GREEN BAY – While Mike McCarthy will have some tough decisions to make about who’ll play in Sunday’s regular-season finale against the Detroit Lions, the Green Bay Packers coach knows one guy who’ll definitely play if healthy: Veteran left tackle Chad Clifton.
"I want Chad Clifton to play in this game. He knows that, and that's the goal,” McCarthy said of Clifton, who hasn’t played since suffering a major hamstring injury Oct. 9 at Atlanta and suffering a back injury that further delayed his comeback in late November. “But once again, it is an injury situation, and (given) what he's gone through the last nine, 10 weeks, we'll take it day by day. But the goal is for him to play against Detroit."
Clifton practiced for the first time since the injury last week, taking part in individual drills on Wednesday and Thursday before doing individual work and scout-team work at left tackle on Friday. But the coaches, despite having seen Clifton for years in game action, need to see more from him to know if he’s capable of regaining his pre-injury form. If he is, they should know fairly quickly.
“I think if he’s healthy enough and gets some reps with our (offense), I’m sure we’ll be able to get a feel for, ‘Boy, he’s moving out of his stance really well” or “He can’t reach that three-technique on the backside.” Whatever it may be,” offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. “I would hope we could figure that out.”
McCarthy intends for Clifton to practice all week, including in pads on Thursday, before playing against the Lions
“We're ready to move to the next step," McCarthy said. “"We're hopeful Chad can get through a week of practice and play in the game. So that's the goal. But we've got to get him down to practice Wednesday and see how he does."
“Chad's played a lot of football for us. Chad's an all-pro left tackle. The call he needs to answer is his own. The feedback has been very good throughout the rehab and I just want to see him take the next step. More importantly, he needs to get out there in live action."
How much live action the rest of the Packers’ starters need against the Lions is open to debate. Having locked up the NFC’s No. 1 seed and the homefield advantage throughout the playoffs that comes with it, McCarthy has to decide how much risk he’s willing to take with the health of key players after seeing several starters go down in recent weeks.
All of those players – wide receiver Greg Jennings (knee), right tackle Bryan Bulaga (knee), run-stuffing defensive tackle Ryan Pickett (concussion) – are expected to be healthy for the team’s Jan. 14 or 15 NFC Divisional Playoff game at Lambeau, so McCarthy must consider which players to expose to potential injury in a game that will have zero impact on the Packers’ playoff position.
That said, the Lions are an NFC North division rival that hasn’t won in Green Bay since 1991, and in the wake of New Orleans’ victory over Atlanta on Monday Night Football, they’re also a potential playoff opponent. A Falcons victory coupled with a Lions loss to the Packers would make Detroit the No. 6 seed. That would require them to play at the No. 3 seed, which will either be San Francisco or the Saints, in the NFC Wild Card round Jan. 7 or 8. The No. 5 seed gets the more favorable matchup against the NFC East champion, and the Packers will play the lowest remaining seed the following week.
“When you’re playing a division team, you normally know each other better. So, they have a large book on us, I’m sure, just like we have on them,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “So, you’ve got to keep that (possible playoff matchup) in mind when you’re playing and preparing.”
Thus, beyond Clifton, it’s hard to know who will play and how much they’ll play.
The last time the Packers secured a first-round playoff bye and went into a regular-season finale locked into a top-2 seed was 2007. In that game, McCarthy played it safe in what would be a 34-13 victory over the Lions in the regular-season finale. Among his inactives that day were cornerback Charles Woodson, Pickett, defensive end Aaron Kampman, wide receivers Donald Driver and Jennings, and tight end Donald Lee – all of whom played two weeks later in the team’s NFC Divisional Playoff victory over Seattle. Quarterback Brett Favre came out two plays into the second quarter after staking the Packers to a 21-3 lead.
Then again, McCarthy opted to play his starters longer in the 2009 regular-season finale at Arizona, even though the team would be back at University of Phoenix Stadium the following week to play the Cardinals in the NFC Wild Card round. In that instance, Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt treated the game like a glorified preseason game.
"Every team's different,” McCarthy said. “Every player that played and didn't play in the (2007) game, it was an individual situation. You look at those factors. I think about '07, I think about two years ago when we went out and played at Arizona. So you draw from those experiences, how you thought your team went through that, what was best for that team.
“But at the end of the day, you're going to do what's best for this team and the individuals on your football team. We're preparing to win this game. It's important for us to sweep our division, (go) 15-1. We're going to have an excellent game plan and … we're going to prepare for them Thursday, Friday, Saturday like we always do. So we're approaching this game just like the others."
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.