Plenty can change during the second half of the season, but the road to the Super Bowl in the NFC appears set to go through Carolina.
That is bad news for the road-kill Green Bay Packers, who mounted a huge comeback but lost 37-29 to the Panthers.
Facing a 37-14 deficit with 9:22 remaining, the Packers drove within 4 yards of the potential tying touchdown, but Aaron Rodgers was pressured into a fourth-and-goal interception by Thomas Davis with 1:54 remaining. With only one timeout left, Green Bay didn’t have a prayer when it got the ball back with 6 seconds remaining.
For the second consecutive week, the Packers lost on the road to an undefeated team. With some projecting with the final records for the Broncos and Panthers, the Packers have lost 10 in a row on the road to teams that finished with winning records with Rodgers at quarterback.
On the fourth-down play, receiver Randall Cobb was wide open in the right flat but Rodgers couldn’t see him as right tackle Bryan Bulaga was pushed into his face. Rodgers bought another second or two but threw a desperation pass toward the end zone as he was hauled down by Kawaan Short. When shown the photos of that play on the bench, Rodgers tossed the tablet computer on the ground.
"It’s a frustrating game," he said. "It’s exhilarating but also frustrating when you make a mistake like that. I had an easy opportunity for a pitch-and-catch touchdown and I got scared by something. I can’t explain it. It was a mistake by myself. I’ll definitely be thinking about that one on the ride home. But we’ve got to move on tomorrow and prepare for a division stretch."
Rodgers, facing constant pressure, finished 25-of-48 for 369 yards with four touchdowns. Panthers quarterback Cam Newton finished 15-of-30 for 297 yards with three touchdowns, plus rushed for 57 yards and another touchdown.
With midseason NFC supremacy on the line, the Panthers dominated most of the first 50 minutes. Carolina improved to 8-0 and owns a two-game lead in the NFC. The Packers, who haven’t gone on the road and beaten a team with a winning record since Week 15 of the 2012 season, fell to 6-2 and essentially are three games behind in the chase for homefield advantage.
"Tough loss, a gritty loss for us as a football team," coach Mike McCarthy said. "We made way too many mistakes. You can’t do that against an excellent football team in Carolina. Coming down here, playing in their environment, slow start, gave up some big plays, dug ourselves in a hole and fought back and almost got it back – had a chance to get it to a two-point play there. Disappointed particularly in some of the mistakes. But our guys, we’re a gritty bunch, we’re 6-2, and we’re headed into our division."
For all intents and purposes, the Packers’ obituary appeared to have been written early in the fourth quarter. After McCarthy won a challenge that turned Newton’s third-down conversion into a punt, Green Bay got its best field position of the game at the 40 with 13:43 remaining and facing a 30-14 deficit. But the Packers’ slumping offense did nothing, with Rodgers sacked and stripped on third-and-4. It was their seventh possession of the game that failed to get a first down.
Carolina added another touchdown to make it 37-14. On the bench afterward, safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix walked over to Julius Peppers and the two began exchanging words, with B.J. Raji stepping in front of the two and shoving Clinton-Dix.
While that was going on, the Packers used two screens to James Starks, including a 29-yarder for a touchdown, to get in the end zone. Rodgers’ two-point toss to Davante Adams brought Green Bay within 37-22, and the offense got another shot when the defense forced a three-and-out. The Packers took advantage in improbable fashion. On fourth-and-14, Rodgers spun away from a potential sack, scrambled to his left and fired a prayer to James Jones, who made a leaping grab over star cornerback Josh Norman for a gain of 36 to the Panthers’ 20. Another screen to Starks gained 17 and Rodgers fired a quick pass to Richard Rodgers for a 3-yard score. The extra point made it 37-29 with 3:43 remaining.
On Carolina’s first play after the kickoff, Damarious Randall jumped an out and made a great interception at the sideline, giving the Packers the ball at Carolina’s 22 with 3:38 to go. Rodgers hit Cobb for 8 to convert a fourth-and-5. After two incomplete passes to Cobb, Rodgers scrambled but couldn’t beat safety Roman Harper one-on-one in the open field and was taken down at the 4 at the two-minute warning.
If last week’s loss at Denver was an “ass kicking,” to use McCarthy’s phrase, then how do you explain the first half, with the Packers falling behind 27-7?
Green Bay’s offense was about as bad as it was last week at Denver. The Packers went three-and-out on their first possession with a third-down sack. After a second-drive touchdown pass from Rodgers to Richard Rodgers, Green Bay’s third possession went three-and-out after a first-down holding penalty. The fourth possession went three-and-out, as well, as Rodgers missed a streaking Cobb who was open deep. The fifth possession went two-and-out on Eddie Lacy’s fumble. The sixth possession went three-and-out after a third-down sack. The seventh possession, a promising two-minute drive, petered out on a first-down sack from the Panthers’ 40.
Meanwhile, with Green Bay playing without top cornerback Sam Shields (shoulder), Newton was 8-of-15 for 209 yards and two touchdowns in the opening half.
With Carolina trailing 7-3, Newton took advantage of a blown coverage for a gain of 59 to Jerricho Cotchery, who inexplicably was wide open even though defensive coordinator Dom Capers sent eight into coverage. Newton eventually scored on a 1-yard keeper. On the next possession, Newton threw a pinpoint long ball to underachieving rookie Devin Funchess for a gain of 52 despite excellent coverage from Randall. The touchdown was a bullet to tight end Greg Olsen, who was wide open on second-and-goal from the 7.
With Carolina up 20-7, Newton hit Philly Brown for a 39-yard touchdown on third-and-7 to bring the margin to 27-7. Both Brown and cornerback Demetri Goodson were guilty of pushing and shoving in the middle of the route but only Goodson was flagged.
The Packers’ listless offense showed a bit of life coming out of halftime. On the third play after intermission, Randall Cobb lined up in the left, took his route to the sideline and then turned it upfield. Rodgers threw a perfect pass and Cobb broke two tackles on his way to the end zone. That made it 27-14 just a minute into the third quarter.
Green Bay then forced a three-and-out punt and got a 21-yard, toe-tapping completion to Davante Adams on the first play of the Packers’ possession. But the momentum didn’t last for long. After a 4-yard run by Starks, Rodgers was dropped by blitzing safety Kurt Coleman.
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.