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Panthers hold on to win in Aaron Rodgers' return


Panthers cornerback James Bradberry forced a Geronimo Allison fumble, preserving (10-4) Carolina's 31-24 victory over the (7-7) Green Bay Packers in Week 15. Here's what we learned in Sunday's nail-biting NFC clash:

1. Facing a 31-17 deficit and the season's demise with his No. 1 receiver sidelined, three interceptions in his pocket and less than four minutes on the game clock, Aaron Rodgers rallied the troops for a chance at the tying score when Allison fumbled away the comeback bid inside Carolina's 30-yard line. Although Rodgers flashed trademark sensational sandlot form on several scrambles and a 33-yard touchdown to Randall Cobb, his long-awaited return was ultimately anti-climactic. The two-time MVP missed opportunities for big plays on each of his turnovers. The nature of the underthrown passes in Rodgers' first three-interception performance since 2009 suggests his arm strength was not yet at full capacity -- and his touch a bit rusty -- in his first appearance since October surgery. That should come as little surprise considering NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport's pregame report that the collarbone is "not 100 percent healed." If the Falcons beat the Buccaneers Monday night, the Packers face postseason elimination and the likelihood that Rodgers will pack it in to avoid re-injury.

2. As detrimental as Rodgers' turnovers were to Green Bay's cause, the disappointing defense earned a share of the blame. Coordinator Dom Capers had no answer for Christian McCaffrey early on, as the rookie mismatch became the first NFL player since 2000 with at least nine touches, 60 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown on a team's opening drive, per NFL Research. Taking advantage of a coverage bust on a walk-in 30-yard score of his own, Greg Olsen routinely found soft spots against a defense that couldn't protect the end zone or get Cam Newton off the field in crucial third-down situations. Credit Newton and play-caller Mike Shula for keeping Capers' clan off balance throughout the afternoon.

3. The NFL's nebulous catch rule reared its ugly head on a crucial third-quarter play in a back-and-forth 17-14 contest. Panthers wide receiver Damiere Byrd bobbled a Cam Newton pass and gained possession just as his tuchus touched down at the back of the end zone. Originally ruled incomplete, the call was overturned despite a replay review that failed to show conclusive evidence that Byrd came down fully inbounds. At this point, we are reduced to begging the competition committee to clarify the most confusing and unpredictable rule in football.

4. While the Saints hold the head-to-head tiebreaker, Carolina's victory ensured that New Orleans will have to win out to guarantee the NFC South title. Already boasting double digits in wins, the Panthers can all but lock up a wild-card berth with a home victory over the short-handed Buccaneers in Week 16 before closing out the regular season at Atlanta.

5. Green Bay will be faced with interesting decisions at wideout this offseason. Davante Adams recorded 57 yards and a touchdown before a vicious blindside helmet-to-helmet blow from Thomas Davis resulted in the No. 1 receiver's second concussion of the season. Having emerged as a red-zone weapon, a double-move master on downfield routes and an effective run-after-catch threat, Adams ranks first in the NFL with 22 receiving touchdowns since the start of the 2016 season. If the Packers succeed in locking him up before he reaches free agency in March, will that mean the overpriced tandem of Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb will face pay cuts or the possibility of release?


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