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  • The Packers are back in the mix for a spot in the NFC playoffs, with Aaron Rodgers's return looming.
By Conor Orr
December 03, 2017

Throughout the Brett Hundley era, television producers have budgeted a majority of their Sunday shoot schedule on stills of a hopeless Aaron Rodgers on the sideline dialed into a radio headset.

After Green Bay beat Tampa Bay, 26–20 in overtime Sunday, those looks at Rodgers have become increasingly ominous.

The Packers are back to .500, bundling them in a three-team logjam behind the seventh-seed Seattle Seahawks. All are vying for the last spot in the NFC currently held by the 7–5 Falcons. The Lions (6–6) were blown out by the Baltimore Ravens, 44–20, on Sunday. The Cowboys (6–6) defeated Washington in prime time Thursday.

With ESPN reporting that Rodgers is eyeing a Week 15 return and the Packers facing the Cleveland Browns next week, we may be in for a stunning turn of events. Here are our early strength of schedule rankings for the remaining five teams in the mix (one being the easiest schedule and five being the hardest):

1. Detroit (6-6)

At Tampa Bay Buccaneers, vs. Chicago Bears, at Cincinatti Bengals, vs. Green Bay Packers

Matthew Stafford’s injury history is obviously a major key to this puzzle down the road. Stafford bruised his hand in Sunday’s loss to the Ravens, and while head coach Jim Caldwell said X-rays did not reveal a break, it increases his level of difficultly and caution over Detroit’s final four games. Given how poorly they played against the Ravens on Sunday, are any of these final four a lock?

2. Green Bay (6-6)

At Cleveland Browns, at Carolina Panthers, vs. Minnesota Vikings, vs. Detroit Lions

Despite the return of Josh Gordon to Cleveland’s offense, the Packers have shown an ability to manufacture enough offense out of Hundley to stay in games. Green Bay’s narrow loss to Pittsburgh last week in prime time highlighted as much. The key for Green Bay will be a game against the Panthers in Carolina. If Hundley can somehow keep them alive past that point, Rodgers returns and the Packers are 8-6.

3. Dallas (6-6)

At New York Giants, at Oakland Raiders, vs. Seattle Seahawks, vs. Philadelphia Eagles

A rediscovered Cowboy running game on Thursday night makes Dallas interesting. Facing a New York Giants team that may have an interim head coach next Sunday is also interesting. If they managed to stay afloat, would an 8-6 Dallas team with Ezekiel Elliott back be more interesting than an 8-6 Packer team with Rodgers back?

4. Atlanta (7-5)*

Vs. New Orleans Saints, at Tampa Bay Buccaneers, at New Orleans Saints, vs. Carolina Panthers

A heartbreaker for the Falcons on Sunday, who dropped to 7-5 with an absolute gauntlet remaining. While there are benefits to keeping New Orleans off your early-season schedule, there is nothing appetizing about playing them twice in three weeks in December.

5. Seattle (7-4)

Vs. Philadelphia Eagles (Week 13 Sunday Night Football), at Jacksonville Jaguars, vs. LA Rams, at Dallas Cowboys, vs. Arizona Cardinals

This is a brutal four-week stretch for the Seahawks, who bounce from the one-loss Eagles to the Jaguars to the Rams. They then travel to Dallas for the Ezekiel Elliott return game.

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