Offensive line paves the way

Monday night's season opener had the feel of a heavyweight championship match, which it was since this was a fourth-and-26 conversion away from being last season's NFC championship game. As is the case in boxing, to be the best you've got to beat the best.

For the Green Bay Packers' talented offensive line, they beat the best. It wasn't by knockout to be sure, but to keep with the boxing theme, the Packers won by a decisive unanimous decision.

Green Bay dominated the game by taking care of business on the ground. The Packers ran the ball a resounding 47 times for 152 yards in Monday night's season-opening 24-14 victory at Carolina. Amazingly, the Packers' longest rush of the night was 12 yards. But it was the persistent pounding of the ball that allowed the Packers to win a Week 1 showdown with surprising ease.

"All week, people talked about how good they are," guard Mike Wahle said. "But we have pride, too. We wanted to have a good showing against probably the best defensive front in the game."

Carolina's defensive front four is the acknowledged best in the business. The Panthers didn't reach the Super Bowl last season based on anything but dominating play up front. Tackle Kris Jenkins has supplanted Warren Sapp as the best interior lineman in the league. Next to him is the steady veteran Brentson Buckner. On the ends are Pro Bowler Mike Rucker, who posted a dominating 12 sacks thanks in large part to the constant double teams third-year star Julius Peppers attracts.

That fearsome foursome was rendered mute, however, by the Packers' Clad Clifton, Marco Rivera, Mike Flanagan, Mike Wahle and Mark Tauscher.

Even when the Packers failed, they succeeded. On their first scoring drive, Ahman Green was stopped on a third-and-1 play. Green was a perfect 8-of-8 last season in such situations. The Packers wound up settling for a field goal and a 3-0 lead. But while the Packers failed to convert that third-and-short, they made a statement by running the ball six times and passing it just twice.

"When Tom calls it like that, we're happy," Wahle said. "It really gives us a chance to establish ourselves quick and control the clock."

With Carolina ahead 7-3, Green Bay answered with an impressive touchdown drive to take the lead for good at 10-7. This time, the Packers converted a third-and-1 on a training-film-caliber play. Green took a toss and gained 5 yards. Fullback Nick Luchey and a pulling Wahle led the way with lead blocks and Bubba Franks, Kevin Barry and Tauscher caving in the interior of Carolina's defense. The touchdown came on a 6-yard run from Green. Wahle pulled and Luchey led again, but the big block came from Franks against Peppers.

The Packers led by that margin at halftime and were outgained by 32 yards, but the tone of the game had been set. Green Bay ran the ball 23 times in the first half — including 17 by Green — to just 10 passes. By the second half, the Panthers' defense was being worn down, and Green Bay continued to pound away and then mix it up.

"We just tried to execute," Tauscher, the right tackle, said. "We know they're good, and we knew we were going to have to play at a high level in order to execute properly, and we were able to do that."

With the Panthers tuning into the Packers' running game, the passing game opened a bit. After Carolina turned it over on the second play of the second half, the Packers went to the air on the first three plays. The third pass, to Donald Driver, covered 16 yards and got a first down. The Packers picked up another first down on a pass to Driver before Green thundered into the end zone from 3 yards out to put the Packers in front 17-7.

By now, the Panthers were completely befuddled. The Packers took advantage on their next drive as offensive coordinator Tom Rossley brilliantly called a touchdown series. Of the first eight plays of the drive, the Packers ran it six times. The two passes both came on play-action fakes. Finally, on third-and-goal from the 3, with everyone in the stadium expecting Green to get the ball on the run, Brett Favre wound up rolling to his right and hitting Green with a short touchdown pass.

Favre has had better games but he did everything he needed to Monday, finishing 15 of 22 for 143 yards and the touchdown. He was sacked just twice, and one of those came in the first quarter when Favre had all day to throw it but couldn't find anyone open.


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