Aaron Rodgers wasn’t the only Packers starter to leave Sunday’s game with injury — he’s just the one everyone’s going to be talking about Monday.
Rodgers led a litany of Green Bay athletes into the locker room against Minnesota, joining players like Quinten Rollins, David Bakhtiari, and Bryan Bulaga on the injury report in a game where the Packers lost much more than just an NFC North rivalry game.
Rodgers’ season may be over after a brutal hit from Anthony Barr ended his day after just two series. The two-time MVP suffered a broken collarbone that could take anywhere from six-to-10 weeks to heal — and could effectively keep him off the field until the postseason. That’s terrible news for a Packers team whose identity was staked in the dynamic passer who led comeback wins — both playoff and regular season -- to crush the Dallas Cowboys the past two seasons.
But Green Bay isn’t cooked yet.
It’s easy to point to the Pack’s 2-4-1 record without Rodgers in 2013 — a season in which the QB suffered a similar collarbone injury -- as proof the team’s Super Bowl hopes have been snuffed out like a candle in a closed jar. While the club was still able to stumble into the playoffs thanks to a weak NFC North, it died in the Wild Card game against a strong 49ers team.
The 2017 Packers have learned from that experience, and they’ll have one major advantage against a tougher North field this fall — they won’t have to turn to Matt Flynn, Scott Tolzien, or Seneca Wallace this November.
Brett Hundley can prove he’s capable of being an NFL starter
Instead, one of the league’s most intriguing backups will get an extended audition in relief of Rodgers — a chance to prove his worth not only to Green Bay but to the rest of a QB-needy league. Hundley, a project passer taken in the fifth round of the 2015 NFL Draft, has been groomed as the team’s emergency option his past three seasons. While he’s had few chances to show off his arm during the regular season (11 pass attempts before Sunday), his preseason performances raised eyebrows throughout the NFL and made him a potential trade target.
Brett Hundley's preseason stats, 2015-2017
Those are big numbers, albeit against second-string competition. Hundley will have the biggest opportunity of his football life when he fills Rodgers’ role in the lineup. A big performance wouldn’t just keep Green Bay afloat while its starter recuperates — it would also lead to a big payday in 2019. The UCLA product has one year remaining on his contract after this season, and a solid showing would make him a commodity in a league where Mike Glennon can sign a three-year, $45 million deal to throw at the feet of Chicago’s receivers.
He didn’t get off to a great start against the Vikings, who pressured him throughout the afternoon. While he tossed a touchdown, he balanced that out with three interceptions. He finished the game with 157 yards, but needed 33 passes to get there.
He missed several open targets, often alternating underthrows and overthrows to wideouts. Hundley looked uncomfortable in the pocket as the game progressed as Minnesota brought more and more blitz packages. He’ll improve with more reps, but the question is whether or not he’ll be good enough to stay afloat in an up-and-down NFC North.
His supporting cast — if healthy -- will give Hundley a chance to succeed
Hundley will have some support while leading the Packers’ offense, though injuries could drastically alter how much. Injuries across the offensive line have helped prevent Green Bay from establishing a bruising rushing attack. On Sunday, it finally got starting tackles Bulaga and Bakhtiari back from ailments. By the time the fourth quarter began, each was back on the sideline nursing injuries. Only two of the five regular starters on the Packers’ offensive line finished Sunday’s game.
That’s bad news for Montgomery and Jones, two underrated runners who can buoy the Green Bay offense, but only with reasonable blocking in front of them. Jones took advantage of his first NFL start with a 19-carry, 125-yard performance against the Cowboys last week. Montgomery averaged nearly six yards per carry in 2016. However, Montgomery is battling broken ribs and spent time Sunday inside the injury tent. Jones, behind a piecemeal offensive line, carried the ball 13 times for only 41 yards.
That puts more pressure on Hundley and the passing game, where Hundley’s receiving corps has fortunately remained largely healthy. Green Bay knows what it’s getting with Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, but the big question is whether Davante Adams’ breakout will continue. The fourth-year wideout has developed into one of the NFC’s most explosive players since 2016, but that was with an all-world quarterback slinging him the ball.
The pressure also falls on a middling — and depleted — defense
Green Bay’s defense exists in the vast desert plain between good and bad. Coming into Sunday, the Packers ranked 20th in yards allowed per play, 20th in scoring defense, and an optimistic seventh in takeaways. However, a string of recent injuries threaten to drop them from useful to straight-up flawed.
Rollins left Sunday’s game with an ankle injury. So did Kentrell Brice. Davon House, Kevin King, and Morgan Burnett sat Week 6 out. Demetri Goodson hasn’t played yet this season. That’s six defensive backs who have started games in either 2016 or 2017 who were unavailable.
Case Keenum wasn’t able to take advantage of that lineup -- though the Vikings turned to a run-heavy offense in the second half to protect their lead. More potent quarterbacks like Drew Brees, Matthew Stafford, and Ben Roethlisberger won’t have similar struggles. If the secondary remains hamstrung by injury, the Packers are going to need an extended push from their front seven — a unit with just 11 sacks through six games this season.
The NFC North is better than it was in 2013 — but Sunday shows it’s still not great
Detroit spent much of Week 6 getting dismantled by the Saints before scrambling to put the pieces back together. The Bears took the Ravens to overtime but are fully ensconced in a rebuild. The Vikings beat the Packers at home but still have to rely on Case Keenum while coaches and doctors alike try to figure out when Sam Bradford or Teddy Bridgewater can return to the field.
That means the North is still anyone’s game, and at 4-2, Green Bay still has a tremendous opportunity to claim its sixth division title in seven years. An eight-win team isn’t going to be NFC North titlist this fall — but the division isn’t as brutal as the NFC East or AFC West. Six more wins will get the Pack back to the postseason, where a healthy Rodgers could thrive. The question is whether the rest of his team can rise up and get him there.