We're Not Quite Ready to Exhale Just Yet.

We all know when we will exhale.

We've waited eight weeks, through nine Brett Hundley starts. We watched a 4-1 team morph into a 7-6 team, needing two overtime wins to stay alive for a record-tying ninth straight playoff berth. We waited while watching Aaron Rodgers throw pass after pass at Heinz Field before the Steelers game. We waited until the medical staff cleared him to return.

Now we're waiting for the game to start at Bank of America Stadium, shortly after noon on Sunday. Depending on who gets the ball first, we'll wait to see Rodgers back under center. And we'll wait till he gets hit hard the first time, and we'll wait. To make sure he gets up and is feeling no pain.

Then we will exhale.

We all know the odds are stacked against a season-ending trifecta, which would likely secure the sixth and final NFC playoff spot. The Pack's chances are 89%, if they finish 10-6 (If they can get past the Panthers, we'll be cheering for the Rams to beat the Seahawks). But even if they fall short, it's so great to see Rodgers back on the field.

We've been blessed, ridiculously blessed, with a quarter century of Hall of Fame quarterback play, that's 400 weeks of regular season football, and our two Hall of Famers have been out there for all but 15 of them. But it's still painful when they're out, because we love this game and selfishly want our best player out there performing every single week.

I expect Rodgers to be as sharp as he was the last time he returned from a broken collarbone, in week 17 of 2013, when he threw for over 300 yards including the game winner on fourth down to Randall Cobb. That was the play where John Kuhn got just enough of Julius Peppers to give Rodgers enough time to find Cobb.

Ah, Peppers. How good would he still look in a Packers uniform? The soon-to-be 38 year old is tied for the Panthers' team lead with 9.5 sacks and has no doubt spent a lot of time sharing the Pack's offensive secrets with his unit. And you know he's dying to deliver that first big hit to Rodgers.

He's a part of what makes this matchup so problematic for the Packers. The Panthers front seven is as good as there is in the NFC, on par with the Vikings who we get to follow up with next Saturday. Peppers is joined across the line by fellow end Mario Addison (also with 9.5 sacks), NT Star Lotuleili and their own version of Mike Daniels, fellow Big Ten alum Kawann Short, who has six sacks himself and is a stud against the run.

Then there's the linebacker group, led by tackling machine Luke Kuechly and the veteran Thomas Davis. Shaq Thompson plays LB, and is a Morgan Burnett-type (he hasn't practiced all week with a foot injury). The Panthers D is fifth in yards allowed, tenth in points, third against the run and seventh against the pass. Their weakness is in the secondary, which let Josh Norman walk in 2016 and relies on young guys that can be beaten, if the pass rush can be contained.

Rushing yards will be hard to come by, if last week is any indication. The Pack struggled against a strong Browns unit that was missing nose tackle Danny Shelton. Of course the return of Rodgers and a much more prolific passing attack should give the ground game a significant boost. Rodgers made a point to remind everyone that Jordy Nelson still 'has some juice left.' Look for McCarthy and Rodgers to take some deep shots early with Nelson and work to get Randall Cobb involved so the defense can't get away with doubling millionaire-to-be Davante Adams.

Where things get really tricky is when the Panthers have the ball. The Pack's banged up secondary shouldn't be too stressed by the passing game, where Cam Newton is averaging just 209 yards passing per game. He's the 34th ranked QB in passer rating ands just 17 touchdowns and 12 picks. Damarious Randall, fresh off a strong performance against Josh Gordon, will get Devin Funchess duties. He's the main threat, with tight end Greg Olson not yet 100% (he was targeted just once in his first game back last week).

Where the Panthers excel is on the ground, which will likely be their recipe on Sunday, since it ensures that Rodgers will have to spend more time on the sidelines watching. Jonathan Stewart has a breakout game against the stiff Vikings run defense and rookie Christian McCaffery is the kind of back that gives Dom Capers trouble, with his quickness in space as a receiver. And then there's Newton, playing with a tender throwing shoulder, who will have no problem using his legs early and often. He busted a long one to beat the Vikes last week and 585 yards and five touchdowns for the season.

With Jake Ryan a big question mark, the Pack's run defense will be tested mightily. Josh Jones will be counted on in a big way, after a game where he was graded as the fourth best safety. With Burnett and Jermaine Whitehead being asked to play some corner, Jones will be out there for virtually every snap and will be counted on to prevent the home run play.

The Panthers are tied for the lead in the NFC South and have everything to play for, but it works to the Pack's advantage that they beat Minnesota. Had they lost, they would be on a two game losing streak and this game would be a desperation game to keep them in the race. So they're feeling good about themselves at 9-4 and rightfully so. But a turnover could be enough to determine the outcome and Carolina is -4 for the season while the Packers are +7.

The Pack will need to play infinitely better than they have the last two games, overtime wins against losing teams. But maybe, just maybe, the return of Rodgers, something we've been waiting for since early October, will be enough to raise the play of his teammates. After watching his excellence for the past ten years, I'm not ready to doubt him.

Packers 31 Panthers 28


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