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Pack ready for 'even better' version of Aaron Rodgers in return

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Brett Hundley was eating lunch at his locker Wednesday when dozens of reporters and cameras swarmed to wait for the guy at the next stall over, leaving Hundley to snake his way through the crowd to a quieter spot in the Green Bay Packers locker room.

All eyes here are now on Aaron Rodgers. And while the two-time NFL MVP quarterback says he's "not coming back to save this team" -- a group that stayed in the playoff hunt with Hundley in the lineup the past seven weeks while Rodgers rehabbed after surgery for a broken collarbone -- the guy teammates say they've seen practice has the capability to do exactly that.

"He looks like the same Aaron I knew before he got hurt," receiver Davante Adams told me. "That leadership is back, and his competitive edge and his fine attention to detail that kind of raises everybody else's awareness and their style of play is back in the room. That's what drives this team."

Said defensive end Mike Daniels: "Aaron is hungry, too. He's a competitor. I see him around here every day. You just feel it oozing off of him. He looks like himself. Even better."

Rodgers was his usual, confident self in his first session with reporters since announcing Tuesday night he'd been medically cleared to play, but he chose his words carefully. There was no "R-E-L-A-X" or "run the table" to serve as a rallying cry (and sometimes comfort blanket) for fans the next three weeks.

This isn't the win-and-in scenario the Packers faced in 2013, when Rodgers returned from another broken collarbone to beat the Chicago Bears in Week 17 and clinch the NFC North. To win the division, they'd have to win all three games -- at Carolina, home against Minnesota, then at Detroit -- to get to 10-6 and have the Vikings lose all three. They'd need help to get a wild card, too. If head-to-head tiebreakers come into play, the Packers have beaten Seattle and Dallas, but lost to Atlanta and New Orleans (as well as Detroit, which hosts the rematch in Week 17). Their 5-4 record against NFC teams is tied for the worst among those in the hunt.

"We did it last year. We were 4-6 [before winning six in a row]. A lot of people counted us out," Rodgers said. "I saw something that we have 750-to-1 odds to make the playoffs. But we've never shied away from those types of circumstances and we're not going to again."

Rodgers' health is another issue. He wouldn't say how much the collarbone has healed (not completely, NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport reported Tuesday) or how the risk of re-injury might impact his freewheeling, play-extending style in the short term. He's cleared, Rodgers said, he's confident knowing all the information and "I wouldn't be playing if I didn't feel confident playing the way that I played my entire career."

As receiver Jordy Nelson put it to me when I asked his impressions of Rodgers in practice: "I don't think throwing the football is the issue. I think it's what happens if and when he gets hit."

The last hit Rodgers took -- one he didn't particularly care for, from Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr on Oct. 15 -- sent him to injured reserve and forced the Packers to turn to the inexperienced Hundley, who was part of three wins in his seven starts, the last two in a row in overtime against Tampa Bay and Cleveland.

Back at his locker after Rodgers' media horde dissipated, Hundley echoed that Rodgers looks "great" at practice. "Like I told him when he got injured," Hundley said, "I just wanted to make sure when he got back, he had an opportunity to still play and make the playoffs and still get that Super Bowl. We still have an opportunity, and we're still in it."

Rodgers led the NFL with 13 touchdown passes and had already engineered two fourth-quarter comebacks to beat Cincinnati and Dallas before the injury in Week 6. Coach Mike McCarthy noted the Packers have become a more balanced team since, with rookies Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones emerging to boost the run game, while Rodgers pointed to veteran receiver Nelson and receiver Randall Cobb as players he hopes to get more involved.

"I know there's a lot of juice left in 87," Rodgers said of Nelson, who hasn't caught a TD pass since Rodgers threw him one in Week 5. "I'd like to fill that up this week."

When I relayed Rodgers' comment, Nelson laughed. "We'll see," he said. "Hopefully. I'll take it. It's like getting the old band back together I guess."

Can Rodgers and friends pick up where they left off and lead the Packers to a ninth consecutive playoff appearance? They know they can't do it alone, but they can take care of their own business, starting Sunday on the road against a very good Panthers defense.

"We're not going to go to Carolina with a bunch of false confidence," McCarthy said. "We understand the impact that Aaron Rodgers makes for our football team and, hell, the impact he'd make for anybody's football team. He's a great player. He's an impact player. We're in a position that we're in. We're 7-6. We clearly understand what's on the line here."

Asked again how he may alter his play style in light of the injury, Rodgers pointed to Pittsburgh Steelers safety Mike Mitchell's recent comments about the clash between the violent nature of football and player safety efforts. At no point did Rodgers dismiss that he's taking a risk by returning to the field, for a chance at another late-season save -- and a place as one of the most dangerous teams in the postseason, thanks mainly to the presence of No. 12.

"It's a physical game and you have to go out and play as much as you can without fear," Rodgers said. "And that's why I'm here and that's why we're cleared and that's why I'm playing."

Follow Tom Pelissero on Twitter @TomPelissero.

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