Despite playing without Aaron Rodgers for the last six weeks, the Green Bay Packers control their own playoff destiny. In order to remain in control, the Packers will need to beat Pittsburgh on Sunday and do it without Rodgers.
Although the former MVP did more in practice this week, he's yet to receive medical clearance to return and was ruled out of the game against the Steelers. Green Bay won't necessarily be eliminated from playoff contention with a loss, but could be if the Bears also win.
Pittsburgh is also playing for its playoff chances, although they are much slimmer than Green Bay's. At 6-8, the Steelers would need to win out and then hope things break right over the final two weeks. Pittsburgh won the last two regular-season matchups between the teams, but Green Bay came out ahead the last time they met, in Super Bowl XLV.
Meet the Green Bay Packers
With Rodgers out, Matt Flynn will make his fourth start of the season for the Packers. Flynn has been up-and-down in relief duty. He is, however, coming off an excellent second half against Dallas. Flynn completed 16-of-22 passes for 182 yards and four touchdowns in the second half, leading the Packers back from a 23-point deficit.
Pittsburgh's defense has been weaker against the run than the pass this season. Eddie Lacy missed practice time due to an ankle injury, before returning on Friday. He went through a similar process last week, sitting out the first two days of practice, only to return on Friday and suit up for the game.
At 7-6-1, the Packers enter the game just behind the 8-6 Bears. The two teams play at Chicago in Week 17. If Green Bay wins this week, next week's matchup will be for the NFC North title. If the Packers lose to Pittsburgh and the Bears beat Philadelphia, Green Bay would be eliminated from the playoffs.
Meet the Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers are currently behind three teams in the chase for the final AFC wild card spot. A win this week and another against Cleveland next week would pull the Steelers even at 8-8. If the Ravens and Dolphins lose out and San Diego doesn't win both of its final two games, the Steelers would have a shot at the postseason.
In order to even have a chance, Pittsburgh has to win on the road this week. The Steelers are 31st in the NFL in yards per rush, but may lean on the ground game this week. The Green Bay defense is 27th in yards per rush allowed. The Packers aren't much better against the pass, ranking 26th in pass defense DVOA according to Football Outsiders. Pittsburgh's offense should have plenty of opportunities on Sunday.
Local Takes: Green Bay Packers
While many media outlets will play the blame game with the Cowboys (which they absolutely deserve), I believe the Packers deserve just as much credit. It takes a few mistakes by the other team to complete a comeback of that magnitude, but the Packers took advantage and scored on every drive in the second half.
This team may not win the division, or even make the playoffs, but it showed on Sunday that they have plenty of playmakers on the roster. Regardless of what happens from here on out, this team needs to make changes; but Sunday took a lot of pain out what has been a forgettable second-half of the season for cheeseheads everywhere.
Local Takes: Pittsburgh Steelers
Paper Champions at Steelers blog Behind The Steel Curtain says that the days of grinding out yards on offense are over:
I lamented last year's late season loss to the Cincinnati Bengals because it was obvious that neither team was going to do anything in the playoffs, no matter who won. Teams that lack the ability to create big plays cannot consistently win in today's NFL. I may be completely wrong about all of this, but the players that the Bengals and Steelers took at the top of their drafts last year seem to lend some credence to what I am proposing.
Along these lines, Le'Veon Bell can make plays in all three phases of the offense. Running, catching, and blocking. Bell will probably not get 1000 yards rushing this year, but so what? He has over 1000 yards combined rushing and receiving, even though he missed most of training camp and the beginning of the season. Yards are yards, who cares how he gets them?
Follow the Fun
Add these fine follows to your Twitter timeline:
At least one fan thinks the Packers should trade Aaron Rodgers (and he is certifiably insane) http://t.co/S5nbLgbhiR— Acme Packing Company (@acmepackingco) December 17, 2013
Can anyone help the man out? RT @SacManJones_29: I need to find a nice spa here in Pittsburgh..— BTSC Steelers (@btsteelcurtain) December 16, 2013
@MikeVandermause -- Packers beat writer
Based on way Rodgers was flinging missiles today at practice, my sense is he really, really and I mean REALLY wants to play. #Packers— Mike Vandermause (@MikeVandermause) December 18, 2013
@MarkKaboly_Trib -- Steelers beat writer
A game like this has to be frustrating as all to the #Steelers' coaching staff. Steelers have potential to be good, but just aren't.— Mark Kaboly (@MarkKaboly_Trib) December 16, 2013
The Packers are the popular pick among SB Nation's NFL experts with five of the six picking Green Bay to come away with the win.
The Packers will finish up their regular season on the road against the Bears next Sunday. The Steelers will be at home to host the Browns. Both games will kick off at 1 p.m. ET.
Louis Bien and Mark Sandritter contributed to this preview.