GREEN BAY—He's back, and the timing of his return seems made for a Hollywood script.
"It feels great," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said on Thursday, after the news was announced that he would start on Sunday against the Bears, the same team that derailed his season nearly two full months ago.
"It's exciting to be able to play after a long layoff. It was a tough period, but I'm excited to be back in the mix with the guys, with a chance."
That chance is to get into the playoffs by beating the archrival Bears to win the NFC North. Rodgers hasn't played since the opening series against Chicago back on Nov. 4, when a Shea McClellin sack cracked his left collarbone.
He had no plans to be out this long, but the healing process, the medical staff and additional powers that be said otherwise. Head Coach Mike McCarthy said Rodgers has been accepting of the risk he'd take by playing for the past few weeks now, but he didn't get the official go-ahead until Thursday morning.
"It's been a difficult process for me, thinking I was going to have a chance every week," Rodgers said. "I was hopeful this opportunity would come up, but there are no guarantees in this business."
In the wake of the positive news, McCarthy and Rodgers' teammates have been focused on that "no guarantees" phrase, meaning they can't fall into the trap of believing Rodgers' return assures success in Chicago.
Make no mistake, everyone is thrilled Rodgers will be under center with the season on the line, and there isn't much disagreement with receiver James Jones' sentiment that Rodgers "makes this team 1,000 times better."
But the underlying message is that the news needs to be used as motivation, not as a reason to take a deep breath and relax. As McCarthy said, "We're not putting all this on Aaron's shoulders."
"It doesn't matter if we had Lawrence Taylor, Reggie White and all those people on the team, we have to go out there and play," Jones said. "Do you want your best players out there? No question, but we have to go out there and win a game."
Added fellow receiver Jordy Nelson: "It shouldn't change the way anyone's going to prepare or go out and play. Just because he's running the ship now (doesn't mean) we don't run good routes or we don't have to block. We still have to go do our job."
Rodgers said as much himself. He knows his teammates expect him to play at a high level, and he made a point of saying he expects his teammates to do the same.
It's the right time of year for a team to play its best football, and if the Packers can start hitting that peak on Sunday, who knows?
"My coming back doesn't alleviate any pressure on the guys," Rodgers said. "The pressure we put on ourselves we can harness at this point and see how good we can really be."
As for the question of rust after missing seven full games, no one is dismissing the thought but Rodgers' abilities, involvement in practice the past several weeks and meticulous preparation diminish any major concern.
"Aaron's a seasoned pro, extremely productive, knows the offense in and out," McCarthy said. "It's just really getting back into the little things. It's always the little things. It's the little thing that caught Matt Flynn against Pittsburgh on the interception (returned for a TD). It's getting back into the fine details of the offense."
One detail could be the return of another weapon. Receiver Randall Cobb is ramping up his activity in practice and could be on track for activation from temporary injured reserve.
McCarthy said he felt better about Cobb after seeing him in practice on Thursday, and he'll be evaluated again Friday morning.
"This week in practice, I'm going out and preparing to play," Cobb said. "That's not my call to make. My position is to communicate with the coaches and the training staff how I feel and let them make the decision."
As has been the pattern lately, rookie running back Eddie Lacy hasn't practiced yet this week due to his bum ankle, but McCarthy expects him to play.
A 1-2 punch in the backfield of Lacy and James Starks would be the perfect complement to Rodgers' arm against Chicago's last-ranked run defense. But as with Rodgers' return in general, the Packers aren't looking at the Bears' defensive rankings or the 54 points they surrendered to the Eagles last week with a chance to clinch the NFC North as anything to take for granted.
"We've been on the other end of that spectrum as well in Detroit, losing by 30," right guard T.J. Lang said. "Anything can happen on game day. They had a bad day, Philly had a good day. That's something that usually doesn't carry over in this league, those types of performances.
"We know we're going to have to prepare for their best shot, and they have to prepare for our best shot. It's a playoff game." Additional coverage - Dec. 26