow down hard-charging rookie back Eddie Lacy. Green Bay will see Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for the third time, all with Dom Capers as defensive coordinator. The first meeting didn't go well as Roethlisberger flourished by throwing for a career-high 503 yards and three touchdowns in the Steelers' wild 37-36 win at home in 2009. A little more than a year later, the Packers forced two interceptions by Roethlisberger en route to a 31-25 victory in Super Bowl XLV to end the 2010 season. As much as the hulking Roethlisberger is tough to bring down in the pocket, the pressure calls should be prevalent in Capers' latest game plan. Green Bay can't allow Roethlisberger to have the time and the throwing lanes to liberally play pitch-and-catch with the explosive Antonio Brown, who is just as dangerous as a punt returner.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Packers RB Eddie Lacy vs. Steelers SS Troy Polamalu - Sunday's matchup could provide a case study of the irresistible force (Lacy) against the immovable object (Polamalu). The powerful Lacy, who refuses to go down easy every time he touches the football, is the trendy pick for the league's Offensive Rookie of the Year. He leads all NFL newcomers with 1,028 rushing yards and has been No. 1 among all backs in the league with 977 rushing yards since Week 5. At age 32, Polamalu still is flying in from the back end and delivering big hits on ball carries. The Steelers have been working him a lot as a rover-type linebacker in recent weeks. So, a few run-ins, if not collisions, between the long-haired playmakers from both teams could be in the offing. The last time Pittsburgh came to Green Bay, Polamalu was a difference maker with a 77-yard fumble return for a touchdown in the Steelers' 20-10 victory in 2005.
--Packers CBs Sam Shields and Tramon Williams vs. Steelers WR Antonio Brown - What can Shields and Williams do for an encore after their interceptions late in the game were pivotal in the Packers' completing their stunning 37-36 comeback win at Dallas on Sunday? A week after having their hands full most of the game with the Cowboys' Dez Bryant until they made those clutch picks, Shields and Williams will have to contend with Brown. Pittsburgh's athletic and talented young wideout is on the verge of setting single-season team records for receiving yards and catches. He ranks third in the league in both categories with 95 receptions for 1,307 yards, along with career-high eight touchdowns.
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