The four-time major winner fired a one-under par 71 on Friday to stand on level par 144 in a share of 36th after 36 holes at Augusta National.
That put the Northern Ireland star, who played in the day's final group, seven strokes adrift of a record pack of five 36-hole co-leaders - all of them major winners.
McIlroy was fretting missing the cut, staring at a bogey at the par-5 15th with the cut line lurking behind him.
"I'm happy to be where I'm at," he said. "So I played the last four in one-under to sort of be safe for the weekend, I guess.
"Staring bogey in the face at 15 and thinking I have to play the last three at even par just to make the cut - to be here on the weekend and only be seven back, I'm actually pretty pleased."
It was a day of missed opportunity for McIlroy, who took a double bogey at the par-5 second then eagled the par-5 eighth, his high point for the day that briefly put him one-under overall.
"Eagle on eight was fantastic. That got me going," McIlroy said.
But he couldn't capitalize, following with two pars and, after a storm halted play for about 30 minutes, bogeys at 11 and the par-5 13th - his approach meeting a watery fate in Rae's Creek.
"I had a great putt on nine, I don't know how that didn't go in," McIlroy said. "Got up and down on 10. And then the hooter blew on 11 and that sort of stopped any of the momentum so I just had to try to pick it up a little from there."
McIlroy, who plays alongside Australian Marc Leishman in round three, has plenty of players between him and the lead.
"It's just so bunched. There are so many guys with a chance coming into the last two days," he said. "If I can get off to a decent start tomorrow, shoot 33 or 32 on the front nine, I'm right back in it."
McIlroy contends he's within reach if he can manage a great round, with the record victory comeback from 36 holes being Jack Burke from eight strokes in 1956.
"I don't feel like I'm that far away," he said. "To shoot under par today considering some of the breaks I got and some of the shots I hit, I'm right there."