Despite gaining a 'COVID toe' and losing the Odell Beckham Jr. pursuit, Packers have top playoff seed in sight

They slow-rolled the Odell Beckham Jr. sweepstakes into oblivion. The starting quarterback suffered a self-described "COVID toe" that was really a broken pinky on his foot. And they lost Elgton Jenkins, a Pro Bowl offensive lineman, to a season-ending knee injury.

Yet, as the Green Bay Packers head into their bye week, they may very well have the upper hand for the No. 1 playoff seed in the NFC.

Sitting at 9-3 after Sunday’s 36-28 win over the Los Angeles Rams, the schedule is about to become a significant factor in the playoff race for the Packers.

Green Bay has only one Super Bowl contender in the mix down the stretch: The Ravens in Baltimore on Dec. 19. Its other four opponents: Three home games against a mediocre and fading Chicago Bears, injury-riddled Cleveland Browns and middle-of-the-road Minnesota Vikings; and a season finale at the Detroit Lions, who are undeniably the worst team in the NFL.

It's been a relatively turbulent few weeks for Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. That hasn't stopped them from keeping pace atop the NFC. (Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports)
It's been a relatively turbulent few weeks for Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. That hasn't stopped them from keeping pace atop the NFC. (Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports)

As finishing slates go, that’s a sizable runway of opportunity for a Packers team that should be favored in all of those games aside from the road tilt in Baltimore. Meanwhile, the team Green Bay needs to catch for the NFC’s No. 1 seed — the Arizona Cardinals — has six remaining games that feature two relative pushovers on the road (the Bears and Lions), but also four others that could be tougher than expected. Among them, the Rams on Monday night, the gritty Indianapolis Colts on Christmas night, a road game against a Dallas Cowboys team that will be fighting for a top NFC playoff seed, and a regular season finale against the Seattle Seahawks, which could be the last game featuring either head coach Pete Carroll or quarterback Russell Wilson (or both) on the Seattle sideline.

That’s a taller order than it may look for a 9-2 team, especially one that has quarterback Kyler Murray returning from an ankle injury that has essentially sidelined him for a month. Until Arizona sees him play some sustained quarters against live competition, there’s no telling if there will be lingering effects from the injury. And lest anyone forget, the Packers have a head-to-head win over the Cardinals and would need to end the season with only the same record as Arizona to secure the No. 1 seed in the playoffs.

That’s going to be a massive storyline to watch in the NFC, especially given that only the top seeds in the two conferences get a first-round bye that comes in handy during a season of chaos such as this. Not to mention the fact that Green Bay has the ultimate cold weather home-field advantage in January over other potential Super Bowl contenders that either play in domes (the Cardinals, Cowboys and Rams) or warm weather climates (the Tampa Bay Buccaneers).

More often than not, cold or sloppy weather games tend to favor defenses and home teams that know their turf conditions. Both of which could play into Green Bay’s hands when the defense is showing signs of getting into a late-season groove. And while Rodgers’ broken toe may not ever be healed the rest of the season, having two bye weeks (this week and Round 1 of the playoffs) and zero road travel before the Super Bowl could go a long way in managing the pain he has to endure in the postseason.

Rodgers passed his first major test with the toe Sunday against the Rams, enduring a similar level of difficulty as the Week 11 loss to the Vikings — but also managing to avoiding taking a pain-killing injection at halftime. The offense had one of its sharpest showings of the season, too, with Green Bay’s loaded set of wideouts and pass-catching running backs looking like they are hitting a rhythm entering the stretch run. That might explain why the Packers front office effectively lowballed its way out of the Beckham hunt earlier in November, offering the wideout nothing more than a veteran minimum contract laced with performance incentives. That’s the kind of thing you do when the wide receivers room is already crowded enough to render Green Bay’s 2021 third-round draft pick buried on the depth chart.

Now the Packers and Rodgers have to weigh Sunday’s results and decide if it's better to have the quarterback get relatively minor toe surgery during the bye or manage the injury down the stretch. Rodgers said Sunday that the decision had not yet been made. But you can bet that whatever choice he makes, it will be with the playoff seeding in mind.

Despite a roller coaster November, Green Bay is still within reach of a playoff-shifting slot. And that will be the first priority measuring every decision from here into January.