Monday Night miracle comeback falls short

Battered and bruised, the Green Bay Packers were decked early on by the Carolina Panthers Monday night in Charlotte, N.C. But the young Packers, led by veteran quarterback Brett Favre, refused to throw in the towel.

Down by 19 points early in the fourth quarter, Favre led the Packers back to within three points with 3 minutes, 7 seconds remaining, but Green Bay's amazing comeback fizzled when cornerback Chris Gamble broke up a pass intended for Donald Driver on fourth-and-three from the Panthers' 41, allowing Carolina hang on for a 32-29 victory at Bank of America Stadium.

Green Bay, off to its worst start since 1988, has lost its last three games by a total of six points. The Packers lost 17-16 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last week, and 26-24 to the Cleveland Browns on Sept. 18.

Green Bay is 0-4 for the fourth time in team history. Lindy Infante's 1988 Packers began 0-5 and finished 4-12. The Packers lost their first six games under Forrest Gregg in 1986, finishing 4-12. Bart Starr's 1975 Packers team began 0-4 and finished 4-10.

"This is tough. They all hurt, but this one we came so close to winning the ballgame, much like last week," said Packers coach Mike Sherman. "They're all the same, but it's the most recent so it hurts the most."

Green Bay was hoping to limit its turnovers and establish a running game early on against the Panthers, but were unable to do either. The Packers entered the game with the worst turnover margin of the league and it showed in the first two quarters. Matters only worsened when the Packers lost two starting offensive linemen, running back Ahman Green, reserve receiver Terrence Murphy, and starting linebacker Na'il Diggs to injuries during the game. Still, the Packers continued to play hard, but are without a victory.

"We left it all on the field," said Favre, who just missed his 35th comeback win of his career. "I was rehashing things I could have done better ... We kind of dug ourselves into a deep hole, but found a way to come out of it. I had the utmost confidence in myself that we would do it. We've done it before. I'm disappointed that I didn't pull it through.

"I always feel like we can come back and win. At times, it doesn't seem that way, but I always tell the guys, 'If you lose then you go down swinging."

Favre threw three of his touchdowns in the second half and finished with 303 yards passing and four touchdowns to four different receivers. Favre completed 28 of 47 passes and also passed for two two-point conversions in three attempts. He led the comeback despite playing behind a makeshift offensive line and without Green for much of the second half.

Green Bay pulled to within the final score after driving 90 yards in just over four minutes late in the fourth quarter. Favre completed 8 of 12 passes in the drive before finding Antonio Chatman in the back of the end zone from four yards out. Favre's two-point conversion pass to Robert Ferguson made it, 32-29.

Green Bay's defense, which forced a fumble that resulted in Favre's 16-yard touchdown to tight end Donald Lee on the Packers' previous series, forced the Panthers to punt on its next possession. With 1:58 remaining and no timeouts, Favre began the drive with a 16-yard pass to Driver. Favre's 7-yard pass to Chatman got the Packers to the 41, but it was all the closer Green Bay would get. Favre threw incomplete on the next play, though, it appeared Gamble interfered with Driver on the play.

"We've shown a lot of character this season," Sherman said. "I think we have character. We came in at halftime and it wasn't very pretty. We explained to them what we had to do in the second half. They tried to do that."

With the exception of their fantastic fourth quarter in which they had 131 of their 352 total yards, the Packers made too many mistakes to overcome the Panthers. For example, after Favre hit Driver on a crossing pattern for a 26-yard touchdown play with 3:06 left in the third, Green Bay's special teams gave up a 60-yard return to Panthers return man Rod Smart. Starting their drive on Green Bay's 35, the Panthers eventually scored on Stephen Davis' one-yard touchdown run with 14:44 left in the fourth quarter. Packers linebacker Paris Lenon intercepted Jake Delhomme's two-point conversion pass, but the Panthers had built a commanding 32-13 lead.

"We have to be able to make the plays in the first half of the game that we had a chance to make," Sherman said. "To Carolina's credit, they made the plays and they won the ballgame."

Green Bay was out-scored 16-0 in the second quarter by the Panthers, who improved to 2-2. Like in their three previous games this season, the Packers had to play from behind from the start.

Carolina converted two Green Bay turnovers into touchdowns, and took advantage of an inept defensive effort in the second quarter to take a 23-7 halftime lead. The Packers not only fumbled the ball away, but were guilty of penalties, poor pass coverages, missed tackles, and Favre threw his eighth interception of the season. The Panthers capitalized by scoring 16 straight points in the quarter, which was stopped for about 10 minutes by a scary injury to wide receiver Terrence Murphy. The rookie wide receiver was taken off the field on a stretcher and taken to a Charlotte hospital after a helmet-to-helmet hit by Thomas Davis while returning a kickoff.

"We're not good enough to overcome turnovers," Favre said. "We're not good enough to overcome mistakes. We battled back, but we made it harder on ourselves than we needed it to be. I give a lot of credit to Carolina. They're a much better team than 2-2. We knew were in for it as far as facing their defense. We knew it was going to be difficult, but you can't give them anything."

The Packers committed six of the eight penalties enforced against them in the first half.

Green Bay's offensive line, rebuilding after losing guards Mike Wahle (Carolina) and Marco Rivera (Dallas) to free agency this off-season, lost center Mike Flanagan (abdominal strain) and left tackle Chad Clifton (ankle sprain) late in the first quarter, after an impressive 71-yard drive helped Green Bay tie the game at 7-7. Green left the game with a bruised right knee in the third quarter. He finished with 36 yards on 14 carries.

As if the injuries and turnovers didn't hurt the Packers enough, Green Bay simply had trouble stopping the Panthers.

Safety Earl Little, who shot off his mouth a few weeks ago for his lack of playing time, was embarrassed by running back DeShaun Foster on a 46-yard play that set up a Carolina touchdown. Foster caught a pass over the middle from Jake Delhomme, then stiff-armed Little, who was pulling and tugging away at Foster for nearly 30 yards before Foster was pushed out of bounds. On the next play, tight end Michael Gaines lost safety Mark Roman while breaking in front of a Carolina receiver and was wide open for a touchdown.

Aaron Kampman gave the Packers one of their few highlights of the half when he blocked John Kasay's extra-point attempt as the Panthers led 16-7.

Despite the loss of two starters along the offensive line, Green Bay moved to Carolina's 19, but Favre was intercepted by cornerback Ken Lucas, who wrestled the ball away from Ferguson, then returned the ball 32 yards to Green Bay's 47. The Panthers got another 15 yards on the play when tight end David Martin made an illegal tackle on Lucas. Davis' followed two plays later with a 12-yard touchdown run to give the Panthers a 23-7 lead. Davis had 51 yards rushing on 19 attempts.

Green Bay overcame its 10th turnover of the season early in the first quarter with a 10-play, 71-yard drive, highlighted by Martin's leaping, 21-yard catch for a touchdown from Favre. Martin, filling in for the injured Bubba Franks (knee), scored his first touchdown of the season.

The Packers gave the ball to Green four times in the drive and took advantage of two Carolina penalties. Gamble's illegal contact penalty on Driver gave the Packers a first down at the Panthers' 26. Two plays later, Favre tossed a jump ball to Martin, who got past linebacker Dan Morgan and made a leaping catch at the goal line.

Carolina capitalized on a fumble recovery deep inside Green Bay territory on the third play from scrimmage and took a 7-0 lead on Delhomme's two-yard touchdown pass to tight end Kris Mangum early in the first quarter.

Defensive end Michael Rucker forced Favre to fumble and the loose ball was recovered by Kindal Moorehead on Green Bay's 7. On third and goal from the 2, Delhomme rolled to his right and found Mangum, who broke free from linebacker Robert Thomas in the right corner of the end zone.

Kasay's 31-yard field goal with 12:53 left in the second quarter gave the Panthers a 10-7 lead. Cornerback Ahmad Carroll's 26-yard pass interference penalty on wide receiver Steve Smith put the Panthers on the Packers' 23.

Overall, Green Bay's secondary held Smith, who caught three touchdown passes a week earlier against Miami, in check. Smith had two catches for 12 yards.

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