Wasn't all that long ago that Aaron Rodgers was thought to be on his way to a second consecutive NFL MVP award, while his Green Bay Packers were unbeaten and, some folks were certain, headed for the Super Bowl.

Now? Well, the Packers are fighting amongst themselves, they can't win - indeed, can't even stay close to opponents at times - and Rodgers is throwing for a grand total of 77 yards one week, then, by his own admission, failing to see a wide-open receiver in the end zone with a game's outcome in the balance the next.

Suddenly, it's the Carolina Panthers who are way out front in the NFC at 8-0, and it's their quarterback, Cam Newton, who is generating MVP talk, by virtue of a 37-29 victory over Rodgers and Green Bay on Sunday. After starting 6-0, the Packers have lost two games in a row, the first time that's happened to Rodgers in a single season since 2010. Plus, they're now tied for first place in the NFC North with the surprising Minnesota Vikings.

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And it's the way Green Bay is struggling that's noteworthy. First, a 19-point loss to Denver. Then, a 24-0 second quarter at Carolina.

Against the Panthers, on Green Bay's sideline, defensive teammates Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Julius Peppers exchanged words until defensive tackle B.J. Raji stepped between them and gave Clinton-Dix a shove.

''It's a product,'' Packers coach Mike McCarthy said, ''of us not playing to our standard.''

Carolina, meanwhile, joins Tom Brady's New England Patriots (who beat Washington 27-10) and Andy Dalton's Cincinnati Bengals (who beat Cleveland 31-10 Thursday) to give the NFL a trio of 8-0 teams for the first time in league history. Before this season, in the Super Bowl era, a total of 21 clubs began 8-0; eight wound up winning a championship.

Peyton Manning's Broncos, meanwhile, are no longer unbeaten, dropping to 7-1 with a 27-24 loss at Indianapolis. Ol' No. 18 threw two more picks, bringing his league-worst total to 13.

In case you missed it, here are the other top topics after the season's ninth Sunday:

ODD CHOICE: Much like the Packers, the Falcons are fading, dropping three of their past four games to go from 5-0 to 6-3, and a questionable decision by Atlanta coach Dan Quinn played a part in a 17-16 loss to San Francisco and QB Blaine Gabbert, of all people. Facing a fourth-and-goal at the 1 while trailing by four points as the clock ran under 3 minutes, Quinn - channeling his fired predecessor, Mike Smith - decided to kick a field goal and hope to get the ball back. The Falcons never got another possession.

NYUK NYUK NYUK: The Colts got a key first down with less than 2 1/2 minutes left when Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib reached his hand through the facemask of Colts tight end Dwayne Allen to poke him in the eye.

MORE QB INJURIES: Another Sunday, another couple of QB injuries: Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger's left foot bent awkwardly under the weight of Oakland's Aldon Smith on a sack; Minnesota's Teddy Bridgewater stayed down, motionless, after taking an elbow to the head from St. Louis safety Lamarcus Joyner. Vikings coach Mike Zimmer avoided shaking hands with Rams counterpart Jeff Fisher afterward, then took some not-so-veiled shots at Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, saying: ''I would say if we were on the street, we probably would have had a fight.''

WHAT A DUO: In Pittsburgh's 38-35 win over Oakland, the Steelers became the first team in NFL history to have one player with at least 300 yards from scrimmage (receiver Antonio Brown caught 17 passes for 284 yards, and ran twice for 22 yards) and another with at least 200 (running back DeAngelo Williams gained 170 on the ground, 55 through the air).

JPP'S RETURN: Missing his right index finger because of a fireworks accident on July 4, Jason Pierre-Paul made his season debut for the New York Giants in their 32-18 victory at Tampa Bay, making two tackles and being credited with two QB hits.

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Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich

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