THE BIG PICTURE
Too little, too late. That’s the bottom line for Aaron Rodgers’ valiant comeback after missing seven games with a broken collarbone. A rusty Rodgers kept the Packers in the game Sunday and occasionally flashed some of his magic despite throwing three interceptions, but it wasn’t enough as Green Bay struggled to contain a potent Carolina offense and fell 31-24. This in essence was a playoff game, a must-win against a quality opponent, and the Packers came up short. In the end, their once-promising season was derailed by three straight Lambeau Field losses with backup Brett Hundley. At 7-7 and with their postseason hopes all but over, the Packers would be wise to shut Rodgers down if they're eliminated and give Hundley more playing experience. After eight straight trips to the playoffs, these are unfamiliar and unsettled times in Green Bay.
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BOX SCORE: Panthers 31, Packers 24
Leading 14-10 entering the third quarter, the Packers allowed the Panthers to quickly glide down the field, and Cam Newton hit a wide-open Greg Olsen on a blown coverage by rookie safety Josh Jones for a 30-yard touchdown. On Green Bay’s next possession, Rodgers underthrew Randall Cobb and was intercepted by Panthers safety Colin Jones. During Jones’ run-back, Packers receiver Davante Adams suffered a concussion on a helmet-to-helmet hit by linebacker Thomas Davis and did not return. Again, Carolina wasted little time scoring, with Newton hitting Damiere Byrd for a nine-yard score that put the Panthers ahead 24-14. The two-touchdown swing and the loss of their best playmaker in Adams was too much to overcome.
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Much like when he returned from a broken collarbone in 2013, Rodgers clearly wasn’t himself. He tossed three interceptions and admitted afterward that he was underthrowing receivers all day. “I felt pretty good, I just missed some throws,” said Rodgers in describing his performance as “well below” his standards. But, what a difference it was having Rodgers back at the controls. Even with all the adversity and despite the mistakes, Rodgers kept slinging it and gave the Packers’ new life when they seemingly were dead, trailing 31-17 with under four minutes left. His 24-yard TD dart to tight end Richard Rodgers brought Green Bay to within seven, and if Geronimo Allison hadn’t fumbled on the final drive after Green Bay recovered an onside kick, the Packers may well have forced overtime for the third straight week.
The Packers knew their only chance of containing the Panthers’ offense was to force turnovers, with defensive coordinator Dom Capers saying last week, “This is one of those games where we’ve got to find some way to go out and get the ball taken away, whether it’s swarming and punching at the ball or tipped balls for interceptions.” On that count, the Packers’ defense failed miserably. Despite Newton’s frequent inaccuracy, Capers' unit came up with no interceptions while yielding four TD passes, and it forced no fumbles. Coupled with Rodgers’ three interceptions and Allison’s game-ending fumble, the Packers were blown out 4-0 in a turnover battle they had to win.
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Mike McCarthy declared last week that a good running game is a quarterback’s best friend. But the Packers didn’t give rookies Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones many opportunities to take the heat off Rodgers. Particularly perplexing was Jones ripping off runs of 23 and 20 yards in the first half, then getting only one carry the rest of the way. Williams, the better pass-blocker, understandably played more after the Packers fell behind, but he carried only 10 times for 30 yards.
Adams and Rodgers picked up right where they left off in Week 5, when they combined on the winning TD pass in Dallas. Adams caught five balls for 57 yards and a score in the first half, but the game changed when he was sidelined by a concussion (his third in the past 14 months) early in the third quarter. Lacking a home-run threat, Rodgers had to be content with dumping the ball off to Randall Cobb (seven catches for 84 yards and a touchdown), Allison (five for 33 yards), Richard Rodgers (four for 77 and a score) and Jordy Nelson, who failed to make an impact (three for 28) despite being reunited with his longtime partner. This game was Exhibit A in making the case for the urgency of re-signing Adams.
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Containing Newton was the top priority for the Packers’ defense, and that meant not only trying to mount a pass rush but also using a “spy” to guard against the running ability of the Panthers’ quarterback. The Packers rarely blitzed and sacked Newton only once (with just four quarterback hits), while their inability to handle his versatility never was more evident than on the opening drive of the third quarter. Newton carried three times for 25 yards on a seven-play, 73-yard drive that he began by hitting receiver Devin Funchess for 19 yards and capped by connecting with Olsen for 30 and a TD.
If it wasn’t Newton ripping holes in the Packers’ defense, it was running back Christian McCaffrey. The rookie from Stanford was unstoppable on the Panthers’ opening drive, rushing five times for 20 yards and catching four passes for 40 yards and a touchdown. Handicapped by their lack of healthy cornerbacks, the Packers tried to cover McCaffrey early on with safety Morgan Burnett and linebacker Joe Thomas, and it was a mismatch. Damarious Randall limited Funchess to one catch, but Byrd scored touchdowns on two of his three catches and the Packers had no answers for McCaffrey and Olsen (nine catches for 116 yards and a TD).
BITS AND PIECES
» Adams now has made a TD reception in a franchise-record eight straight regular-season road games.
» With his half-sack of Rodgers in the fourth quarter, former Packers edge rusher JuliusPeppers has 10 this season despite being one month shy of his 38th birthday.
» The Packers fell to 9-6 in their all-time series against Carolina (including postseason).