Even after Aaron Rodgers threw three interceptions, after wide receiver Davante Adams was knocked out of the game with his second concussion of the season and after Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton threw for four touchdowns with no interceptions, the Green Bay Packers still had a chance Sunday.
A brilliant onside kick by Mason Crosby spun away from rookie tailback Christian McCaffrey, and safety Marwin Evans pounced on it to give Rodgers and the offense a final opportunity with 2:40 to play. It was everything the Packers could have hoped for in a season that saw their franchise quarterback spend eight weeks on injured reserve.
But a journey toward the playoffs, and perhaps a third straight overtime victory, was literally ripped from their grasp on a gut-wrenching fumble by wide receiver Geronimo Allison with under two minutes remaining. Cornerback James Bradberry slapped the ball from Allison's hands, and the Panthers secured the loose football. They kneeled three times to drain the clock and, most likely, the Packers’ season.
Carolina 31, Green Bay 24.
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The loss tarnished Rodgers’ long-awaited return from a broken collarbone, a reappearance that will be remembered as an uncharacteristically poor performance. He threw three interceptions for the first time since 2009 on three passes that were underthrown. He threw behind receivers at times and short of their hands at others. Certainly, there were moments of brilliance — a flip to Randall Cobb for a 33-yard score, numerous scrambles for first downs, a 76-yard touchdown drive in the waning minutes — but the overarching theme was one of rust that even the two-time Most Valuable Player could not shake.
His numbers captured the volatility of the performance: 26 of 45 for 290 yards, three touchdowns, three interceptions and a passer rating of 71.5 — more than 30 points below his career average.
At 7-7, the season is effectively over for the Packers. Though they are mathematically still alive, the scenarios needed to reach the postseason are lottery-esque. In all likelihood, a string of eight consecutive playoff berths will crumble.
Here are five takeaways from the loss:
Health check: Earlier this week, quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt said he and the rest of the coaching staff were looking forward to the first hit absorbed by Rodgers. They wanted it to come early, they wanted him to get up unharmed and then they wanted him to settle in after two months on the sideline. In truth, Rodgers did not appear bothered by his collarbone over the course of the game despite absorbing a decent amount of punishment. He was dragged down from behind by two defenders but flipped the ball to wide receiver Randall Cobb for a 33-yard catch-and-run touchdown before halftime. He was leveled from behind by defensive lineman Kawann Short and — with nothing more than a shake of his head — carried on without issue. There were conversations between Rodgers and the medical staff throughout the game, and television cameras showed him telling team physician Patrick McKenzie that he was fine. Rodgers absorbed 7 total hits, including 3 sacks, the last of which helped end the season as Julius Peppers beat Jason Spriggs on a crucial fourth down with 5:46 remaining.
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Old foe: The dramatic turnaround by cornerback Damarious Randall continued Sunday with another impressive performance. He spent a significant part of the game matched up with Devin Funchess, the top target for the Panthers, and once again held his ground. Funchess managed just one catch for 19 yards through the first three quarters. Instead, the player who demolished the Packers was tight end Greg Olsen, the same player that gave them fits two years ago with seven catches for 66 yards and a touchdown. Olsen was even more devastating this week, finally rounding into form after foot surgery and a stint on injured reserve earlier this year. Whether the Packers used man coverage or zone coverage, Olsen proved a steady target for Newton. He caught nine passes for 116 yards and a touchdown with the score coming on a blown coverage that allowed Olsen to saunter into the end zone. Olsen, rookie running back Christian McCaffrey and wide receiver Damiere Byrd combined for four receiving touchdowns.
Missed connection: Jordy Nelson had become an afterthought in the seven games with Brett Hundley as the starting quarterback. His longest reception during that time was 17 yards. His highest receiving total was 35 yards. He had only one game with more than four receptions. It stood to reason that the return of Rodgers, his longtime running mate, would reinvigorate a player on the backside of his career. But Nelson was held without a catch until the 4:44 mark of the third quarter after the first three passes in his direction fell incomplete. One of them, an ill-advised throw by Rodgers into double coverage, was intercepted deep down the right sideline by Bradberry. It was Rodgers’ third interception of the game. Nelson finished with three catches for 28 yards.
VIDEO CHAT: Aaron Nagler postgame with fans
PACKERS CHAT: Ryan Wood at 1 p.m. Monday
Scary moment: For the second time this season, wide receiver Davante Adams was subject to a vicious, unnecessary and illegal hit that knocked him out of the game. In September it was Chicago Bears linebacker Danny Trevathan smashing Adams with a helmet-to-helmet blow after a catch over the middle of the field. Adams was taken off the field on a stretcher and spent the night in a Green Bay hospital. This time, Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis Sr. again leveled Adams with a helmet-to-helmet hit on a blindside block following an interception by Rodgers. Adams attempted to make a tackle on safety Colin Jones, who picked off Rodgers deep down the middle, and Davis blasted him from the side. He walked off the field under his own power and headed to the locker room. Adams was diagnosed with his second concussion of the season and did not return.
BOX SCORE: Panthers 31, Packers 24
GAME BLOG: Review Silverstein's live coverage
Slow start: No defense has allowed more points on the opening possessions of games than that of the Packers, who once again were dissected from the outset. The Panthers marched 85 yards on 15 plays during their first drive to reach the end zone on a 7-yard pass from Newton to McCaffrey, a play in which linebacker Blake Martinez and safety Josh Jones both tried to cover Olsen. The touchdown capped a tremendous series for McCaffrey, the first-round pick from Stanford. He touched the ball nine times — both running and receiving — to account for 60 yards by himself. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers appeared to make a schematic adjustment for this week’s game by replacing inside linebacker Jake Ryan with Joe Thomas, a more agile and athletic option. It’s possible Capers believed Thomas gave his defense more flexibility in defending both McCaffrey and Newton, whose running ability was a constant threat (14 carries for 58 yards). Regardless, the Packers were sliced and diced on the opening drive, and the Panthers jumped out to a 7-0 lead.