Column: Several NFL stars ready to return for final playoff push, starting Sunday


One of the hallmarks of this NFL season is the number of marquee players sidelined with significant injuries, among them Aaron Rodgers, Odell Beckham Jr., Richard Sherman, J.J. Watt, and now leading most valuable player candidate Carson Wentz.

But in these final three weeks of the regular season, we’ll see some big-time players back on the field, either after getting healthy or serving out suspensions.

The eyes of the football world will be on Green Bay’s Rodgers on Sunday as he makes his return at Carolina. The two-time league MVP has been out since suffering a broken collarbone against Minnesota on Oct. 15.


Rodgers, who had two plates and 13 screws inserted in his right collarbone, was familiar with the routine, having endured the same injury to his left collarbone in 2013.

“It’s a long process,” he told reporters this week. “It’s tough, mentally. You have to just kind of attack the rehab every day. That’s why I thank these guys [Packers medical staff]. They allowed me to push the limits every single day on what we should be doing, and always allowed me to do as much as possible without putting any risk on it.”

At 7-6, the Packers are all but out of the playoff race. Former UCLA standout Brett Hundley was 3-4 as the starter at quarterback in place of Rodgers, with victories the past two weeks over Tampa Bay and Cleveland.

“It’s been fun to watch Brett up close,” Rodgers said. “He’s definitely improved throughout the seven games.”

The Rams are getting receiver Robert Woods back, just in time for a pivotal game at Seattle. He missed the last three games with a shoulder injury after accumulating 703 yards receiving and four touchdowns in the first 10.

“Getting Robert back out there just with what he provides from a leadership standpoint, obviously, the production that he was having before he went out with the injury, so that’s a big boost for us,” Rams Coach Sean McVay said.


The Eagles lost Wentz to a torn ACL last Sunday against the Rams, which was devastating for them, but they are getting tight end Zach Ertz back after he cleared concussion protocol this week. Ertz, who participated in individual drills Thursday and Friday, still leads Philadelphia with 57 receptions despite missing a week. The Eagles, who have won the NFC East, play at the New York Giants on Sunday with a chance to clinch a first-round bye. Nick Foles has replaced Wentz at quarterback.

New Orleans rookie running back Alvin Kamara suffered a concussion on the Saints’ opening drive against Atlanta in Week 14, and his team wound up with its lowest point total of the season in a 20-17 loss. He cleared concussion protocol Friday, meaning the Saints will have a key component of their offense back for Sunday’s home game against the New York Jets.

Two weeks ago, Buffalo quarterback Tyrod Taylor was carted off the field with a knee injury. That turned out to be a contusion and not ligament damage, however, and Taylor will be back for Sunday’s home game against Miami, aiming to keep the Bills’ flickering playoff hopes alive.

A few key players could be returning for Sunday’s clash of the AFC titans between New England and Pittsburgh. Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski will be back after serving a one-game suspension for a cheap-shot hit to the head of a Buffalo’s Tre’Davious White, and Steelers rookie receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster sat out last week after flattening Cincinnati’s Vontaze Burfict with a helmet-to-helmet hit and then tauntingly standing over him.

Smith-Schuster has a hamstring injury, however, and is listed as questionable for the game, as is cornerback Joe Haden, who is recovering from a broken fibula he sustained Nov. 12.

Next Sunday, another big comeback: Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott will be back on the job Monday after sitting out his sixth game to finish his suspension for alleged domestic violence. It probably will be too late for his team, though, as the Cowboys have only slim hopes of getting to the postseason as a wild-card team.


Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer