This was not the comeback game Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers had in mind.
After missing the past seven games with a broken collarbone, Rodgers made his return to the field Sunday against the Carolina Panthers. At 7-6 coming into the contest, it made sense for Rodgers to play and try to push the Packers into the playoffs for an eighth straight season.
Only, he probably imagined the game going a little differently, even against Carolina’s vaunted defense. Rodgers’ final stat line was ugly in an eventual 31-24 Panthers win: 26-of-45 for 290 yards and three touchdowns, but also three interceptions.
“As I lay in that surgery bed eight weeks ago thinking about this moment, I was hoping it would go a little differently,” Rodgers said. “It’s not the fairy tale that we were hoping.
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“Today, disappointing, I didn’t play very well.”
That isn’t how the quarterback’s afternoon started, though. Rodgers completed his first passing attempt of the day, a ho-hum 12-yarder to Davante Adams, which seemed to indicate there wasn’t any rust for the former NFL MVP. But as the game wore on, that rust started to manifest itself more and more, and the Panthers were there to take advantage of it.
On his first interception, Rodgers threw deep down the left sideline for Adams, but he threw off his back foot because the Panthers defensive line collapsed his pocket. Daryl Worley was in coverage on the play, and he happily snagged his second interception in as many weeks.
The second interception was purely on Rodgers, who underthrew a seam route into the waiting arms of a trailing Colin Jones, who played more snaps Sunday filling in for an injured Shaq Thompson. After Jones picked the ball, Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis crushed Adams and concussed him, which angered Packers players on the field and sidelines.
“As a group when we see one guy make a play, everyone feels as if they have to make a play,” Worley said. “That may be why they come in bunches because everyone turns their level of play up to another level.”
But the Panthers defense wasn’t done taking advantage of Rodgers. In the third quarter, again the Carolina defensive line – which finished the day with seven quarterback hits and three sacks – forced Rodgers out of the pocket and to scramble to his right. Rodgers threw on the run ... and underthrew another receiver, this time airing the ball to James Bradberry.
Rodgers said after the game he didn’t feel any rust necessarily, but that he had, “just missed some throws.”
After so many weeks away from the game, that’s to be expected from any any player, even one as talented as Rodgers. He still had three touchdown passes, including one late in the fourth quarter that made it a one-score game, and showed flashes of the normal Aaron Rodgers that NFL fans have come to know. But with the loss, even a close one, the Packers are now almost certain to miss the playoffs.
The Panthers, on the other hand, are 10-4 and still very much in the postseason hunt. Even if the team doesn’t win the NFC South, it still has a solid chance of being a wild-card team.
But to get to that point, Carolina needed to stifle Rodgers and the Packers on Sunday – that’s exactly what it did, and that’s exactly why it won.
“When you look at the stat line, it’s hard to overcome the obvious,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “Being minus four in the game (in turnovers) ... Our passing game wasn’t quite where it needed to be.”