Why you need to start Aaron Rodgers in the fantasy football playoffs

Special to The Washington Post

Maybe the Packers don't have a great roster. Maybe they're no real threat to win a championship this year. Probably both of those things are true. I don't care. Aaron Rodgers is coming back from his broken collarbone, and I love it.

Rodgers is that team. Take him out, put in Brett Hundley, and you've got the Browns, who incidentally played Green Bay to a standstill last Sunday. Conventional wisdom has it that no single player should move a Vegas point spread more than a point or two, but if Rodgers wasn't starting at Carolina this weekend, you can bet the Panthers would've been favored over the Packers by at least a touchdown. Instead, they're only giving three points. And I'd be betting on the Pack.

If you're debating whether or not to inject Rodgers into your fantasy lineup in the semifinals this weekend: stop. Don't overthink it. If he's not the league's best quarterback, it's a dead heat with Tom Brady, and we all know Rodgers gives you an added benefit Brady never will: competitiveness gets the best of him, and he starts scrambling around. Mike McCarthy will no doubt beg A-Rod to stay away from unnecessary contact, but in a big spot? I'll bet we wind up getting 30 rush yards from Rodgers this week almost by accident.

Really, here's the reason I expect that the Packers offense will return to form in Week 15: because it was so hapless without Rodgers. Take out that one guy, and they can't even run the same system. They haven't been able to let the kid QB throw downfield as much, and certainly not if his first read has been covered. They haven't asked him to stand in the pocket and roll through progressions. Instead, it's been, "Hit your back foot, one read, then get the hell out of there."

In the eight games since Rodgers' injury, Hundley is 7-for-24 on attempts that traveled more than 20 yards in the air. In the five games before he got hurt, Rodgers was 9-for-17 on such throws. I know, I know: news flash, Aaron Rodgers is better than Brett Hundley. But my point is that it wasn't even the same offense.

Jordy Nelson, maybe the most consistent back-shoulder weapon the NFL has ever known, was relegated to seven-yard in-cuts and standing around watching other receivers get targets. The running game became more important; in Weeks 1 through 5, the Packers gained 25 percent of their yards on the ground, and since then that number is 38 percent. As a play-caller, McCarthy has scratched and clawed and scrounged to go 3-4 without Rodgers. I don't believe for one second that Green Bay will run the "Hundley" offense with their Hall-of-Famer, mainly because it doesn't work very well! Sure, maybe they'll roll Rodgers out of the pocket less frequently. But the Cheesecake Factory play-sheet is back. Boldness will return as the order of the day.

And boldness is how fantasy championships are won. If you held onto Rodgers, or if you added him from your waiver wire, play him. I have him No. 3 in my weekly QB ranks, behind only Brady and Russell Wilson. In your semifinals, you're almost certainly playing against another strong fantasy squad with tons of built-in upside. So play some upside yourself. In his final three games before the injury, Rodgers passed for 10 touchdowns. He's a monster. And frankly, even he can't come through against a Panthers defense that has two Hall-of-Fame linebackers but might otherwise be a bit overrated, I can live with it. Maybe he's not sharp, maybe he hurts himself again ... but sometimes in fantasy football, you have to pick a place to make a stand. I can live with myself if I make a stand with Aaron Rodgers and it doesn't work out.

I'll admit that starting Nelson in your fantasy playoffs is a stickier wicket. His production drop-off has been crazy: the past seven weeks, Jordy has maxed out at five catches and 35 yards in a single week. From the beginning of the 2016 season to Week 5 this year against the Cowboys, Nelson had an NFL-high 26 targets thrown to him in the end zone. Since then? Zero. Does that reflect a deficiency on Nelson's part? Hardly! The past seven weeks combined, Hundley has thrown exactly four passes to the end zone, with one touchdown (last week's one-yard tying score to Davante Adams with 17 seconds left in regulation) and one interception. The best thing Nelson does — use body control and smarts to find creases and create room for back-shoulder throws — was borderline useless with the inexperienced, timid and relatively inaccurate Hundley.

With Rodgers back, I believe it'll get better, so whereas in Week 14 I didn't put Nelson in my top 50 wideouts, this week I've got him at No. 16. I do have the speedier Adams higher (he's No. 10); after all, even in those first five games with Rodgers, Adams had 10 more targets, four more catches and 55 more receiving yards than Nelson. (Note, however, that Nelson missed nearly all of Week 2 after tweaking a knee early in the Falcons game.)

To some degree, I'm splitting hairs. I want both of those Packers wideouts in my lineup this week, because when it comes to A-Rod's return, I'm choosing optimism. I'm choosing to believe that needing a win, one of the most clutch, most unstoppable offensive forces the NFL has ever known will find a way to turn back the clock and pretend his collarbone never snapped.

Copyright © 2017, Chicago Tribune
43°