With their superstar quarterback back and a difficult but beatable schedule, the Green Bay Packers appeared to have everything they needed to run the table and reach a ninth consecutive playoff berth. That outlook changed on Sunday after a 31-24 loss to the Panthers.
Aaron Rodgers' recovery from a broken collarbone set expectations for another Packers miracle, as did the back-to-back overtime wins his team delivered in the two games before his return. Even against an NFC power like the Panthers, Green Bay felt good about its chances with Rodgers back in the fold.
However, not even a future Hall of Fame quarterback can miss half a season without building up some rust. Rodgers threw three interceptions -- all underthrown passes to targets deep down the field -- that stymied the Packers offense.
Even so, Rodgers pulled out a vintage late-game scoring drive to bring the Packers within seven points. The Packers followed with a successful onside kick, and they had a chance to tie the game in the final minutes. Instead, Packers wideout Geronimo Allison fumbled inside Carolina territory to pull the plug on the comeback effort and, in effect, the team's playoff hopes.
The Falcons could provide the final nail in Green Bay's coffin with a win Monday night over the Buccaneers. Even if the Packers survive for another week, their demise appears all but assured given their 7-7 record and the NFL's tiebreaker system. Barring a made-for-Hollywood string of events, they will miss the playoffs for the first time since 2008, Rodgers' first year as starter.
That looming reality could force the Packers to make some difficult decisions over the next two weeks, starting with their quarterback. Rodgers received medical clearance to return to the field last week, but his collarbone remains less than 100 percent healed. Moreover, the offensive line charged with protecting him has already lost starting right tackle Bryan Bulaga, a key piece of the pass protection. That unit allowed three sacks of Rodgers and seven hits in total against the Panthers, including several crushing blows to the quarterback's surgically repaired shoulder.
With the postseason effectively out of reach, would Green Bay put Rodgers at risk and play him in meaningless games?
On the surface, the team has little reason to gamble with Rodgers' health. The previous nine weeks gave the Packers a glimpse into a future without Rodgers, and it revealed exactly how many flaws he covered up. Ensuring Rodgers makes it to 2018 with a clean bill of health is paramount.
Rodgers too could opt against playing in meaningless games. With only two years left on his current deal, the two-time MVP appears to be in line for a lucrative extension soon. Rodgers put those concerns aside a week ago with the playoffs on the line. However, without that carrot, there seems little reason for him to roll the dice with his health.
Still, Rodgers' competitive edge has gotten the better of him before, and a matchup with the Vikings -- the team that knocked him out for half the season -- could entice him to suit up again. And though the Packers could have nothing to play for, the Vikings remain alive for the No. 1 seed in the NFC. Knocking off Minnesota and hurting its playoff seed probably isn't enough for Green Bay to keep Rodgers active, but stranger things have happened.
Regardless of what happens with Rodgers, the Packers also must make a difficult call on longtime defensive coordinator Dom Capers' future over the next few weeks. Capers arrived in Green Bay eight years ago and enjoyed immediate success, helping the defense finish first among NFC teams in DVOA in 2009 and '10. That defensive renaissance played an underappreciated role in the Packers' successful run to Super Bowl XLV.
Capers' performance has fluctuated in the time since then. The defense nosedived in 2011 and cost a 15-1 Packers squad in the playoffs. It rounded back into form in 2012 before again cratering a year later. Capers somewhat stabilized the unit with a rebuilt secondary, but that too proved only a temporary fix. The bottom fell out again this season, with the Packers struggling to pressure the quarterback. Even a surplus of takeaways -- 22 total, sixth-most in the NFL entering Week 15 -- couldn't paper over the defense's longstanding issues with dual-threat running backs, mobile quarterbacks and covering the middle of the field.
Though head coach Mike McCarthy's job appears to be safe, he could find himself on the hot seat in short order if he doesn't address the defense. That could mean parting with Capers and handing over the reins to a new play caller, whether promoting someone from the coaching staff or looking outside the organization.
The Packers might also use the final two weeks to determine the future for several longtime players, including a few Super Bowl heroes. Matthews has enjoyed a resurgent season, but his play doesn't match his current $15 million price tag and his age (32 in May) and injury history suggest diminished returns moving forward. The team could clear $11.4 million by releasing him this offseason, something it could consider with multiyear extensions for Rodgers, wide receiver Davante Adams, center Corey Linsley and others in the offing. Still, if Matthews balls out over the final two weeks, the front office might feel more reticent to sever ties.
Meanwhile, Jordy Nelson seemingly disappeared once Rodgers went down in Week 6 and didn't do much damage in their first game reunited after the injury. Nelson would count over $12.5 million against the salary cap next season if he remains in Green Bay, but the team would only incur a $2.3 million hit by moving on. With Adams taking over as the No. 1 receiver and fellow wideout Randall Cobb also commanding a sizable salary, the Packers could decide to save money and sever ties with the fan favorite. The final two weeks -- if Rodgers plays -- will let the team know whether Nelson's telepathic connection with Rodgers remains intact or whether the time has come for a change.
Regardless of how the Packers close the year, the end of their eight-year playoff streak -- tied with the Patriots for the longest active run in the league -- seems to turn the page on this particular chapter in the team's history. The Rodgers era hasn't ended, but Green Bay's status as the most consistent team in the NFC has.