CHARLOTTE – Not everything follows a Hollywood script.
Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was unable to make a triumphant return Sunday, as Green Bay fell to Carolina, 31-24, at Bank of America Stadium.
Coming back from a broken collarbone four years ago, Rodgers led the Packers to a dramatic victory on a fourth-down TD pass in a winner-take-all showdown for the NFC North title in Chicago.
After missing seven games in 2017, the rust in his game, combined with an explosive Carolina offense the Packers struggled to contain, was too much to overcome. Green Bay dropped to 7-7 and is in all likelihood out of playoff contention.
"It's not the fairy tale that we were hoping for," Rodgers said, moments after his first three-interception game since 2009 at Tampa Bay. "As I lay in that surgery bed eight weeks ago thinking about this moment, I obviously saw it going differently."
Two of Rodgers' three interceptions actually didn't hurt the Packers, but Panthers quarterback Cam Newton certainly did, throwing four touchdown passes.
Newton staked Carolina to a 31-17 lead before the Packers tried another dramatic rally. A 24-yard TD pass to tight end Richard Rodgers with 2:43 left, followed by a successful onside kick, gave Green Bay one last chance.
It fizzled, though, as wide receiver Geronimo Allison had the ball punched out by Panthers cornerback James Bradberry after catching a 10-yard slant pass to the Carolina 28. Safety Mike Adams recovered with 1:50 to go, and the Panthers kneeled out their 10th victory of the season.
"I think we had the momentum there," Rodgers said. "We would have been inside the 30 with time. The mindset there is to try and score and leave as little amount of time as possible, like we did in the first half.
"(Number) 24 just made a real nice play on the ball."
Rodgers ended the first half with his second TD pass of the game, a 33-yard catch and run by Randall Cobb. Combined with a 13-yard TD pass to Davante Adams on the final play of the first quarter, the Packers had a 14-10 lead at intermission.
But behind rookie running back Christian McCaffrey's 136 yards from scrimmage (63 rushing, 73 receiving), tight end Greg Olsen's nine catches for 116 yards, and Newton's 58 rushing yards, many on designed runs in the second half, the Panthers stormed right back and took command.
"Third down was a challenge," Head Coach Mike McCarthy said, as his defense allowed 6-of-12 conversions, several in the first half. The Packers also were flagged for being offside four times, twice giving the Panthers first downs.
"The discipline penalties, no excuse for that. It's just their key players. We didn't do a good enough job limiting their production. They had some big plays to extend drives."
Newton finished with a 128.0 passer rating (20-of-31, 242 yards, four TDs, no turnovers) while the three interceptions dropped Rodgers' rating to 71.5 (26-of-45, 290 yards, three TDs).
Rodgers had Cobb open for a potential touchdown deep down the middle on his second interception, which was underthrown. So was his third one, a scrambling deep heave for Jordy Nelson that fell short.
"I felt good, I just missed some throws," Rodgers said. "Missed some ones I'm used to hitting. Just uncharacteristic plays. I'm disappointed in my performance today.
"Obviously I hold myself to a high standard, and this comes in well below."
Rodgers said he had no issues with his shoulder, and he managed a surprising 43 yards rushing – including a fourth-down read-option run to keep one drive alive – but he had too many throws he wishes he had back against a tough Carolina defense.
"I just didn't throw it as well as I'm used to throwing it, and that kind of hurt us today," he said. "A lot."
Cobb finished with seven catches for 84 yards and a score, while Adams had five grabs for 57 yards and his TD before leaving with a concussion. Richard Rodgers had four catches for 77 yards and a TD.
Rookie running back Aaron Jones broke off runs for 23 and 20 yards in the first half, but had just one other carry, finishing with 47 yards on three attempts.
With the loss and the Packers' postseason hopes almost certainly dashed, McCarthy did not say whether Rodgers would finish out the season at quarterback.
Rodgers wasn't sure what the team's decision would be, either, with next week's game against the division-champion Vikings, the team that knocked Rodgers out for seven games.
"We'll see how I feel tomorrow and go from there," Rodgers said. "I'm a little sore.
"I'm a competitor. Until they tell me otherwise, I'm expecting to play."
As for the Packers' streak of eight consecutive playoff appearances most likely being over, Rodgers said he was proud of the team for fighting to stay in it until he got back, but this wasn't his last shot. Not by a longshot.
"We've had a great run around here," Rodgers said. "As long as I'm here, I'm confident we'll be in the mix every single year."
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