Pete Dougherty and Aaron Nagler look at the road ahead for Aaron Rodgers and the Packers after their loss to the Panthers in Carolina.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. - As Aaron Rodgers put it, this was not what he envisioned a little more than eight weeks ago while lying in a hospital bed waiting to undergo surgery on his broken right collarbone.
The Green Bay Packers quarterback met his ambitious goal of returning this week with the Packers still very much alive in their quest to qualify for the playoffs for a ninth straight season.
But Rodgers needed to play at, or at least near, an MVP level in a road game against a good Carolina Panthers team in his first game back. And while he had moments of brilliance Sunday, he also showed too much rust on several passes, including three underthrown interceptions, for the Packers to win.
And so the Packers’ season all but ended with a 31-24 loss at Bank of America Field. Every year with Rodgers at quarterback is Super Bowl or bust, and now 2017 is bust.
“Obviously, I saw it going a little differently,” Rodgers said as he thought back to the day of his surgery. “But I’m proud of our guys for the way they played the last few weeks. Today, disappointed. I didn’t play very well. Obviously, I hold myself to a high standard. I expected to play well. It’s a good defense but I made too many mistakes. Even still, we had a chance there at the end to come back and tie it.”
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Now the question is whether Rodgers should play this week against Minnesota, or shut it down for the season. His and coach Mike McCarthy’s non-answers after the game sounded to me like they’re at least considering sitting him, and really, it’s the wise thing to do if they’re officially out of the playoffs come Monday night.
The Packers’ playoff chances are almost nil. If Atlanta beats Tampa Bay on Monday night — and the Falcons are a heavy favorite — the Packers officially are out. In that case, there’s no reason to play Rodgers.
The decision to clear him last week obviously wasn’t clear cut, that’s why it took two days to make. General manager Ted Thompson and team physician Patrick McKenzie made the right calculation there, because the Packers’ playoff chances were real, and if they won their final three, anything was possible in the postseason. They showed that last season in advancing to the NFC Championship game.
But to take that same risk without the playoffs at stake doesn’t make sense. The Packers don’t want Rodgers dealing with possible complications from a re-injury, let alone getting a late jump in his offseason work, just because he re-broke his collarbone in a game with only professional pride on the line.
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If Atlanta were to lose, though, then the Packers have to play Rodgers. At that point, the odds wouldn’t be good, but they’re not as bad as you might think, either. Basically, for the 7-7 Packers to get in with nine wins, Atlanta after the assumed loss Monday night would have to lose its last two games, at New Orleans and at home against Carolina. That’s certainly not a reach.
Also, Seattle would have to lose one of its last two (at Dallas and at home against Arizona). And Dallas would have to lose one of its last two (at home against Seattle, and at Philadelphia).
That’s enough of chance to justify playing Rodgers against Minnesota on Saturday.
But chances are Atlanta will win Monday night and that will be that. McCarthy’s and Rodgers’ equivocations on his status for next week lead me to think they’re at minimum considering not playing him.
“We’ll get back and we’ll assess it,” McCarthy said. “We play a game in six days.”
Said Rodgers: “We’ll see how I feel tomorrow and make a decision at that point.”
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Of course, the Packers’ defense has to claim its share of responsibility for this loss. It gave up 31 points, including leaving Greg Olsen uncovered on a 30-yard touchdown. And coordinator Dom Capers’ corps couldn’t contain Cam Newton, Christian McCaffrey and Olsen on third downs: Six of Carolina’s first seven third-down conversions were either completions to McCaffrey or Olsen, or a scramble by Newton.
But this was still a very winnable game for the Packers, and was the kind of game they won late last year and in the playoffs with Rodgers performing at a high level.
You knew he was going to show some rust after not having played in a game in nine weeks, it was just a matter of how much. He showed no inhibitions to run — he had five scrambles for 36 yards and dialed his own number on a read-option keeper to convert a fourth-and-1 in the third quarter. But his three interceptions suggests the rust was real, even though he also made his share of eye-catching throws, too.
All three interceptions were underthrows, with two coming when he was unable to set his feet. Those three empty possessions were killers on a day when you knew they’d probably need at least 30 points to win. One also gave Carolina a relatively short field (at the Packers’ 49) that set up a touchdown.
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But even with all that, the Packers still had a good chance to tie the game in the final minutes after scoring a quick touchdown and recovering an onside kick with 2:43 to play. This one wasn’t over until Geronimo Allison lost a fumble inside Carolina’s 30 with 1:50 to play.
“You know, I missed some (throws) I’m used to hitting,” Rodgers said. “I underthrew Randall (Cobb) for a pick, was trying to throw it away to (Davante Adams) got picked. Threw the ball in the dirt to Geronimo (for a third-down incompletion) in the red zone. Just uncharacteristic plays. Was disappointed in my performance today.”
And unless Tampa Bay pulls off a big upset over Atlanta on Monday night, that’s a wrap on the Packers’ 2017 season.