GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Packers guard T.J. Lang was driving to Lambeau Field on Thursday morning bracing himself for bad news.
The team waited until Friday the last few weeks to announce its starting quarterback and predictably the ongoing status of Aaron Rodgers became a national storyline. So, the decision was made to make a choice earlier this week in advance of Sunday's NFC North winner-take-all game at Soldier Field against the Bears.
"I honestly didn't think he was going to play," Lang said. "The last three or four weeks, when he was close, I learned not to get my hopes up. To hear that news on those Fridays that he was not playing, it was tough."
Packers coach Mike McCarthy delivered the news Rogers is playing to the team at an 8:05 a.m. meeting. The former MVP will return after missing the last seven games with a broken left collarbone suffered when Bears defensive end Shea McClellin sacked him on Nov. 4.
"Everybody just kind of smiled," Lang said. "It's one of those things where you're like, 'Finally, man.' It was almost a sigh of relief. The news gives you a little spark."
Rodgers tried to low key the turn of events. He declined to talk about risk associated with playing. The delay in him coming back has been because the team was concerned about its long-term investment. Rodgers signed a $110 million, five-year extension in April. He wouldn't say if there is any special padding he will wear.
"We're in it and we have a chance against our rivals," Rodgers said. "What a better way than to go down there and get some redemption, host a home playoff game. It has been a difficult process for me thinking I was going to have a chance every week. I was hopeful that this opportunity would come up."
McCarthy more or less said Rodgers had been pushing to get medical clearance for several weeks, something the team resisted despite a 2-4-1 record without him.
"Aaron has accepted the level of risk for ... this is probably the third week," McCarthy said. "This has been a stressful period for him. He's just relieved to play. It's time to play football."
The Bears could have secured a postseason berth with a victory Sunday night at Philadelphia. Instead, they will have to defeat Rodgers, who is 9-3 as a starter in the rivalry, including the NFC championship game after the 2010 season. Rodgers threw 12 touchdowns and only two interceptions in the 2012 and 2011 meetings, all Packers victories.
What's troublesome for the Bears is the dual threat the Packers now have. Backup Matt Flynn lacks the arm strength to challenge defenses downfield and he has been error prone. Rodgers has been practicing for nearly a month and the Packers hope he doesn't have a lot of rust to knock off. He could get wide receiver Randall Cobb as the playmaker said he expects to return from a broken leg that has sidelined him since mid-October.
The Bears have to be mindful of Eddie Lacy, who rushed for 150 yards in the first meeting. The rookie did not practice Thursday with a sprained ankle but McCarthy said he expects him to play. Lacy and James Starks should challenge a Bears run defense that ranks last in the NFL.
"They've had some difficulties against the run, but it's a team with a lot of pride," Rodgers said. "They're very well coached and, in that temperature on that field, I expect it's going to be hard-fought normal Packers-Bears game."
It's hard to think of it as normal, though, with Rodgers experiencing the first long layoff of his career.
"It's a great learning experience," he said. "Every time you're faced with some adversity, you really take something away from that, and for me it was to be able to step back and look at the team from a different perspective. You learn a lot through the process, you find new ways to lead, you realize how important your attitude and your enthusiasm and the energy you bring to practice can be to the guys.
"I know they're excited about my return, but I think that the way they believe in me and the expectations they have in me, I have the same ones for them. I believe in them and have expectations that they're going to play well. My coming back doesn't mask over any of that, or doesn't alleviate pressure on the guys. The pressure that we put on ourselves, we can harness at this point and see how good we can really be."
His teammates feel the same way.
"Just because Aaron is the quarterback doesn't mean we're going to be able to go down there, have him walk out of the tunnel first and we get a win," wide receiver Jordy Nelson said. "Everyone is going to have to do their job. Going into Chicago to beat Chicago isn't going to be easy."
(c)2013 Chicago Tribune
Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services