GREEN BAY — Aaron Rodgers hasn’t forgotten what happened the last time he played against the Arizona Cardinals in the Valley of the Sun.
It was Jan. 16, 2016, during the 2015 NFC divisional playoffs, and the Green Bay Packers quarterback and his team were already decimated at wide receiver — kind of like they will be on Thursday night, when they’re set to face the undefeated Cardinals without Davante Adams or Allen Lazard because of COVID-19 protocols.
Back then, they’d lost Jordy Nelson, who was coming off a season in which he’d set the franchise record for receiving yards (1,519), for the year to a torn ACL in his knee in a meaningless August preseason game in Pittsburgh. They also were without Adams, who’d limped through most of his second NFL season with a debilitating ankle injury and was inactive against the Cardinals that night with a knee injury suffered a week earlier in an opening-round playoff win at Washington.
And on the second-to-last play of the first quarter, they lost Randall Cobb, whose leaping, one-handed 51-yard circus catch was nullified by penalties, to what turned out to be a punctured lung that sent him to the emergency room of a Phoenix-area hospital.
“We were without Jordy all season. Davante’s out. Randall gets his (injury) fairly early in that game on a crazy, crazy play down the sideline,” Rodgers recalled Tuesday as the Packers prepared for their “Thursday Night Football” matchup with the Cardinals — a game they’ll almost certainly have to win without Adams, who tested positive earlier this week for COVID-19 and is unlikely to get the two NFL-required negative test results 24 hours apart to be cleared to return.
“And we're out there with Jeff Janis and Jared Abbrederis and James Jones for most of that game.”
And yet, as unlikely as it was, the Packers nearly won that game after Rodgers threw up a pair of prayers to Janis in the final minute of regulation, completing a 60-yarder on fourth-and-20 from the Green Bay 4-yard line with 55 seconds left to keep the Packers alive, and a 41-yard Hail Mary touchdown as time expired to force overtime when Mason Crosby’s ensuing extra point tied the game at 20-20.
“What a wild finish that was to that one,” Rodgers said.
(One interesting historical footnote: Then-coach Mike McCarthy considered going for a 2-point conversion after Janis’ touchdown catch, but because Janis injured his back when he landed in the end zone, the Packers only had Jones and Abbrederis left at wideout, and McCarthy wanted to run a play from a three-receiver set.)
Whether this year’s Rodgers-led Packers can somehow do what that team couldn’t do remains to be seen. The Packers learned Tuesday they’d be without Lazard, who won’t play because he was an unvaccinated close contact of Adams and NFL protocols require him to quarantine for five days.
A source confirmed Tuesday evening an NFL Network report that Lazard was out because of his non-vaccinated, close-contact status and not because of a positive test.
“Our job is to perform at our best, and our job is to find ways to win ballgames. And unfortunately, that’s just the way that this league works. It doesn’t matter,” said Cobb, who rejoined the Packers this summer after a year with the Dallas Cowboys and a year with the Houston Texans. “When Aaron broke his collarbone (in 2013 and 2017), the NFL didn’t stop playing. When guys go out in this league that are ‘The Guy,’ the NFL continues to go on.
“The NFL’s not going to stop because one guy’s hurt, one guy’s out. We love our players, we love our teammates, but we’ve got to play ball. We’ve got two days to get ready to go up against an undefeated team. Our focus has to be on the game plan and making sure that we’re prepared and ready for the calls that are going to be made.”
The Packers did activate wide receiver Malik Taylor from the reserve/COVID-19 list, where he’d been placed on Oct. 15. After missing two weeks of practices, it seems like a stretch to hope Taylor could help on Thursday night.
“We're trying to ramp him up and we'll see where he's at, but he hasn't been around for a while,” coach Matt LaFleur said Tuesday evening. “We’ve just got to see where he's at. We never want to put anybody in a position where they could further endanger themselves.”
LaFleur also said he is still holding out hope receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who has been on injured reserve for the past four games with a hamstring injury suffered at San Francisco on Sept. 26, could be activated in time for Thursday night’s game. That decision could come as late as Thursday.
“He's getting better and better, and he’s running every day,” LaFleur said. “He’s working hard to get back out there. It’s just going to be a matter of where he is on game day.”
If Valdes-Scantling isn’t cleared, the Packers’ only other wide receivers on the active roster are Cobb, Equanimeous St. Brown and rookie Amari Rodgers. They do have two receivers on the practice squad in Chris Blair and Juwann Winfree, with Winfree having been called up for the team’s Oct. 17 win over Chicago. The Packers protected him on the practice squad this week.
“I think we always embrace every challenge and every opportunity, every time to go out there and compete. It will be a great challenge for us,” LaFleur said. “We’re going against the best team in ball — 7-0, at their place, primetime game. I’m sure that place will be rocking. It is a great challenge.”