GREEN BAY — The Packers are hoping to stay in the playoff chase long enough to potentially welcome back Aaron Rodgers from a collarbone injury.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers just put two starting offensive linemen on injured reserve and could be without starting running back Doug Martin because of a concussion.
They’re three games under .500 and a longshot to get into the postseason for the first time since 2007.
A visit to Lambeau Field today to face the desperate Packers (5-6) does not seem like the ideal time for the last-place Buccaneers (4-7) to bring their injured starting quarterback Jameis Winston back from a shoulder injury.
Coach Dirk Koetter decided otherwise this week.
“Jameis is going to start on Sunday. Any player that is ever back practicing, when have we ever not done that?” Koetter said. “When does a player not come back and (return to being) a starter that week?”
Backup Ryan Fitzpatrick guided the team to a 2-1 record during Winston’s absence. Winston has thrown for least 328 yards four times this season. Mike Evans is one of the league’s top receivers with 51 catches for 702 yards and four touchdowns.
It’s the third-best passing attack in the NFL (264.5 yards).
“Well, big-time weapons. ... You just look at the size and athletic ability of their perimeter group,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “But obviously a focal point for us defensively.”
The game features two of the league’s less effective pass defenses, with the Packers ranking 25th (244.1 yards per game) and the Buccaneers allowing an NFL-high 284.6 yards per game through the air.
Green Bay is 1-5 since Rodgers got hurt at Minnesota on Oct. 15. His replacement Brett Hundley showed progress during a 31-28 road loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers last week.
Hundley bounced back from a four-turnover outing two weeks ago against the Baltimore Ravens by throwing for 245 yards and a career-best three touchdown passes.
There is still plenty of improvement needed, and Hundley was sacked four times in the second half. But the Steelers game was a valuable learning experience in a nationally televised game played in a hostile road environment.
“It comes with me being able to see (plays develop) better and the timing with the receivers,” Hundley said. “It comes with experience, timing and getting the rhythm of all of it.”
But the Packers can’t afford any more defeats if they’re going to make a ninth straight trip to the postseason.
“We dug ourselves into a hole ... It’s really must-win at this point,” receiver Davante Adams said.
Rodgers celebrated his 34th birthday Saturday by returning to practice. The two-time NFL MVP is on injured reserve and was designated to return by the Packers on Saturday. He isn’t eligible to play until Dec. 17 at Carolina.
But at least the Packers have their starting quarterback back at practice for the first time since he broke his right collarbone on Oct. 15 at Minnesota. He had surgery four days later.
The Packers have been cautious about a timeline for a potential return for Rodgers since he got hurt, warning that it could have ended his season.
But coach Mike McCarthy said Friday that Rodgers was on track for a trial return. Rodgers threw several passes of at least 50 yards before a loss to Pittsburgh last week.
The Packers are not available to media on Saturdays.
“Absolutely, I think it’s a big deal when you see your leader out there,” McCarthy said Friday. “The guys have been able to watch him work here the last couple weeks.”
Winston’s return from a three-game absence coincides with the season-ending knee injuries to center Ali Marpet and right tackle Demar Dotson. They were both placed on injured reserve this week.
But Koetter said there is no greater risk for Winston to damage his shoulder than before his initial injury, so he will play.
“The player’s health is always the No. 1 thing for every football team,” Koetter said. “But if a player is at no more risk than whatever the normal risk is, and in the NFL that is substantial, then they’re going to play. That’s what they’re paid to do.”
The Bucs haven’t made the playoffs since 2007, however they entered this season with heightened expectations after finishing 9-7 last season. Koetter rejects the notion that appearing on HBO’s “Hard Knocks” series during the preseason created additional pressure that’s had an adverse impact on the team.
“I say all the time, no one has higher expectations for us than we have for ourselves, so I don’t think anybody from the outside could create expectations,” Koetter said.