By Chris Havel
Special to Event USA
GREEN BAY, Wis. – Two of the NFL’s premier quarterbacks, albeit under highly different circumstances, led their teams into “do-or-die” games Sunday at Carolina.
Panthers’ Cam Newton fires four TD passes in a 31-24 victory Sunday
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In the end, Aaron Rodgers’ return was overshadowed by Cam Newton’s resurgence in the Panthers’ 31-24 victory over Green Bay at Charlotte.
This game turned on two players and one hit.
The players were Rodgers, who threw for three touchdowns and three interceptions, and Newton, who fired four touchdown passes to lead the Panthers to victory.
The hit was Carolina linebacker Thomas Davis, Jr.’s helmet-to-helmet cheapshot on the Packers’ Davante Adams. The 15-yard personal foul penalty was inconsequential compared with the Packers’ loss of Adams early in the third quarter.
To that point, Adams had five catches for 57 yards and a touchdown. He was replaced by Geronimo Allison, who caught Rodgers’ last-minute pass before fumbling away Green Bay’s chance to pull out what would’ve been an incredible win.
Allison also had two other miscues while replacing Adams.
FOX analyst Troy Aikman – late in the game – said something like, “It’s difficult to put into words what it means for the Packers not to have Adams.”
Clearly it must’ve been because Aikman BARELY MENTIONED IT throughout the second half.
In fact, Davis’ hit on Adams altered the course of the game. While Adams stumbled off to the locker room to begin the concussion protocol, a distraught Davis held his head in his hands on the sidelines. Then, an apparently refocused Davis proceeded to hit Rodgers and raise havoc while Adams sat.
The NFL needs to do something about this rule, or lack thereof.
If a player takes out another team’s player, he should have to sit until the injured player is cleared to return.
At any rate, Rodgers was returning after breaking his right collarbone on Oct. 15 at Minnesota. The injury required the insertion of two metal plates and 13 screws in order to hasten healing. Rodgers reached the 80-percent “good to go” threshold and was cleared to return for Sunday’s game at Carolina.
Meantime, Newton was coming in to continue Carolina’s strong pursuit of the hot contested NFC South’s title.
It hurt to see Newton’s four-touchdown performance overshadow Rodgers’ return for two reasons:
** Newton gloats with the best of them and I’m weary of his act.
** The Packers were “that close” to pulling this game out and reminding everyone from TV tandem Joe Buck and Aikman to the Panthers that it’s never over until Rodgers is finished.
This one might stop hurting in time for the spring thaw, but I doubt it. That’s because the Packers’ 2017 season died an understandable but no less painful death.
The end came abruptly, suddenly and unexpectedly.
Never mind that Green Bay’s successful onside kick extended what appeared to be a surefire defeat. The end was still too fast.
If I have to find fault it’s with Packers head coach Mike McCarthy’s – and perhaps Rodgers’ – apparent unwillingness to stick with the running game.
Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones looked to be wearing down the Panthers’ defense, if not at least hitting it for considerable gains on a regular basis – if by “regular” one means once every blue moon.
McCarthy could’ve and should’ve kept pounding away with Williams and especially Jones, who repeatedly was within a whisker of breaking a long run.
It would’ve protected Rodgers and allowed for the possibility of some play-action passes, and perhaps Jordy Nelson’s participation.
Instead, McCarthy decided to have Rodgers throw it 45 times against a tough-as-nails Panthers defense. It makes no sense.
The best thing to come out of Rodgers’ injury was the ascension of the running back position. Yet, when the Packers could’ve ridden it to great effect, McCarthy goes pass happy.
It’s not a shocker. It is disappointing.
Rodgers was 26 of 45 for three touchdowns, three interceptions and 290 yards. No, I wouldn’t start him this week against the Minnesota Vikings. In fact, I wouldn’t play him.
There is no sensible argument in favor of it.
That said, McCarthy kept Rodgers in harm’s way throughout the afternoon by continually passing. It seemed he believed less in his defense than his running game, but for the life of me I have no idea why.
Green Bay (7-7) led 14-10 at halftime and seemed on pace to pull a significant upset.
Then, the Panthers quickly went up 24-14 thanks to a pair of Newton touchdown passes in the third quarter, and that was it.
McCarthy baled on the running game.
It left Rodgers to do what he always must: Make plays to pull off miracles. He didn’t do enough of the former to accomplish the latter.
It could be argued Panthers’ tight end Greg Olsen, who caught nine passes for 116 yards and a touchdown, was the game’s true comeback player. Olsen was returning from a broken foot.
Christian McCaffrey also made me a believer.
He had 136 yards from scrimmage and I’m pretty sure the Packers’ defense couldn’t identify him out of a lineup today.
They never got close enough.
Now, the reality is clear: Sit Rodgers, start Brett Hundley and KO the Minnesota Vikings in Saturday night’s rematch. Finish with a strong victory at Detroit and get ready for the off-season.
The Packers aren’t that far away from being a serious Super Bowl contender, and anyone who believes otherwise is merely peddling the sexy and salacious.
That’s why Sunday’s loss at Carolina hurt.
The Panthers, one year removed from a 15-1 record, a league-record 500 points, and a Super Bowl berth, the Packers had them on the ropes near the end.
That they did so with a rusty quarterback, a pair of rookie running backs and a generous defense says a lot.
It says the Packers better plan to win it all in 2018.