Packers try to stay alive as Rodgers nears return

Pressure comes in different forms on Sundays in the NFL, a fact that will be on full display at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland when the Browns host the Green Bay Packers.

The Browns (0-12) are trying to avoid being the only team other than the 2008 Detroit Lions to lose every game in a 16-game season. There certainly is pressure there, particularly since they’re playing in front of their home crowd.

The Packers (6-6) are still in the hunt for a wild-card spot in the NFC, but they can’t afford to lose, especially to a winless team. The Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys are also 6-6 while the Seattle Seahawks and Carolina Panthers are 8-4 and the Atlanta Falcons sit at 7-5. Only two wild-card spots are available to those six teams.

Helping Green Bay is a head-to-head win over the Seahawks in the opener and a date with the Panthers in Charlotte a week after playing the Browns.

Star quarterback Aaron Rodgers, recovering from a broken collarbone, is eligible to return for the game with the Panthers. That game won’t have much meaning, though, if they don’t beat the Browns first.

“We need to win this game,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said on Wednesday. “That’s really all that matters. We’d be foolish or wasting our time thinking or talking about anything other than coming to Cleveland and playing our best football. We’re focused on whatever we need to do to win this game.”

The Browns are getting another chance to be spoilers. In the four weeks leading to the game with the Packers they played the Lions, Jaguars, Bengals and Chargers. All four teams were in playoff races when they played Cleveland. Their playoff chances increased when the game ended.

The game Sunday is also another step in the development of rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer. Kizer’s best three games so far were the opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the game against the Lions on Nov. 12 and the game against the Bengals on Nov. 26.

There is a pattern to the success he had in those three games. Kizer had extra time to prepare for the Steelers since it was the opener and extra time to prepare for the Lions because that game followed the bye. He did not have extra time to study the Bengals, but he faced them earlier (Oct. 1) in the season.

“Obviously, there’s going to be a very storied team this week with Green Bay that I’ve been able to watch and see some of the success that they’ve had as a team,” Kizer said. “Now, I get to figure out how to game plan and develop myself and get myself in a position to go out there and try to battle a team who has consistently had a lot of success.”

Third-year quarterback Brett Hundley will be starting for Green Bay in place of Rodgers. He was the winning quarterback in the Packers’ 26-20 overtime victory against the Buccaneers last week, but he did it completing 13 of 22 passes for 84 yards. He was sacked twice and posted a 48.3 passer rating.

“He knows how hard it is to win in December and how important these games are,” McCarthy said. “We’re going to get him ready. We’re going to do a good job and make sure he gets what he needs on Sunday to be productive.”

The Packers ran for 199 yards against the Buccaneers. Rookie Jamaal Williams rushed for 113 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries.

Putting up similar numbers against the Browns rushing defense will not be easy. Cleveland ranks 10th overall defensively and sixth in run defense. Cracks in the defense have appeared recently, however. Jaguars rookie running back Leonard Fournette rushed for 111 yards on Nov. 19. A week later, Bengals rookie Joe Mixon rushed for 114 yards.

Browns defensive coordinator Gregg Williams challenged his line to dominate the line of scrimmage. They answered the challenge last week, holding the Chargers to 94 yards on 25 carries. Star running back Melvin Gordon rushed for 77 yards on 19 tries.

Cleveland will need a similar defensive effort to derail the Packers.

“I do see them running the football,” Browns head coach Hue Jackson said. “That means that we have to do everything that we can to stop the run and play our gaps better, do those things and see if we can get the young quarterback to have to throw the football.”

Both teams are dealing with injuries. Inside linebacker Jake Ryan (neck/illness), cornerback Davon House (shoulder) and defensive lineman Quinton Dial (chest/knee) did not practice with the Packers on Wednesday.

Safety Jabrill Peppers (knee), cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun (knee) and defensive lineman Danny Shelton (chest/ribs) did not practice with the Browns.