Even though the Packers clinched homefield advantage throughout the NFC playoffs with their 35-21 Christmas night victory over the Bears, head coach Mike McCarthy does not sound like he is ready to take it easy in the regular-season finale at Lambeau Field this Sunday against the red-hot Lions.
While refusing to guarantee that he would not rest anybody Sunday with a number of key players at less than full strength, McCarthy said in his Monday-afternoon press conference that he was primarily focused on finishing 15-1 and sweeping the NFC North after setting a franchise record for most victories in a regular season (14) with the win over the Bears. McCarthy indicated that several players who have been injured could return to practice this week, including No. 1 WR Greg Jennings (knee) and starting OTs Chad Clifton (knee) and Bryan Bulaga (knee).
The PFW spin
With nothing to really play for except continued momentum, a strong case can be made for exercising the utmost caution next Sunday and resting as many key Packers players as possible, including QB Aaron Rodgers, the team's most precious commodity. Should McCarthy opt to rest Rodgers in favor of backup Matt Flynn, Rodgers would finish the regular-season with a 122.5 passer rating, a mark good enough to break the single-season passer rating mark set by Peyton Manning in 2004. Much more importantly, though, McCarthy would totally avoid the risk of losing Rodgers, who suffered a concussion in the second regular-season game vs. the Lions last season and sat out the loss one week later to the Patriots.
Rodgers came out of the Bears game unscathed, as the Packers' undermanned offensive line rose to the occasion, allowing zero sacks. But the Packers figure to be facing a much more motivated D-line this Sunday than the listless Bears unit that was on display Sunday evening. One suspects Lions DT Ndamukong Suh, among others, to be very determined to make up for his costly ejection in the first Packers-Lions bash on Thanksgiving and set his sights on Rodgers for as long as the league's likely MVP is under center.
Will McCarthy play Rodgers the entire game? That seems very unlikely. It says here, a decision to play him through the first half would be pushing it. As for A-Rod's injured teammates, it would seem to make sense to save Jennings for the playoffs at this point after the Packers' receiving corps rebounded nicely without him in the lineup Sunday evening. On the other hand, it might prove beneficial to let Bulaga and particularly Clifton to see at least some action against the Lions in an effort to establish some early cohesiveness for the second season. The same goes for DE Ryan Pickett, who has missed the last two games with a concussion. The Packers' run defense seems really out of synch without Pickett in the lineup, as evidenced by the fact the Bears just missed rushing for 200 yards Sunday night.
One other injured player who isn't likely to play Sunday is RB James Starks, who McCarthy said Monday could have a hard time being able to practice this week after injuring his ankle for the fourth time this season. With Ryan Grant continuing to run well as of late, keeping Starks in mothballs until the playoffs seems like a sound strategy indeed.