GREEN BAY – A year after winning Super Bowl XLV with an unfathomable 15 players on season-ending injured reserve, coach Mike McCarthy’s six-word synopsis of the Green Bay Packers’ injury report entering the postseason could not have been rosier.
“I expect to have everybody back,” McCarthy said Monday, one day after the Packers’ 45-41 victory over the Detroit Lions in their regular-season finale.
Not only did veteran left tackle Chad Clifton (hamstring/back) see game action Sunday for the first time since Oct. 9 and run-stuffing defensive tackle Ryan Pickett (concussion) play for the first time since Dec. 11, but the six players deactivated for the game because of injury -- cornerback Charles Woodson (knee), outside linebacker Clay Matthews (ankle), wide receiver/kick returner Randall Cobb (groin), running back James Starks (ankle), right tackle Bryan Bulaga (knee) and wide receiver Greg Jennings (knee) – will all be ready for the top-seeded Packers’ first playoff game, Jan. 15 at Lambeau Field in the NFC Divisional Playoffs against the lowest remaining seed.
McCarthy said Starks, who has been battling ankle injuries since Thanksgiving, may not practice on Wednesday, but everyone else should be full go. The Packers will practice Wednesday in shells and Thursday in pads before the players have Friday, Saturday and Sunday off.
The only injury to come out of the game was the bruised ankle suffered by rookie tight end Ryan Taylor, a core player on special teams, but he could practice Wednesday, too. Bulaga, who hasn’t played since Dec. 18 at Kansas City, and Jennings, out since going down on Dec. 11, both will practice.
“That was the intent going into the game, making sure Bryan and Greg and those guys had the extra week to get back,” McCarthy said of sitting so many key players for a game that wouldn’t impact his team’s playoff seeding. “It’s where you want to be. It’s definitely better than the alternative.”
McCarthy knows that situation well. Entering the playoffs, the Packers have six players on injured reserve: Rookie kick returner Shaky Smithson (shoulder) and rookie defensive end Lawrence Guy (concussion), both of whom suffered training camp injuries and likely would have been released if they had stayed healthy; three-time Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins, who suffered a career-threatening neck injury Sept. 18 at Carolina; rookie running back Alex Green, a third-round pick who tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee Oct. 23 at Minnesota; tight end Andrew Quarless, who suffered a torn ACL against the New York Giants Dec. 4; and rookie tackle Derek Sherrod, the team’s first-round draft pick who broke his leg Dec. 18 at Kansas City.
“You always like to go into the playoffs healthy, and there have been times this year when we haven’t been healthy and we had to play different combinations of people,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “It gives us more options for playing some different personnel groups. I like our situation from a health standpoint.”
The biggest news Monday what that Clifton, who injured his hamstring Oct. 9 at Atlanta, then had a setback with a back injury in early December, will reclaim his starting job at left tackle. Marshall Newhouse, who started 10 games in his place, will back up both Clifton and Bulaga when the playoffs begin. After saying he would watch Clifton during the open week in practice and then decide on his starter, McCarthy saw enough from Clifton in his 25 snaps Sunday to make the call Monday.
“Chad Clifton will be the starter. Marshall’s done an excellent job. We’ve won a lot of games with Marshall Newhouse. But Chad Clifton is the starter. There's won’t be any gray area for that,” McCarthy said. “But in the same breath, Chad still has a little more work to do. And we’ve got time to get it done. I'm encouraged by the progress he's made and as long as he can stay healthy through these next couple weeks.”
Asked what his reasoning was for going with Clifton, McCarthy replied: “Experience, and he's a good player. Chad Clifton is a damn good player.”
In 12 NFL seasons, Clifton has played in 165 career games, including 12 postseason games. He played the Packers’ first three offensive series in Sunday’s regular-season finale, giving up a sack that led to a Matt Flynn fumble to set up Detroit’s first touchdown, but settled in thereafter.
“Our goal was to play Chad Clifton 25 plays. It just sorted out that way after the third series. That was exactly what we wanted to do,” McCarthy said. “. I think he’s going to be happy with the film. There’s some things he needs to work on, just some specifics as far as footwork and the injury, the effects of what he still has to work on. Having two full weeks of preparation, I’m confident he’ll get where he needs to be.”
The returns of Clifton and Bulaga mean the Packers will have their preferred five starters on the offensive line together for the first time since Week 3, when Bulaga went down with a knee injury against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field on Sept. 25.
“Luckily, we’re going to get a little extra practice time this week, (so) the open week is beneficial, I think,” offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. “You’re banking on some experience. Obviously Bryan’s still a young player in his second year. With Chad, I think it’s just a matter of getting out there, getting comfortable again, getting the mechanics down again. I don’t want to make it as simple as riding a bike, that you don’t forget – there’s a little more to it, just the timing of those things. And maybe working some twists with the guy next to you. Hopefully we can advance that.
“It kind of is what it is. There’s nothing much we can do (about the time together they missed). But I think we’re in good shape.”
Another area that should benefit from the healthy roster is special teams, where the Packers will keep some continuity in personnel. When injuries strike, special teams is the first unit to be heavily impacted.
“We’ve had less change, and I think that helps,” special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said. “We’ve got a good group of guys.”
The only drawback – if there really is one – to a healthy roster is that the seven-player game-day inactive list won’t be easy to decide upon.
“It’s going to be tough making the inactive list for the Divisional Playoff game. That’s never any fun,” McCarthy said. “You’ve played a full season and you have healthy guys you have to put down for the game. But those are good problems to have.”
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.