Aaron Rodgers' up-and-down return not enough to save Packers

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- You bring back Aaron Rodgers for the scrambles, for the magnificent touchdown passes, for the plays that Brett Hundley can’t make. And you bring him back because there's hope for the playoffs.

You don’t bring back the two-time NFL MVP thinking he will throw three interceptions.

What began so promisingly -- with a touchdown pass to Davante Adams on the second drive of the game and another to Randall Cobb in the final minute of the first half for a 14-10 lead -- turned in the second half, when Rodgers threw two of his three picks. All three were on underthrown passes.

Unlike in 2013, when Rodgers returned from his broken left collarbone and threw a 48-yard touchdown pass to Cobb in the last minute of the regular-season finale at Chicago to win the NFC North, the playoffs might be a pipe dream for the Green Bay Packers after Sunday’s 31-24 loss at the Carolina Panthers.

Of course, it wasn’t Rodgers who turned the ball over on what could have been an overtime-forcing drive. It ended when wide receiver Geronimo Allison, subbing for Adams after he got knocked out of the game, fumbled at the Panthers’ 28-yard line to end it.

"I felt pretty good; I just missed some throws," Rodgers said. "You know, 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."

The best the Packers can do -- with or without Rodgers in the final two games, and playing without him is something coach Mike McCarthy will at least have to consider -- is to finish 9-7, if they can beat the Minnesota Vikings on Saturday night at home and win at the Detroit Lions in Week 17. In McCarthy’s world, you don’t even mention the playoffs until you get to 10 wins.

In fact, the Packers will be eliminated if the Atlanta Falcons win at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Monday night.

Sure, there was some Rodgers magic, and his surgically repaired right clavicle held up (and withstood a hard hit in the second half from defensive tackle Kawann Short). He wasn’t afraid to run, scrambling six times for 43 yards, including a fourth-and-1 run for 7 yards on a third-quarter drive that yielded a field goal.

Rodgers threw the ball 45 times, completing 26 for 290 yards and three touchdowns.

But it was Rodgers’ first three-interception game since 2009 and just the fourth of his career. All have come on the road against NFC South teams.

His interceptions were uncharacteristically poor decisions, including one in the first half in which he couldn’t step into the deep throw. It was still a competitive game, however, because the Panthers turned only one of Rodgers’ picks into points. But those were empty possessions the Packers couldn’t afford.

"I thought Aaron did a lot of good things," McCarthy said. "I thought he competed just like he always does. Obviously, when you look at our -- the stat line, I’m stating the obvious, it’s hard to overcome being minus-4 [turnover differential] in the game. But I thought Aaron did a lot of good things."

Rodgers also lost his No. 1 receiver in Adams, who had his 10th touchdown catch of the season -- five from Rodgers and five from Hundley -- before he was knocked out of the game with a concussion on an illegal hit by Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis.

Even if Rodgers had been perfect on Sunday, the Packers' defense had enough breakdowns -- most down the middle of the field against running back Christian McCaffrey and tight end Greg Olsen -- that it might not have mattered.

"Defensively [in the] second half, well, I mean third down was a challenge," McCarthy said. "Actually, I think we might have been a little bit better in the second half. Just couldn’t get off the field on third down. A couple penalties, discipline penalties, no excuse for that. But their key players -- McCaffrey, Olson -- we didn’t do a good job limiting their production. They had some big plays on their drives."