By Jason Keidel

Of all the NFL playoff contenders, perhaps no team has more variables than the Green Bay Packers. Or at least the largest one.

Every sentence, statement, or assessment of the Packers began with if.

If they can win a few games. If they can stay alive. If they can keep their nostrils above the .500 waters. 

Then the best quarterback on the planet returns with three games left.

After winning their last two games, the Packers are indeed alive, afloat, and part of the playoff picture. And they have Aaron Rodgers back under center. So their slim January hopes hang on his divine right arm as the Packers (7-6) travel to Carolina to play the Panthers (9-4).

You can understand if the Panthers are a little miffed, if not a little ticked, that they are the secondary story on Sunday. Not only do the Panthers have the better record, they have the better team, and likely the better chance to make a deep playoff run. But that’s the arm and star power of No. 12. While football is the quintessential team game, with each part literally dependent upon the other, Rodgers is the rare, if not unique, player who can literally carry a football club.

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You only need a TV and a pulse to find proof. The perfect, rainbow TD passes to end games. The most mind-numbing pass against the Cowboys in last year’s playoffs, when Rodgers rolled left, threw across his body, and unleashed a 35-yard laser that only his receiver could catch.

Even with Rodgers back, and shouting his “Green 18!” in endless inflections, tempting defensive linemen to jump offside, he still needs help, if not miracles, to make 2016 redux. Various football power indexes give Green Bay barely a ten percent chance to make the postseason, even with their wizard under center.

For just a moment, let’s assume that all the current NFC division leaders – Eagles, Vikings, Saints, and Rams – hang onto their respective crowns. The Packers are either looking up or at five other NFC teams with at least the same record. And three teams – the Panthers, Falcons, and Seahawks – have a better record, while Dallas and Detroit have identical records.

And the Packers have to win just to keep their helmet inside the circle of contenders. In essence, Green Bay is in a de facto, three-game playoff right now, starting Sunday, and must run the table just to have a chance.

And rather than consider the merits and matchups of the actual game –  like ProFootballFocus.com’s breakdown of WR Jordy Nelson vs CB James Bradberry, G Lane Taylor vs DT Kawaan Short, RB Jamaal Williams vs LB Luke Kuechly, or TE Greg Olsen’s yards per route – we abandon all nuance and just kick back, nuke some snacks, and watch Aaron Rodgers.

Great players have a way of obscuring the details, making the sublime look simple, and make us forget their process and predecessors. We forget that Brett Hundley did an admirable job keeping the Packers relevant, that the backup QB seemed to get better every game, and that he led the Pack back from a two-touchdown deficit last week in Cleveland.

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You’d also forget that the Panthers have a Herculean quarterback of their own. Cam Newton, though not as consistently divine as his talent warrants, is on a mission to erase the foul taste of the 2016 season, which had all the trappings of a Super Bowl hangover. Newton is not only as dynamic as any QB in the league, he still has a shot to win the NFC South and perhaps bag a home playoff game.

Even still, the Packers are the story, and are exponentially better when their best player is on the field. And, frankly, pro football is better when Aaron Rodgers is on the field. Unless you live near North Carolina, it’s hard to argue that the NFL is better off if the Panthers whip the Packers and essentially bounce them from the playoffs with two weeks left in the season.

At the risk of redundancy, or being accused of seeing the world through cheese-tinted glasses (I am not a Packers fan, for the record), nearly everyone we know either likes or loves football. But no matter the level of their NFL devotion, they all stop what they’re doing to watch Aaron Rodgers throw a football. His singular mastery of his position, as with LeBron James or Roger Federer, transcends sport and becomes art.

And who doesn’t like fine art?

Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.

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