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Packers panic: As Green Bay falls from perfection to 6-2, time to R-E-L-A-X or not?

Aaron Rodgers and the Packers couldn’t complete the comeback Sunday night. (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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FIRST…

CHARLOTTE — The Green Bay Packers became the first team in NFL history to play consecutive road games against unbeaten opponents with six or more victories each.

And the Packers became the first team in NFL history to lose consecutive road games to unbeaten opponents with six or more victories each.

The Packers fell here Sunday to the Carolina Panthers, 37-29. Their record dropped to 6-2 after a 6-0 beginning. Green Bay is two games behind Carolina, which improved to 8-0, in the race for NFC supremacy. The Packers now face a fight even in their own division, as they dropped into a first-place tie in the NFC North with the Minnesota Vikings.

This time, at least, Green Bay was competitive. The Packers had a chance in Sunday’s game until the final moments. That came a week after they were overwhelmed, 29-10, at Denver. The Broncos improved to 7-0 in that game before falling Sunday from the ranks of the unbeaten by losing at Indianapolis.

“It’s two really good opponents, undefeated opponents,” Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said Sunday. “They’ve been playing well. Cam [Newton] played really well today, put up a lot of points. We had a chance there today. Last week was obviously very disappointing offensively to struggle that bad. . . . We know how it is when teams come into Lambeau. It’s a tough place to play and win. These two teams have been rolling right now. . . . With that being said, we feel confident if we have to come here and play in the playoffs that we could get the job done.”

[Cam Newton bolsters MVP case in the non-Tom Brady category]

Rodgers rebounded from a 77-yard passing performance against the Broncos to throw for 369 yards and four touchdowns Sunday. He led the Packers back from a 37-14 deficit in the fourth quarter. They had a late opportunity to tie with a touchdown and two-point conversion. But Rodgers, under heavy pressure, threw an interception on a fourth-and-goal play from the Carolina 4-yard line with just less than two minutes to play.

“You’re talking about a first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterback,” Panthers Coach Ron Rivera said of Rodgers.

[Panthers have a pretty good shot at 16-0]

Green Bay remained vulnerable on defense as Newton threw for 297 yards and three touchdowns. Packers defenders Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Julius Peppers and B.J. Raji were seen on the Fox telecast having a heated sideline exchange during the game. Rodgers showed his frustration on the sideline when he tossed a tablet to the ground.

But Rodgers, who famously instructed Packers fans to “R-E-L-A-X” during the team’s early struggles last season, said he expects all to be well.

“I feel the same,” he said. “I feel very confident in our abilities on both sides of the ball and the kicking game. We’ve played two really good opponents that are undefeated and at their place. I think if you flip those home and aways, I think we could be 8-0. . . . But we’re not.”

… AND TEN

1. Steelers’ injury woes

Dealing with injuries is a major part of the NFL game, and it is a no-sympathy league.

Even so, it’s difficult to come to any conclusion other than that the Pittsburgh Steelers have been particularly unfortunate with injuries this season.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger exited Sunday’s triumph over the Oakland Raiders with an injury to his left foot. According to a report by ESPN, Roethlisberger suffered a mid-foot sprain that is to keep him sidelined for a few weeks.

[Is Big Ben too tough for his own good?]

Roethlisberger’s latest injury came in his second game back from a four-game absence due to a sprained medial collateral ligament and a bone bruise in his left knee. It also came in the Steelers’ first game since losing tailback Le’Veon Bell to a season-ending knee injury. Roethlisberger and Bell were on the field together for only 39 plays this season, according to ESPN.

DeAngelo Williams ran for 170 yards and two touchdowns Sunday while filling in for Bell. Wide receiver Antonio Brown had a 17-catch, 284-yard day as the Steelers upped their record to 5-4.

But they were back Sunday to relying on Landry Jones at quarterback, and it will be difficult to take them seriously as a contender unless they can manage to get Roethlisberger back in the lineup and keep him there this time.

2. Joyner’s hit on Bridgewater

League officials plan to review the hit by St. Louis Rams cornerback Lamarcus Joyner that caused Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to exit Sunday’s game with a concussion.

The hit by Joyner to Bridgewater’s head came after Bridgewater had begun to slide at the end of a run. That is supposed to afford no-hit protection to quarterbacks under NFL rules.

[Vikings call out Rams over dirty hit]

Joyner’s hit seems like the kind of play that is likely to draw a substantial fine by the league. It does not seem out of the question that a suspension could be considered. It is precisely the sort of play that the league has sought to get out of the sport.

 3. The NFL and Hardy

Friday’s publication by Deadspin of photographs depicting the injuries suffered by Greg Hardy’s former girlfriend has led some observers to call for the NFL to take action in the case.

But such calls ignore the fact that the NFL did take action in the case. League representatives saw seven photographs showing those injuries and the NFL suspended Hardy for 10 games.

The suspension was reduced to four games by arbitrator Harold Henderson after Hardy appealed through the NFL Players Association.

It is not clear if Henderson viewed photographs of the injuries before making his ruling. The union argued to Henderson that the NFL could not impose discipline based on its modified personal conduct policy, given that Hardy’s case predated the changes made to the policy late last year.

[Cowboys say they didn’t have access to photos before signing him]

It is extremely unlikely that the NFL could take further disciplinary action against Hardy and have those measures withstand a challenge by the NFLPA. The league did that last year in the Ray Rice case. After initially suspending Rice for only two games, the NFL suspended him indefinitely following the public release of the video showing him striking his then-fiancée in an Atlantic City hotel elevator. The indefinite suspension was overturned on appeal by Barbara S. Jones, the former federal judge appointed by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to resolve Rice’s appeal.

If there is anything further to be done regarding Hardy’s employment status, it probably would have be done by his team. The Dallas Cowboys say they did not have access to the photos depicting the injuries before making the decision last offseason to sign Hardy. But the Cowboys say they were aware of the seriousness of the charges that Hardy faced in the case. The team has given no indication that it plans to release or further discipline Hardy.

Hardy wrote on Twitter: “Just had to say I express my regret [for] what happened in past and I’m Dedicated to being the best person [and] teammate that I can be but mostly I am Grateful [for] the opportunity to play in NFL[.]”

4. JPP’s debut

Jason Pierre-Paul played 46 snaps on defense for the New York Giants in their win Sunday at Tampa Bay.

It was Pierre-Paul’s season debut in his return from his summer fireworks injury. He didn’t get a sack against Buccaneers rookie quarterback Jameis Winston. But he did get close several times.

The Giants will continue to have their shortcomings on defense. But Pierre-Paul’s play presumably will improve as he works his way back into top football-playing shape. And it already was clear Sunday that, even with Pierre-Paul’s injury, the New York defense is better with him than without him.

5. Mularkey’s first game

In-season coaching changes have produced immediate results for NFL teams this season.

The Miami Dolphins won their first two games after firing Joe Philbin and replacing him with interim coach Dan Campbell.

Mike Mularkey likewise won his debut Sunday as Tennessee’s interim coach after the Titans ousted Ken Whisenhunt last week. Tennessee beat the New Orleans Saints, 34-28, in overtime as rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota threw for four touchdowns in a 28-for-39, 371-yard passing performance. Mularkey had vowed last week to make changes on offense to aid Mariota, who was returning from a two-game absence due to a knee injury.

[Patience lacking as Ken Whisenhunt becomes the second NFL coach fired this season]

Mularkey, in particular, had placed an emphasis on safeguarding Mariota, who was not sacked Sunday. It also didn’t hurt that he had one touchdown pass, a 61-yarder to Delanie Walker, that resulted from a deflection as two Saints defenders got in each other’s way on what should have been an interception.

The boost provided by a coaching switch can be short-lived, however. The Dolphins lost Sunday at Buffalo and are 0-2 since their 2-0 beginning under Campbell.

6. Cowboys done?

It does not appear that the Cowboys’ season can be salvaged by the time quarterback Tony Romo returns from his stay on the short-term injured reserve list because of the broken left clavicle that he suffered in a Week 2 triumph at Philadelphia.

Romo has resumed practice-field throwing. But he is not eligible to play in a game until Nov. 22 at Miami, meaning that the Cowboys must endure this coming weekend’s game at Tampa Bay without him. They have given no indication whatsoever that they’re capable of winning a game without him.

[From Week 2: Tony Romo’s broken collarbone changes everything in the NFC East]

The Cowboys fell to 0-6 without Romo and 2-6 overall by losing Sunday night in overtime to the Eagles, 33-27. It was an eventful game in which the Cowboys drew even at the end of regulation on a 44-yard field goal by kicker Dan Bailey on which the ball caromed off the left upright and through the goal posts.

No matter. The Eagles prevailed on quarterback Sam Bradford’s 41-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Jordan Matthews in overtime. Eagles tailback DeMarco Murray made a victorious return to Dallas and ran for 83 yards on 18 carries against his former team.

“They’re a tough opponent,” Murray said in an on-field postgame interview with NBC, which carried the game. “They’re like family to me. I’ve got a new family with the Eagles now. I wish those guys nothing but the best.”

7. Then there were three …

The Broncos’ defeat to the Colts left the NFL with three unbeaten teams. The New England Patriots beat the Washington Redskins to join the Panthers and Cincinnati Bengals at 8-0.

[Could someone other than the Patriots chase a 16-0 regular season?]

The Patriots actually were fairly ordinary on offense in their 27-10 triumph over the Redskins. It certainly wasn’t as bad for the Redskins as when they visited Foxborough, Mass., in 2007 the last time the Patriots were in post-scandal overdrive. The Redskins lost that ’07 game, 52-7.

New England seems to have lost a bit of continuity on offense while patching together its offensive line through a series of injuries. The Patriots also may have lost running back Dion Lewis to a knee injury that he suffered Sunday.

Lewis is to undergo further testing Monday but there were initial fears that the injury is serious. Lewis has been an effective receiver out of the backfield this season with 36 catches for 388 yards and two touchdowns. He also has run for 234 yards and two touchdowns.

8. Browns management and Manziel

Coach Mike Pettine was non-committal after Thursday night’s lopsided loss at Cincinnati about sticking with Johnny Manziel as the starter at quarterback for the Cleveland Browns.

It has been a familiar refrain. Pettine clearly has been more comfortable with his veteran quarterbacks, Brian Hoyer last season and Josh McCown this season, than he has been with Manziel. It is understandable. Pettine’s focus as a coach is on giving his team the best possible chance to win that week’s game. That generally has meant going with a more experienced and more trustworthy quarterback.

[Johnny Manziel wasn’t great Thursday night. It doesn’t matter. He needs to play]

But this is now a big-picture issue. The Browns have a record of 2-7. They aren’t going anywhere, whether McCown is at quarterback for the remainder of the season or Manziel is. The franchise used a first-round draft pick on Manziel last year. It’s time—past the time, actually—to begin finding out if he can play or not.

Upper management usually should stay out of NFL coaching decisions. But in this case, it is a direction-of-the-franchise decision. The Browns made an organizational decision to draft Manziel in the opening round. Now they must make an organizational decision to play him. If it requires intervention from the upper levels of the franchise’s hierarchy to bring that about, so be it.

9. Badly needed win for Colts

Some within the league thought the Colts might have been one more loss from making Chuck Pagano the third head coach dismissed league-wide this season.

Instead, Indianapolis got back into the win column by beating old friend Peyton Manning and the Broncos, 27-24.

Andrew Luck had the same number of passing attempts (36), completions (21) and touchdown passes (two) as Manning did Sunday. But Luck threw no interceptions to two for Manning. The Colts bounced back from last Monday night’s loss at Carolina. That defeat led to the firing of offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton last week.

10. Taylor and Fitzpatrick

It was a successful Sunday for two AFC East quarterbacks with injury issues.

Tyrod Taylor returned to Buffalo’s lineup after missing two games with a knee injury. He threw only a dozen passes but completed 11 of them for 181 yards and a touchdown. He also ran for 44 yards. The Bills had two 100-yard rushers, in LeSean McCoy and Karlos Williams, and a 168-yard receiver, in Sammy Watkins, in their 33-17 triumph over the Dolphins.

Ryan Fitzpatrick threw for 272 yards and two touchdowns for the New York Jets as they beat the Jacksonville Jaguars, 28-23, at the Meadowlands. Fitzpatrick was playing with a torn ligament in his left (non-throwing) hand. The injury did not cause him to miss any games and he helped the Jets to end a two-game losing streak as they ready to host the Bills and their former coach, Rex Ryan, on Thursday night.

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