NFL Preview - Pittsburgh (6-8) at Green Bay (7-6-1)
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - As unlikely as it seems, the Green Bay Packers are not only in the NFC North race, they will have a chance to win their third straight division title in Week 17 if they can get past Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers at Lambeau Field on Sunday.
The Packers have been a bad football team since star quarterback Aaron Rodgers went down with a broken collarbone against Chicago on Nov. 4 but a razor-thin win over Atlanta two weeks ago, along with an early Christmas gift from Dallas has the Pack thinking the unthinkable -- beat the Steelers and then earn the division crown by walking into the Second City and dousing the Bears' hopes in the regular season finale.
Early indications are Rodgers will not be able to go again this week, meaning Matt Flynn will make his fourth straight start for Green Bay against the Steelers.
Flynn led a furious comeback in North Texas last week capped by Eddie Lacy's 1-yard touchdown run with 1:31 to play as the Packers completed an epic comeback, earning a 37-36 win over the Cowboys.
Trailing by 23 points to start the second half, Green Bay scored touchdowns on its first five possessions of the final 30 minutes, while Tony Romo had another meltdown in the fourth quarter.
The rally matched the biggest comeback in Green Bay history, as the 1982 team clawed its way from a 23-point hole to defeat the Los Angeles Rams.
"This was an excellent team win today. I can't tell you how proud I am of every player, coach and person on the sideline. We all know what the score was at halftime. We just stayed the course," said Packers coach Mike McCarthy.
Flynn threw for 299 yards and four touchdowns with an interception on 26-of-39 passing, with Lacy finishing the game with 141 yards on 21 carries and a score while adding four catches for 30 yards.
Romo looked strong for much of the game and went 29-for-48 for 358 yards and two touchdowns overall, but his final two possessions ended in interceptions. The first one led to Lacy's go-ahead score and his second sealed the victory for Green Bay.
"I think if you play long enough you'll have plenty of big wins and tough losses, this was one of the tough losses," said Romo. "We just didn't do enough in the second half to win this game."
Pittsburgh was able to play spoiler in Week 15 as Antonio Brown had a receiving touchdown and returned a punt for a score to lead the Steelers to a 30-20 win over the AFC North-leading Cincinnati Bengals at a windy Heinz Field on Sunday night.
Ben Roethlisberger was extremely efficient despite battling winds with gusts of up to 30 mph, completing 20-of-25 passes for 191 yards, one touchdown and an interception for the Steelers, who won for the first time since Week 12 and kept their slim postseason hopes alive.
Le'Veon Bell rushed for 57 yards and a touchdown and also caught five passes for 50 yards in the win.
"We had a great team effort in all three phases. Special teams, offense and defense. We made big plays on special teams, had a turnover on defense and possessed the ball on offense, it was a great team effort," Brown said.
Green Bay leads their all-time series with Pittsburgh by an 18-14 margin.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Rodgers has now missed six consecutive games with his injury but has been practicing on a limited basis. He has not been medically cleared, however. An original timetable, albeit an optimistic one, pegged six weeks as a possible recovery time which would have had the All-Pro back on the field this week.
"Everyone hopes that Aaron's back," Flynn said. "I don't anticipate being the guy going forward. I would anticipate Aaron getting healthy."
The plan at this point seems to be to try to piecemeal one more win without Rodgers and then bring him back for the Bears in Week 17, a team he traditionally dominates.
Problem is Green Bay's two-game winning streak without him may be fool's gold, a razor-thin home win over a very bad and banged-up Atlanta team and the comeback against one of the most dysfunctional organizations in all of sports, the Cowboys.
To be fair Flynn has picked it up considerably over original Rodgers replacements Seneca Wallace and Scott Tolzien, completing 50-of-71 passes for 557 yards with five touchdowns and two interceptions during the two-game run.
Lacy, meanwhile, has been a beast, leading the NFL with 977 rushing yards since Oct. 1 and rushing for a TD in seven of his past nine games.
The Steelers, meanwhile, need everything to go their way over the final two weeks to keep playing, starting with a win over the Pack. Pittsburgh then has to win in Week 17 over Cleveland and hope Miami, the New York Jets, San Diego and Baltimore all finish with 8-8 records.
"I have said for a bunch of weeks now that there is going to be no quit from me or from anybody," said Roethlisberger, who has continued to excel despite his team's difficulties, throwing 12 TDs versus just one pick with a 106.4 passer rating over his last five games.
In his only previous regular-season meeting with the Packers, "Big Ben" passed for a franchise-record 503 yards and three TDs, with one coming on the final play as the Steelers beat the Packers 37-36 on Dec. 20, 2009.
Rodgers, however, went 24-of-39 for 304 yards with three scores to earn MVP honors in a far bigger game, Green Bay's 31-25 victory over Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XLV.
The Packers are being very cautious with Rodgers, a prudent decision because it's pretty evident his presence has masked a lot of deficiencies on what is a talent-deficient roster at certain positions.
Risking the franchise for a one-and-dome playoff appearance is the definition of short-term thinking, and it's more than conceivable that Chicago and Detroit just aren't good enough to win the division with Rodgers on the sidelines.
That said, the buck stops here for Green Bay unless Rodgers makes a miraculous recovery and is under center on Sunday. Roethlisberger, despite the shortcomings among his own teammates, is playing at too high a level to lose to this Packers team.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Steelers 24, Packers 20
12/19 15:10:29 ET