In an NFL season defined on the filed by the absence of superstars due to suspension or injury, the biggest blow yet came Sunday afternoon at Lambeau Field.
Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr — whose blindside sack of Matt Barkley in 2012 ended Barkley’s USC career, as college fans might recall — leveled Aaron Rodgers with a hit that sparked controversy.
Barr’s hit on Rodgers instantly changed the fortunes of the Packers season and the playoff picture in the NFC. An awkward fall caused a broken collarbone that will put Rodgers out for eight weeks minimum, the full season at the most, in what is heartbreaking news for fans of the Cheeseheads.
— HighlightHub (@HighlightHub_) October 15, 2017
Packers head coach Mike McCarthy announced on Monday afternoon that Rodgers’ injury will require surgery; news that puts Rodgers season in serious doubt and makes late December or the playoffs as outside possibilities for a return at best for the Packers.
McCarthy says Rodgers' injury will require surgery.
— Aaron Nagler (@AaronNagler) October 16, 2017
Barr’s hit on Rodgers — out of the pocket and after Rodgers released the ball –kicked off debate as to whether or not the play was dirty.
Rodgers had choice words for Barr after the play as he walked off the field in another moment to be added to the storied rivalry between the Packers and Vikings.
Beyond the argument on whether or not Barr’s decision to hit Rodgers slightly after the play was malicious or dirty football is the impact the longterm absence will have on the NFC North.
Before Barr’s hit on Aaron Rodgers, the Vikings and Detroit Lions were firmly behind the Packers and in a familiar position of fighting for the Wild Card places in the NFC.
Now, the Vikings are in the pole position in the division at perhaps the perfect time to build towards a deep January run. Teddy Bridgewater is set to come back right at the moment the Packers lost the quarterback who has tormented them for so long in a perfect turn of events in the minds of Minnesotans.
On Teddy Bridgewater post-exam today: #Vikings will activate him this week or next week. They expect him to play this year. Amazing recovery
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) October 16, 2017
Bridgewater’s medical clearance is welcome news for a Vikings team that managed to answer the bell after losing stopgap starter Sam Bradford earlier this season along with first round rookie running back Dalvin Cook.
To hold a 4-2 record after five games with Case Keenum under center is no easy feat. The Vikings run is further impressive when you factor in the loss of Cook, who was supposed to carry the team on the ground in the absence of both Bridgewater and Bradford.
The Vikings are now reaping the reward of keeping it together in the face of their own injury adversity with a golden opportunity to win the NFC North. A path that is now considerably easier without Rodgers, but will still possess challenges for the Purple.
The biggest challenge will be the Detroit Lions, who blew their own golden opportunity to turn the NFC North into a three-way tie for first place on Sunday with a dismal home loss to Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints.
Still, the Lions have looked dangerous at times this season and hold a road win over the Vikings that could come in handy come tiebreaker time at the end of the year.
Detroit faces questions after two straight losses and 52 points allowed on Sunday against New Orleans, but with Rodgers now out of sight this is as good of a year as any for the Lions to win their first ever NFC North title — a division title that would mark the franchise’s first since 1993, when Barry Sanders carried them to a crown in the old NFC Central.
As for the Packers, their season isn’t over at 4-2 if they can rally quickly from the shock of losing Rodgers and his ability to mask the limitations of the rest of the roster.
Green Bay plays four of their next six games at Lambeau Field and hold a Week 8 bye before hosting the Detroit Lions for a Monday Night Football matchup on Nov. 6.
That break allows the Packers time to prepare for life without Rodgers, whether it be with former UCLA starting quarterback Brett Hundley — Anthony Barr’s former college teammate, coincidentally — or a free agent who is currently sitting at home.
Brett Hundley gets his first NFL touchdown! Pack on the board pic.twitter.com/GJrlCKqSn8
— The Brew-City Army (@brewcityarmy) October 15, 2017
Names like Tony Romo, Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III could all conceivably come in, but are longshots for a team likely to give the reps to a young quarterback already immersed in their system in Hundley.
McCarthy says he has three years invested in Brett Hundley…and then gets asked about bringing in Kap. Mike is not happy.
— Aaron Nagler (@AaronNagler) October 16, 2017
How the Packers adjust to give the replacement at quarterback the opportunity to win games will be the deciding factor on if they can stay in the division race. At 4-2, the Packers deserve to be considered as in the mix until they drop a game without Rodgers.
The Packers dropping games does feel like an inevitablity at this point and that inevitability has created an interesting season in the NFC North.
For the Vikings, the return of Bridgewater and the absence of Aaron Rodgers creates the chance to climb back to the top of the division and right the wrongs of their dismal 2016 collapse.
For the Lions, head coach Jim Caldwell now has the chance to cement his status in Detroit and quarterback Matthew Stafford has the chance to prove to his critics that he deserves his record setting contract by delivering a long awaited division title to the franchise.
For the Packers, Brett Hundley now has a chance to showcase to the league the talent that once had him considered as a top quarterback prospect before his stock fell to fifth round pick status. If Hundley can keep the Packers in the playoffs, he will prove to himself that he is an NFL-level starting passer and to the Packers that he belongs after the team nearly traded him ahead of the 2017 NFL Draft.
All of these possibilities are now in-play thanks to Anthony Barr and a controversial hit that has created the league’s most interesting division race.
Anything can happen between now and January, but most of the division race will now be decided without the player who has controlled the division for the better part of a decade. And that makes things pretty damn exciting in the NFC North.