Ability To Win Games Separates Pack From Cats

Cam Newton had a monster game last week in his NFL debut but, in the end, fell short. Newton's first start of 2011 ended a lot like many of Aaron Rodgers' starts in 2008. The Packers have mastered the art of winning games. The Panthers have a long way to go.

Cam Newton, Cam Newton, Cam Newton.

That's been the talk this week. It's not quite to the nauseating level of Matty Ice, Matty Ice, Matty Ice, but it's pretty close. Yes, Newton flat-out obliterated Hall of Famer Otto Graham's 61-year-old record for most passing yards in an NFL debut. But, it's probably important to note, Newton's 422 passing yards translated into just three scores as the Carolina Panthers lost to a pretty horrible team in the Arizona Cardinals.

As Mark Twain said, there are lies, damned lies and statistics. The only figures that matter are on the scoreboard. The Panthers are 0-1 heading into their home opener against the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers on Sunday.

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"That's one thing that's kind of been hard to take is the people are congratulating you and you're sitting there going, ‘We lost the game,'" first-year Panthers coach Ron Rivera said in a conference call on Wednesday. "There were six plays that I point to that cost us. We had three penalties that took us out of field goal range, we had two blown coverages that led to touchdowns and we had an opportunity to tackle a punt return and we didn't. Those six plays defined the game to me."

It reminds me of 2008. Aaron Rodgers threw for 4,038 yards, becoming the second quarterback in NFL history to top 4,000 in his first season as a starter. Facing enormous pressure after management locked the door after Brett Favre left the building, Rodgers was great. He had four 300-yard games, four three-touchdown games and eight games with passer ratings exceeding 100. As a team, the Packers finished plus-7 in turnovers and outscored their opponents by 39 points.

But, as was said about Newton a couple paragraphs ago, it's probably important to remember that the Packers lost five consecutive games to fall out of a first-place tie and into a third-place record of 6-10. It was a bitter disappointment for a team that had hosted the NFC Championship Game in 2007.

There's a fine line between winning and losing in the NFL. It's been that way for a long time, and it's a trend that's getting stronger by the year. It sounds simplistic, but the good teams find ways to win and the average and bad teams find ways to lose.

The 2008 Packers found all sorts of ways to lose games. The entire season could be summed up in the Week 13 loss to the team they're facing on Sunday. After rallying from a 21-10 deficit, the game was tied at 28 in the fourth quarter when Rodgers drove the Packers 79 yards on 16 plays in a possession that consumed 9:13. But after Rodgers was slammed out of bounds by Julius Peppers, setting up a first-and-goal at the 7, McCarthy got conservative. Brandon Jackson's 6-yard run made it second-and-goal from the 1, but Jackson and John Kuhn went nowhere on running plays and the Packers settled for a chip-shot field goal to lead 31-28 with 1:57 remaining.

Matt Jones returned the ensuing kickoff 45 yards, Jake Delhomme threw a 54-yard bomb to Steve Smith to the Packers' 1 and DeAngelo Williams promptly rushed for his fourth touchdown of the game to put Carolina ahead 35-31. With a chance to play hero, Rodgers was picked off on the second play of the ensuing possession and the Packers lost a game in which they outgained the Panthers 438 to 298.

Since then, the Packers have learned how to win games. That was especially true down the stretch last season, when the Packers' six-game dash to the championship included four wins in dramatic fashion and two games of overwhelming dominance. That ability to close out close games is a trait that doesn't always carry over, but the defense's goal-line stand preserved a season-opening win over the Saints last Thursday.

"There's definitely a learning curve for any football team," McCarthy said on Wednesday. "You have to learn how to win. Everybody goes through it. It's the quality of play that we chase as a football team every single day — the quality of play in our practice today, the quality of play in your week of performance, and it carries over to Sundays. You have to learn how to win. We went through it probably two different times — in '06 and again in '08. That's a process you have to go through."

That's the process the Panthers are going through, and there's no magic formula other than good, old-fashioned experience. Statistically, the Panthers were the superior team last week. Behind Newton's monster debut, Carolina won in yards 477 to 394 and in first downs 26-15. Turnovers were even. But they were guilty of 10 penalties and two monumental gaffes that snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. The first was a busted coverage and missed tackle that allowed Early Doucet to score a 70-yard, game-tying touchdown with 10:48 remaining in the game. The second was an 89-yard punt return touchdown by Patrick Peterson in which he ran through a couple arm tackles a few minutes later.

The Panthers had a chance to force overtime after Newton moved them to the Cardinals' 11 but, even with an offsides penalty on fourth-and-10, he failed to get them into the end zone on five consecutive passes.

That leaves the Panthers looking at Sunday's game as a measuring stick. They performed well against the Cardinals, though Arizona won just five games last season. Green Bay is a whole other challenge.

"They're on top, so everybody's got to compare themselves to how well they do against the Green Bay Packers," said veteran receiver Steve Smith, who caught eight passes for 178 yards and two touchdowns last week. "You've got to evaluate yourself against the best. That's the only way you evaluate yourself. You never evaluate yourself against the ‘Bad News Bears,' if we're talking about a movie. ‘Hey, we beat the sorriest team by 100.' No, you evaluate yourself against the best, and the best right now is the Green Bay Packers."

While the Panthers want to see how many strides they've gained since last year's two-win debacle, the Packers are focused on bigger things. It's like the Vince Lombardi credo of chasing perfection but hoping to catch excellence in the process.

"I think the expectations have changed, definitely, but that's a good thing," Rodgers said. "That's because we've had success here. That is extra pressure, but I don't think anything can really match up to the pressure I put on myself. I'm my own worst critic. I expect to play well when I take the field because I have high expectations and a high level of preparation. It's constantly searching for the game where you really felt like you did everything you wanted to and you realize you're never going to reach that. But, yeah, expectations have changed."

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.

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