Packers’ playoff scenarios line up well with Aaron Rodgers’ possible return

The Packers lost a 31-28 heartbreaker to the Steelers on Sunday night. But in the process of dropping a close game to the AFC’s top team in the standings, Green Bay gained a glimmer of hope that it still has a shot at making the NFC playoffs.

That’s because backup QB Brett Hundley (17-of-26, 243 yards, 3 TDs, 134.3 passer rating) had his breakout game filling in for Aaron Rodgers against a tough Pittsburgh pass defense on the road. The path to a ninth consecutive postseason berth for the Packers remains difficult, but it now feels at least possible.

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Green Bay with Sunday’s loss fell to 5-6, two games behind 7-4 Atlanta for the final NFC wild-card spot. Also in between are two more teams, 7-4 Seattle and 6-5 Detroit. But with five games left to play and a lot of matchups featuring NFC contenders, nothing is certain until official elimination and/or clinching.

That includes the miracle that would be Green Bay catching 9-2 Minnesota in the NFC North.

From the Packers’ end, it’s simple: They must run the table to match their 10-6 finish of 2016, when they won their final six games. Hundley must play well enough to help them beat two bottom-feeders, the Buccaneers and Browns, over the next two weeks, and then Rodgers needs to return from his collarbone injury in Week 15.

Here are some of things that need to happen with other teams ahead of them to give the Packers a realistic shot.

Lions lose before Week 17

Detroit has its toughest game in Baltimore in Week 13, but it also finishes with Green Bay. Otherwise, it has favorable games at Tampa Bay, vs. Chicago and at Cincinnati.

The bottom line is nine wins aren’t going to get it done in the NFC. The Packers can’t really move up until the Lions, who won at Lambeau Field earlier this season, are in position to finish one game behind.

Seahawks also finish 10-6

One game that could come into play nicely for the Packers is their season-opening victory over the Seahawks. Seattle has been inconsistent of late, losing two at home and winning two on the road. This scenario would require the Seahawks to go 3-2 and finish second in the NFC West. It’s plausible given their remaining schedule: vs. Eagles, at Jaguars, vs. Rams, at Cowboys, vs. Cardinals.

The Packers don’t want to see the Seahawks get hot to the point of taking back the division from the 8-3 Rams. That would probably mean both Seattle and Los Angeles finish 11-5, a mark Green Bay can’t reach.

Panthers or Falcons fade hard in NFC South

The Packers have no chance to make the playoffs over the 8-3 Saints should New Orleans fall from first to third in the NFL’s toughest division. The Saints have strong three-game advantage over the Packers that includes a win at Lambeau in Week 7.

That means Green Bay should root for New Orleans to beat Carolina next week and/or Atlanta twice. The Packers are set to play the 8-3 Panthers in Week 15, making it a critical time for Rodgers’ return. The Packers already lost to the Falcons in Week 2 with Rodgers.

The Panthers need to go 2-2 in their other four games, and/or the Falcons need to go 2-3 overall to give the Packers a chance over either team.

Carolina goes to New Orleans in Week 13 and to Atlanta in Week 17. In between, in addition to hosting Green Bay, it also hosts Minnesota and plays at Tampa Bay. Atlanta hosts Minnesota and New Orleans next, then travels to Tampa Bay and New Orleans before closing vs. Carolina.

The Panthers have the harder slate, and the Packers have some control of their fate there. So it probably makes sense for the Packers to root for the Falcons, too, so Atlanta can rise to No. 3, No. 4 or No. 5. Then Green Bay can try to beat out Carolina for No. 6.

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Vikings collapse in NFC North

This is the most unlikely of scenarios, but then again, we’ve seen it happen before with the Lions free-falling in the Packers’ favor. At 9-2, however, Minnesota would need to finish 1-4.

If the Falcons or Panthers don’t plan to oblige for the Packers in the wild-card race, Green Bay should root for both to beat Minnesota over the next two weeks. That would suddenly cut the division lead to two games before Rodgers’ possible return — the exact 9-4 vs. 7-6 situation that burned Detroit last season.

Because of the conference record tiebreaker, the only win the Packers can afford the Vikings getting is their Week 15 home game against the Bengals. Based on the assumption Green Bay needs to get revenge on Minnesota with Rodgers at Lambeau in Week 16, it comes down to trusting Chicago to pull off an upset at Minnesota in Week 17 while Green Bay dispatches Detroit on the road.

The Packers can’t be ruled out thanks to an improving Hundley and a revved-up Rodgers, but it will take a lot of proper permutations beyond what’s in their control to sneak back into the postseason as a wild card or division winner.