CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Even trailing by 14 points in the fourth quarter on the road with their season on the line, the Green Bay Packers didn’t think they were finished.
That’s what a great quarterback gives a team.
Belief that he can bail the team out of any situation. Belief that he can make winning plays in the fourth quarter. And, yes, belief that he can return after missing seven games with a broken collarbone and save the season.
The Packers had that belief in Aaron Rodgers on Sunday and, while he gave it all he could, even that wasn’t enough to prevent a 31-24 loss to the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium, a defeat that, barring a miracle, put an end to the Packers’ string of eight straight playoff appearances.
Rodgers wasn’t perfect after a two-month layoff, far from it. But the Packers have become such an imperfect team that he needed to be perfect for them to win, especially against a Carolina team with a dangerous offense, a top-five defense and, now, a 10-4 record.
Rodgers’ mere presence gave the Packers a boost, his two touchdown passes staked them to a 14-10 halftime lead and his fourth-quarter touchdown pass cut Carolina’s lead to seven. After a successful onside kick, Rodgers had the confident Packers moving toward the tying touchdown when a fumble by wide receiver Geronimo Allison turned a potential first down at the 28-yard line into a turnover.
With one bang-bang play that could have been called a dropped pass instead of a fumble but was upheld upon review, Rodgers’ inspiring return came up empty and the Packers fell out of contention at 7-7.
“It’s not the fairy tale that we were hoping for,” Rodgers said. “As I lay in that surgery bed eight weeks ago thinking about this moment, obviously I saw it going a little differently. 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.”
Rodgers clearly looked rusty at times. Published reports had his collarbone at 80 percent healed, but he played fearlessly and aggressively. He scrambled three times on the Packers’ first-quarter touchdown drive, telling the world — and the Panthers — he was in it to win it despite the injury.
Through three interceptions and several hold-your-breath hits by pass rushers, Rodgers persevered. Indeed, the Packers had a chance to win until Panthers cornerback James Bradberry punched the ball away from Allison, who wouldn’t even have been in the game had not Davante Adams been sidelined by a concussion from an illegal blindside block by linebacker Thomas Davis after Rodgers underthrew Randall Cobb and was picked off in the third quarter.
Rodgers also underthrew Adams and Jordy Nelson on interceptions, both of which came on deep balls after he had escaped the pocket. Although Rodgers insisted his shoulder felt fine, those outside-the-pocket plays are normally his bread and butter, a sign his arm strength wasn’t yet up to par.
“I felt pretty good, I just missed some throws,” Rodgers said. “I missed some ones I used to hit and I underthrew Randall for a pick, was trying to throw it away to (Adams) and got picked, threw the ball in the dirt to Geronimo in the red zone. Just uncharacteristic plays. Was disappointed in my performance today. I obviously didn’t play very well.”
Rodgers played well enough to give the Packers a chance. After they fell behind 31-17 in the fourth quarter, he completed 13 of 17 passes for 142 yards and a touchdown the rest of the way, all in the face of a withering pass rush.
“He’s a warrior,” guard Jahri Evans said. “It was great to have him out there. Anytime you’ve got that back there, you know you’re not out of a game.”
The same can’t be said of the Packers’ beleaguered defense, which gave up three long touchdown drives in the second half, never did get a handle on dual-threat quarterback Cam Newton and, as usual, couldn’t defend the pass in the middle of the field. Tight end Greg Olsen and halfback Christian McCaffrey combined for 15 catches and 189 yards for Carolina.
The defense didn’t force a turnover, either, while the Packers gave it up four times.
“I thought Aaron did a lot of good things,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “I thought he competed just like he always does. Obviously when you look at our stat line, I’m stating the obvious, it’s hard to overcome being minus-4 (in turnovers) in the game.”
Unless the Packers can improve on defense — and they need to scrutinize every facet of their defense from coordinator Dom Capers on down — the only way they will beat teams like Carolina is if Rodgers is perfect. He wasn’t ready to play at that level Sunday and now, if Atlanta beats Tampa Bay tonight, the Packers will be eliminated from playoff contention.
“We’re not out of if it yet,” Rodgers said. “But we’ve had a great run around here and as long I’m here, I’m confident that we’ll be in the mix every single year.”
That’s easy to believe. It’s also easy to believe that Rodgers needs some help.