Packers face key game; Bucs bringing back QB Winston
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By GENARO C. ARMAS
GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) The Green Bay 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 are a longshot to get into the postseason for the first time since 2007.
A visit to Lambeau Field on Sunday 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."
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.
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 was eligible to start practicing this week if he was cleared medically. Even if that happened, the earliest that Rodgers would be eligible to play would be Week 15 against Carolina.
And if playoff hopes continue to fade , the Packers would be in a position similar to the Buccaneers this week in deciding whether to bring back a talented starting quarterback so late in the season.
For now, all the Packers can focus on is beating Tampa Bay. They face another winnable game in Week 14 at Cleveland.
"I don't have any `relax' one-liners or `run the table' or whatever. I'll leave that up to Aaron," linebacker Clay Matthews said.
"But we have to win these next two and when Aaron's back at the helm, we have a pretty good squad. That's the reality of it.
COMING AND GOING
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."
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 last week at Pittsburgh.
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."
WEIGHT OF EXPECTATIONS
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.
AIRING IT OUT
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 does hope to get Matthews back from a groin injury to give the pass rush a kick-start after just one sack against Pittsburgh.
AP Sports Writer Fred Goodall in Tampa Bay contributed to this story.
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Updated November 30, 2017