|Rodgers set to return for pivotal game vs. Panthers|
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The team in a first-place tie almost seems like an afterthought this week.
That's because the Green Bay Packers, who are on the verge of falling out of playoff contention, will regain the services of quarterback Aaron Rodgers on Sunday when they visit the Carolina Panthers.
Rodgers' return overshadows anything the Panthers (9-4) have to offer this week even though Carolina is tied with the New Orleans Saints for first place in the NFL South.
Rodgers is cleared to return from a seven-game absence caused by a broken right collarbone.
"In his mind, he's ready to go," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "It's a process."
The Packers clearly are willing to turn to Rodgers, who has been one of the league's most productive quarterbacks in recent seasons. Brett Hundley was the fill-in, and he directed the team to a 27-21 overtime victory at Cleveland last week.
Green Bay went 3-5 with Hundley starting.
The Panthers insist they are not caught off guard by the likely return of Rodgers.
"He has probably been throwing for four or five weeks," Carolina coach Ron Rivera said.
Rivera said the Panthers cannot concentrate entirely on Rodgers, though the coach does seem to appreciate some of the attention that might be at least temporarily diverted from his team.
"Our focus will be on the Packers and what they do," Rivera said.
Green Bay (7-6) is in a more desperate situation than Carolina as it almost certainly will have to count on a wild-card spot in order to reach the postseason. The Panthers are one of the teams that might be contending for a similar spot.
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton didn't seem much interested in discussing the nuances of Rodgers' return.
"I get to deal with his roommate, Clay Matthews," Newton said, referring to the Green Bay linebacker who appears in a television commercial with Rodgers.
Even with Rodgers back, the Packers aren't assured of anything. After all, the Panthers are motivated to stay in their division race.
"We're not going to Carolina with a bunch of false confidence," McCarthy said.
Packers offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett said it continues to be about execution regardless of who is at quarterback.
"Over the last few weeks, we've all kind of kept it simple," Bennett said. "Let's go out and make sure we execute like we know how."
McCarthy said some of the attention regarding Rodgers was tempered because the game Cleveland, despite the result, was a disappointment on several fronts.
"We had a couple of rough meetings," he said. "Our grades overall as a team were probably some of the lowest we had all year. We've got to clean that up."
Still, to reach this stage of the season with a chance to make a playoff push behind Rodgers is an accomplishment.
"We've really handled it the way you would have expected," McCarthy said. "We've had challenges here this year that we haven't had in my 12 years. Just when you think you've seen it all, something else happens."
Rodgers threw for 369 yards and four touchdowns two years ago at Carolina, though the Panthers won 37-29.
Some of the good things recently for the Packers have involved strong starts to games. The coaching staff will continue to plot out the opening strategy.
"We script the beginning of the game. It's not out of the norm," McCarthy said. "We've been able to start the way we want to start. We're getting off on the right foot. That's a big part of your preparation, starting fast."
Plus, the Packers have to protect Rodgers. They have given up 43 sacks this season, the third-highest total in the league. The Panthers have one of the best pass rushes in the NFL, including ex-Packer Julius Peppers charging into backfields from a defensive end spot.
Meanwhile, the Packers have issues on defense to address, especially with defensive back Davon House out due to a back injury. The Green Bay defense also ranks near the bottom of the NFL.
The Panthers put up 31 points last week against the Vikings, who have the second-best defensive ranking in the league. It seems as if the Panthers might have rediscovered the ideal formula on offense, and much of it has to do with running back Jonathan Stewart, who had his first career three-touchdown outing vs. the Minnesota.
"Maybe it has something to do with the weather," Rivera said of Stewart's frequent late-season surge. "I love the way we ran the football. I think it's conducive this time of year."
The Panthers have won five of their last six games.
"In this time in December, it's all about closing the year out and finishing," Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly said.
Dom Capers, who was the Panthers' first-ever head coach, is the defensive coordinator for Green Bay.