Preview: Rodgers nears return, but Packers wary of winless Browns

CLEVELAND — Barely, but the Green Packers somehow survived without Aaron Rodgers.

They just need to do it for one more week.

With Rodgers on the verge of returning from a broken collarbone after missing seven games, the Packers (6-6) have stayed in the hunt for a spot in the NFC playoffs without their starting quarterback and can’t avoid a letdown Sunday against the Browns, who may be winless but are also dangerous.

More Packers coverage

“We need to win the game,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said this week, wrestling the spotlight back from Rodgers’ impending return after he practiced in pads this week. “We’re 6-6. We need to be seven wins when we get on that plane coming back from Cleveland. Nothing else matters.”

Green Bay’s season — and any Super Bowl talk — appeared doomed when Rodgers was taken down in an Oct. 15 loss to Minnesota, breaking his collarbone so severely that 13 screws were needed to repair it. But despite scuffling to two wins in six games without their leader, the Packers can not only salvage 2017 but make it special.

First, though, they have to handle business with the Browns (0-12), who have four games left to get a win and avoid infamy by joining the 2008 Detroit Lions as the only teams to go 0-16.

Cleveland’s record can be deceiving. While they haven’t won, the Browns have been competitive and it may be just a matter of time before they avoid the big mistake, string four quarters together, and shock someone.

The Packers are wary. If nothing else, Rodgers’ injury has taught them not to take anything for granted.

“Anytime you lose your best player and a guy who pretty much makes the team run, it is obviously a difficult situation to be in, one that requires you going through a lot of adversity and games that are a lot closer,” linebacker Clay Matthews said. “You really have to persevere and grind these out. We are not overlooking the Browns. I think it would be foolish to look at their record and think that we are going to win because this is a young team that is competing and has some playmakers.

“I think it will be a competitive game. Hopefully, we come out on top. In the meantime, he can get healthier, and perhaps the following week, he is back for the final three-game stretch and we have a very real chance of making these playoffs and getting hot.”

JACKSON SURVIVES

The Browns aren’t going to lose their coach, too.

Despite a 1-27 record entering Sunday’s game, Hue Jackson will return in 2018. Owner Jimmy Haslam is bringing Jackson back for a third season, but he’ll work with a new front office after vice president Sashi Brown was fired.

Jackson could help his long-term job security with a win — or two — in the final four weeks, but at least the Browns won’t be embarking on yet another coaching search under Haslam, who has already fired three coaches since 2012.

RUN IT UP

The Packers are getting their running game in gear, just in time for December’s chilly weather.

Jamaal Williams had 113 yards on 21 carries in last week’s overtime win against Tampa Bay, while fellow rookie tailback Aaron Jones’ 20-yard touchdown run ended the game. Mobile quarterback Brett Hundley also had 66 yards on seven carries. The Browns game could be Hundley’s last start if Rodgers is cleared. Until then, Green Bay might be better off running the ball, even against a Cleveland defense allowing only 97 yards rushing per game.

GORDON PART II

Josh Gordon’s impressive debut last week after missing 44 consecutive games has opened up Cleveland’s offense. Gordon only finished with four catches despite 11 targets, but the wide receiver’s presence on the field forced San Diego’s defense to account for him on every snap.

With injuries throughout their secondary, the Packers are expecting the Browns to feature Gordon.

“He’s a guy you have to keep an eye on, especially with what he was able to do several years ago,” Matthews said of Gordon, who led the NFL with 1,646 yards receiving in 2013.

PASS RUSH PICK-UP

Green Bay’s pass rush picked up last week as the Packers recorded a season-high seven sacks against the Buccaneers.

Matthews had 2 1/2 sacks, and the defensive line played its best game this season with tackle Kenny Clark getting two sacks. Getting consistent pressure will be even more important for Green Bay on the back end with rookie Kevin King, one of the team’s top cornerbacks, going on injured reserve this week with a shoulder injury. Starting cornerback Davon House also didn’t practice at midweek with a shoulder injury.

GREEN BAY (6-6) vs. CLEVELAND (0-12)

Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, Fox

OPENING LINE — Packers by 3 1/2

RECORD VS. SPREAD — Packers 6-6, Browns 3-9

SERIES RECORD — Packers lead 12-7

LAST MEETING — Packers beat Browns 31-13, Oc. 20, 2013

LAST WEEK — Packers beat Buccaneers 26-20, OT; Browns lost to Chargers 19-10

AP PRO32 RANKING — Packers No. 18, Browns No. 32

PACKERS OFFENSE — OVERALL (25), RUSH (16), PASS (27)

PACKERS DEFENSE — OVERALL (24), RUSH (14), PASS (26)

BROWNS OFFENSE — OVERALL (24), RUSH (19), PASS (23)

BROWNS DEFENSE — OVERALL (10), RUSH (6), PASS (17)

STREAKS, STATS AND NOTES — Packers managed to stay in playoff race without QB Aaron Rodgers, who practiced this week. … Rodgers broke collarbone on Oct. 15 at Minnesota. Packers are 2-4 without Rodgers, who could return next week against Carolina if he’s medically cleared. … Coach Mike McCarthy tried to keep team focused on winless Browns, saying “nothing else matters” but victory Sunday. … QB Brett Hundley passed for 84 yards last week, but ran for career-best 66. He ranks first among NFL QBs with 8.38 yards per attempt. … Rookie RB Jamaal Williams had season-high 113 yards against Bucs. … Green Bay has scored league-high 47 points on opening drives. …While Browns have lost close games, Packers have won five by eight points or less. … Packers rushed for 199 yards last week on just 29 carries. … Green Bay defense got seven sacks last week vs. Tampa Bay and has 16 in past four games. … Packers making first trip to Cleveland since 2009. … Packers are 11-2 in December games dating back to 2014. … Browns coming off volatile few days — VP Sashi Brown was fired and owner Jimmy Haslam announced coach Hue Jackson returning in 2018 despite 1-27 record. … Browns’ front office could undergo more changes in weeks ahead. … Browns WR Josh Gordon had four catches for 81 yards last week in first game since end of 2014 season. Gordon was targeted 11 times by rookie QB DeShone Kizer, who missed speedy receiver on some deep routes. … Kizer has struggled with turnovers and accuracy. He leads league with 15 INTs and has completed league-low 52.5 percent of passes. … Browns’ last win came on Dec. 24, 2016 and team is 4-45 since final month of 2014. … David Njoku one of few positives this season. Leads team with four TD catches, most for Browns rookie TE. … LB Joe Schobert has 113 tackles, tied for second most in league. … Fantasy Tip: At times, Gordon looked like best player on field last week and could have huge day against Packers, who are dealing with injuries in secondary.