on the nfl mark craig

In 1994, the Packers were 6-6 and pretty much kaput. They won three straight to make the playoffs.

In 2003, the Packers went from 6-6 to 9-6 and were pretty much kaput when they went into their 3 p.m. regular-season finale needing the 9-6 Vikings to lose to the 3-12 Cardinals. Google "Nate Poole" if you don't know what happened that afternoon.

In 2010, the Packers fell to 8-6 when Rodgers missed a game. They were pretty much kaput when Rodgers returned, won two straight, slipped into the sixth and final NFC playoff spot and won the Super Bowl.

In 2016, the Packers were 6-6 and pretty much kaput when Aaron Rodgers gave his "run the table" speech. The Packers ran the table.

Uh-oh.

The 2017 Packers are 7-6 and believed to be pretty much kaput. Except the football gods keep breathing new life into them.

Two weeks ago, they beat the Buccaneers in overtime. Last week, they came from 14 points down entering the fourth quarter to reach overtime in Cleveland. They lost the coin toss. No problem. Three snaps later, DeShone Kizer ran around for a while and then just threw the ball up to no one in particular.

A Packer grabbed it. Six plays later, the Packers raised their record to 3-4 since Rodgers was carted out of U.S. Bank Stadium because of a broken right collarbone.

Now, it's Week 15 and Rodgers is back.

Like we said. Uh-oh.

"They wanted to keep themselves in playoff position, and that's what they've done because that's what kind of football team they are," said Panthers coach Ron Rivera, whose team hosts the Packers on Sunday. "I'm not surprised one bit."

So, Ron, do you expect some rust on old No. 12?

"We're talking about Aaron Rodgers, right?" he said. "We expect good football. Aaron Rodgers is one of those guys who probably doesn't need any practice. He's a first-ballot Hall of Famer. I expect him to be on his game, and that's what we're preparing for."

When Rodgers broke his left collarbone in 2013, he also missed seven games. The Packers were 5-2 when he left and 5-6-1 when he returned.

His first game back, he completed 25 of 39 passes for 318 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions in a 33-28 playoff-clinching win at Chicago in Week 17.

So, Packers coach Mike McCarthy, how'd Aaron look in practice?

"Aaron looked good," McCarthy said Thursday. "He's been practicing [for two weeks]. He looks like himself. He looks comfortable."

Did we mention uh-oh?

Yes, the Packers can still win the NFC North. If they go 3-0 — including a Week 16 win over the Vikings — and the Vikings go 0-3, the Packers win the division because they'll have the better division record.

That's unlikely to happen. Not with the Vikings playing the Bengals and Bears at home over the final three weeks. (Knock on wood ASAP, you Purple Pessimists.)

So here's the best scenario for Packers fans: Green Bay beats the Panthers, Vikings and Lions, finishes 10-6 and jumps Carolina (9-4) and Seattle (8-5) — two teams the Packers will have beaten — into the second wild-card spot.

For this to happen, the Panthers would need to lose Sunday and then once more, while Seattle would need to lose once more and finish second to the Rams in the NFC West. In this scenario, Atlanta and New Orleans — two teams that beat the Packers — would split the NFC South title and first wild-card spot between them.

Got that?

The Packers have been trying to tamp down talk of playoff scenarios this week. Not to mention the assumption of three more victories now that Rodgers is back.

"It's not, 'Now that he's back, everyone can take a deep breath and relax,'" receiver Jordy Nelson said. "We need to do our part. I mean, it's pretty much just like last year and we got to win out."

Mark Craig is an NFL and Vikings Insider. Twitter: @markcraigNFL

E-mail: mcraig@startribune.com