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To play or not to play? With playoffs out of the question, Packers must decide how to approach last two games

December 18, 2018

GREEN BAY — For Joe Philbin, the equation is a simple one.

“In life,” the Green Bay Packers interim head coach said Monday, “there’s a right way to do things and a wrong way.”

And as far as he’s concerned, the right way to finish a season — even one that won’t include the playoffs, as the Packers’ 2018 season won’t — is to keep playing with effort and pride, even if the stakes are no longer what you expected them to be.

That includes playing quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who said after Sunday’s 24-17 loss to the Chicago Bears — a defeat that extinguished the Packers’ already faint playoff hopes — that he wants to play in this Sunday’s game against the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium and the Dec. 30 regular-season finale against the Detroit Lions at Lambeau Field.

“In the general sense, my philosophy is football players are paid to play football games, and football coaches are paid to coach football games,” Philbin said, one day after the Packers fell to 5-8-1, thereby ensuring their second consecutive sub-.500, playoff-less season. “Obviously, we have to go through the week and we would never put any player out there that wasn’t physically ready to go. But that’s my general philosophy and overall philosophy — whether it’s Aaron Rodgers or anybody else.

“We’re the Green Bay Packers, we’re a football team and we’re in the business of winning football games, and we want all our players who are healthy to contribute to the overall success of the team. Period.”

In Rodgers’ case, there’s reason to question whether he is indeed healthy. Not only has he played all season with a left knee injury sustained in the Sept. 9 regular-season opener against the Bears, but he acknowledged in Sunday’s loss he suffered a groin injury while throwing a Hail Mary at the end of the first half.

“It bothered me a little bit,” he said.

That injury, even though Rodgers played through it, would give the Packers cover to sit him if they wanted to, especially after how troublesome his knee has been for much of the year.

Regardless, the team is in unfamiliar territory, because it has never been eliminated from playoff contention with Rodgers healthy enough to play during his time as an established starter. That’s led to some speculation that Rodgers might not play in the final two games because the Packers have nothing to play for and having him play puts him at risk for a significant injury that could jeopardize his 2019 season.

The loss to the Bears ensured the Packers will miss the playoffs for just the eighth time in the past 27 years, and for the third time in Rodgers’ 11 years as the starter. In 2008, when the Packers awkwardly transitioned from Brett Favre to Rodgers, the team finished 6-10. Last season, Rodgers missed seven games with a broken right collarbone — and then missed the final two games after the team lost in his one-game return to the Carolina Panthers — and the team finished 7-9.

With Favre at quarterback, the Packers finished 4-12 in 2005, when Rodgers was a rookie first-round pick backing up the future Pro Football Hall of Famer. That year, they were 3-11 entering the final two games and Favre, despite being in the midst of an NFL record streak for consecutive starts, predicted to Rodgers that the youngster would see action with the playoffs out of reach.

“I remember ‘Favrey’ came in late in the season and said, ‘Well, you’re probably going to get a chance to play here,’” Rodgers recalled. “Didn’t happen.”

Asked if he expected the team to use the final two games to take a look at young backup quarterback DeShone Kizer, Rodgers said he “for sure” wants to play.

“Nobody’s talked to me about (not playing). I want to play, though, so I’m expecting to start and play,” Rodgers said after Sunday’s loss. “I’d like to be out there and lead us the last two weeks.”

Rodgers enters the final two games having thrown for 3,974 yards but with the second-lowest completion percentage in his time as the starter (61.7 percent) and with just 23 touchdown passes, putting him on pace for the fewest he’s had in a full season. Rodgers had 17 touchdown passes in 2013, when he missed seven games with a broken left collarbone, and 16 last season, when he sat out nine total games because of his broken right collarbone.

The Packers could sit Rodgers to not only protect him but to see what they have in Kizer, whom they acquired in a trade with the Cleveland Browns last March. Kizer started 15 games for the winless Browns last year but the only meaningful action he’s seen this season was in the opener, when he went in for Rodgers after the injury — and before Rodgers returned to lead the team to a 24-23 come-from-behind win over the Bears.

For his part, Kizer said Monday he’d been given no indication he might play against the Jets.

“(But) if my number’s called, it’s my duty to go out and show my best efforts and do whatever I possibly can to help this team win,” Kizer said.

Philbin acknowledged the final two games could be used to get longer looks at some of the other youngsters who have seen limited action, from tight end Robert Tonyan to wide receivers J’Mon Moore and Jake Kumerow and others.

“We’ll play the guys that are healthy and our plan is to go and play as well as we can Sunday at noon and win a football game, period. Whoever can help us at that end, that’s my main objective,” Philbin said. “If that changes, we’ll certainly deal with it then.

“There may be some merit with (key players sitting out). I don’t know. For me, it’s pretty much cut and dried, as far as I can see.”

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