The Force is strong with quarterback Aaron Rodgers, and his presence in the Green Bay Packers lineup provided the team with a new hope this week. But his play Sunday against the Carolina Panthers looked more like the tired old Mark Hamill from The Last Jedi than the true master everyone remembered from Return of the Jedi.
An imperfect version stepped onto the field and couldn't provide the storybook ending Packers faithful expected. As such, Rodgers rushed back for nothing.
The triumphant ending appeared to be destined starting with Sunday's contest. The story wrote itself: Rodgers returns after a two-month recovery from a broken clavicle to lead Green Bay toward a postseason berth.
Yet, the 31-24 loss highlighted Rodgers limitations after a long layoff. As a result, the Packers have to wait until Monday's outcome between the Atlanta Falcons and Tampa Bay Buccaneers to see if Green Bay's fate is officially sealed. A Falcons victory will knock Rodgers and Co. out of the postseason picture for good.
Usually, Rodgers' mere presence provides a natural advantage over other squads. His skill set borders on magical, with the league's premier arm talent, mobility to manipulate the pocket and unparalleled creativity when breaking the offensive structure.
Like an aging Luke Skywalker, the 34-year-old signal-caller couldn't draw upon his entire repertoire at the beginning of this story. At times, Rodgers flashed brilliance only to be betrayed by his body in other instances. The 13-year veteran completed 57.8 percent of his passes for 290 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions.
The turnovers stalled multiple drives, while the quarterback's sixth-sense working the pocket didn't seem to fully register. Rodgers admitted he was "disappointed" with his performance.
"Felt fine, I just missed some throws I'm used to hitting," the quarterback said, per ESPN.com's Rob Demovsky.
Normally, Rodgers is the driving force behind the Packers' success. He couldn't overcome issues found within his supporting cast when the franchise desperately needed him to do so.
Everyone expects Rodgers to uncork majestic deep balls. There has never been a receiver who can outrun his arm, until Sunday.
Defenders trailed on vertical passes only to come down with the football when Rodgers couldn't place it over the top. When the quarterback breaks the pocket, his receivers adjust their routes to deep versions because he can make the throws. Rodgers couldn't against the Panthers, and this shortcoming cost the Packers seven points when Carolina scored a third-quarter touchdown courtesy of a short field.
His three-interception performance tied his career-worst, per ESPN Stats & Info:
ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo
In his return from his broken right collarbone injury, Aaron Rodgers has his first game with 3 interceptions since 2009. https://t.co/ab2HJRp6I22017-12-17 20:16:39
A week or two from now, Rodgers may play his way back into football shape, but it could already be too late. The Packers kept their season afloat for this moment only to fail with their franchise player in place, because he couldn't make every throw.
Rodgers still laced a few impressive tosses, like his initial touchdown pass to Davante Adams, with this highlight courtesy of the NFL:
Welcome back, @AaronRodgers12! TOUCHDOWN @PACKERS! #GoPackGo https://t.co/MIbFCfcWAm2017-12-17 18:33:06
However, the vertical passing attack creates space for the Packers receivers to operate. The Panthers weren't threatened downfield and played with an aggressive approach on the outside—which ultimately led to the game-sealing fumble by Geronimo Allison when cornerback Daryl Worley and safety Mike Adams converged on the receiver.
Early in the contest, Packers fans had to be holding their breath with each play, because Rodgers consistently broke contain. Receivers struggled to get open, while the offensive line's protection came into question.
The Packers tied for the fourth-most sacks allowed with 43 coming into Sunday's contest. Rodgers escaped the grasp of Carolina defenders multiple times, yet they still managed three sacks. The timing of them couldn't have been worse, either.
Two came late in the fourth quarter when the Packers tried to come back from a 14-point deficit. Rodgers can't be blamed for poor play up front, but situational awareness is needed. Of course, Rodgers isn't Houdini, but he plays like him at times. It's surprising to see Rodgers taken down by Julius Peppers during a 4th-and-14 play with room to step up in the pocket.
Being pressured and making big plays have been part of the quarterback's legacy. He failed to do so against Carolina, and the Packers' postseason chances are now on life support.
"I hold myself to a high standard, and this comes in well below those standards," Rodgers said, per Packers News' Aaron Nagler.
How the Packers proceed may become an indictment of their decision to rush Rodgers into the lineup. With the team's playoff hopes hinging on Monday's contest, Rogers might not play during the final two weeks of the regular season.
"Let's focus on today," head coach Mike McCarthy said when asked about the quarterback's future, per Demovsky. "We'll get back and assess it."
Rodgers remained non-committal, too.
"I'm going to see how I feel tomorrow and go from there," the quarterback said.
Of course, Green Bay wants its two-time NFL MVP in the lineup and playing for another chance at a Super Bowl. The Packers' postseason chances are disappearing faster than the Jedi Order.
Save Green Bay's season, Buccaneers. You're their only hope.