GREEN BAY — During his Wednesday news conference, Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy was asked if the emergence of rookie running backs Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones might make life easier for quarterback Aaron Rodgers should he return from his broken collarbone in two weeks.
“Well,” McCarthy said tersely, “let’s focus on this week.”
Good plan, but not necessarily an easy one to implement. Not with the potential season savior — Rodgers — on the practice field and running the scout team for the first time Wednesday. And not with Sunday’s opponent being the easily overlooked Cleveland Browns, who are 0-12 this season and have won only four of their past 49 games.
The expectation of Rodgers returning for the Dec. 17 game at Carolina — not a given, by the way — and the sorry state of the Browns franchise have created a potential rabbit hole for the Packers, who freely admit they must win their final four games to have any hope of making the playoffs. But if the Packers don’t focus on the task at hand this week, their season will end in that rabbit hole and Rodgers won’t have any reason to come back because there won’t be anything to save.
Nearly everything indicates a victory over the Browns is a foregone conclusion, but that’s a mindset the Packers simply can’t afford to adopt.
“For the situation we’re in, we can’t overlook anyone,” wide receiver Jordy Nelson said. “We need to win games. That’s the expectation going in and that’s what we’ve got to make sure we prepare for. We practiced well today. Tomorrow will show again where everyone’s mind is at. You’ve just got to be professional about it. You can mention it, talk about it, but guys just got to go out and play.”
The Packers are 6-6 overall and 2-4 with backup Brett Hundley starting in place of Rodgers, but losing to an 0-12 team would bring coast-to-coast embarrassment down upon Green Bay. And don’t think for a minute the Packers don’t know that. Heck, fear of flopping might be the best motivator of all.
Since the start of the 2015 season, the Browns are 4-40, which is ahead of the pace for the worst three-season record in NFL history (they also lost their last five games in 2014). The St. Louis Rams were 6-42 from 2007 to 2009, so the Browns would have to go 2-2 just to tie that mark.
The Packers’ plan is to concentrate on the Packers, not the Browns.
“We’re approaching this the way we would be any other week,” linebacker Clay Matthews said. “I know a lot’s made out of them getting their first win and not wanting to be that team that is on the losing side of it. But for us, as of last week, we know what we need to accomplish as far as these last five games and now four. We’ve got to get this win or it looks bleak for us. It’s business as usual.”
That had better be the case, if only because the Packers have been offensively challenged since Rodgers went down. The Browns? They’ve simply been challenged.
Cleveland was competitive early, losing by three points in four of its first seven games, but has dropped four of its past five by double-digit margins.
Still, the Browns have gotten back wide receivers Josh Gordon and Corey Coleman in recent weeks, Gordon from three years of NFL suspensions and Coleman from a broken hand. Gordon, in particular, is a game-breaking talent, though last week was his first game since 2014.
“I think you’d be foolish to only look at their record and not look at some of the games they’ve been competitive in, some of the games they’ve only lost by less than a score and on top of that they way in which they compete out there,” Matthews said. “I think the thing that sticks out the most is that if you disregard the record and look at the actual film, they’ve got some playmakers on their team.”
Perhaps the biggest worry for the Packers is that the Browns’ strengths, such as they are, hit them in the wrong places. Hard to believe, but an 0-12 team might be a bad matchup for a Packers team without Rodgers.
The return of Gordon and Coleman might help struggling rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer succeed against a Packers cornerback group that became even more depleted Wednesday when rookie Kevin King was placed in injured reserve. Also, the Browns have a strong rush defense, which could stymie Green Bay’s improved running game and put the offense in Hundley’s hands.
No one will know if Rodgers can return until doctors X-ray his collarbone early next week. And while Rodgers’ return to the practice field has buoyed his teammates, they can’t be caught looking ahead to his possible return when there is work to be done Sunday.
“When he comes back, we know what he brings to the table,” Matthews said. “In the meantime, there’s no point in getting too excited over his hopeful return, because Brett’s our guy.
“We’ve got these four more games, and I assume one more game with Brett at the helm. We’ve got to get this win first.”
The bottom line: The Packers aren’t good enough to overlook the Browns and keep their season alive.
“We just need to win a game, no matter what it is — Brett’s last game, Aaron’s future game, all of us to get to the playoffs,” Nelson said. “We’ve just got to continue to win.”
Hopefully, everyone gets that message.