The Packers lost another game to a playoff-worthy opponent on Sunday. Because of it, Green Bay almost certainly won't be playing a playoff game in January.
In a repeat of practically every loss this season, the Packers had too many costly breakdowns in a bitter 35-31 loss to the Carolina Panthers in front of 70,297 displeased fans at Lambeau Field.
From bad run defense in the first half to pitiful punting to horrible kick coverage to inconsistent blocking to a botched shotgun snap, the Packers couldn't get out of their own way in losing a must-win game in the final 2 minutes. With their second consecutive loss and fourth in five games this month, Green Bay is 5-7 and will be two games behind the winner of tonight's Bears-Vikings game with four games remaining.The Packers were on course to save the season, with a big-time second-half comeback giving them a 31-28 lead, only to be let down by their kickoff coverage, then victimized by Jake Delhomme's heave and DeAngelo Williams' fourth touchdown run in the final 2 minutes.
"I felt like we were going to win," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said, voicing confidence in his defense.
Rodgers seemed set to take a huge step forward in his career by playing a superb second half to spearhead the comeback from a 21-10 halftime deficit, and the Packers got unexpected lifts from second-string running back Brandon Jackson (with Ryan Grant sidelined by a thumb injury) and a run defense that stiffened after allowing 101 yards in the first half.
Jackson's 32-yard run on the first play of the second half – a toss to the left that he cut back all the way to the right – set up a field goal that cut the deficit to 21-13.
A great punt by the Panthers' Jason Baker pinned the Packers at their 5-yard line, but Rodgers hit Donald Driver for 46 yards up the right sideline, scrambled for 16 yards, then completed 5-of-6 passes – including a 5-yard touchdown pass to Donald Lee to cut the margin to 21-19. Coach Mike McCarthy went for the two-point conversion – a gamble with more than 20 minutes remaining in the game – but Rodgers hit Jennings to tie the score at 21.
The Packers' defense responded with a three-and-out, and Rodgers followed his eight-play, 95-yard touchdown drive with a nine-play, 76-yard excursion for the go-ahead touchdown. Rodgers hit 5-of-6 passes, including 23 yards to Jordy Nelson on third-and-15 and a pretty 21-yard touchdown strike to Jennings to give the Packers a 28-21 lead a minute into the fourth quarter.
Green Bay's special teams, however, allowed Mark Jones' second big runback of the game, and it set up the tying touchdown. Delhomme hit Steve Smith on a deep post for 36 yards to the 1, and DeAngelo Williams' third rushing touchdown tied the game at 28 with 11:10 remaining in the game.
With the season on the line, McCarthy elected to ride Rodgers' hot hand. They went with their Big Five formation or four receivers and one tight end on four consecutive plays to get to midfield. After a determined Jackson picked up 9 yards on two carries, Rodgers hit Jermichael Finley for 35 of the necessary 36 inches. On fourth-and-that-last-inch, Rodgers snuck for the first down to the Panthers' 39.
On first down, Rodgers hit Jennings on a deep in for 17 yards, then Driver for 13 yards to set up first-and-goal at the 9. After a delay of game, Rodgers scrambled and was flattened by Julius Peppers while two steps out of bounds, giving the Packers a first-and-goal from the 7.
McCarthy, however, did not give Rodgers a chance to put the Packers in the end zone. On first down, Jackson followed fullback John Kuhn for 6 yards to the 1. Jackson lost a foot on second down, and on third-and-goal, Kuhn was stuffed. On the first play after the 2-minute warning, Mason Crosby booted a 19-yard field goal to give the Packers a 31-28 lead.
A diplomatic Rodgers said he would have liked a chance to make play on second or third down but said he was confident either of those two runs would be successful.
"We've got to punch the ball into the end zone every time, especially in a game like this," McCarthy said.
In a season in which the Packers too often have failed to make the big play at crunch time, the Panthers responded with two monster plays. Jones again gave the Panthers prime field position, this time with a 45-yard return from his goal line. Delhomme, under pressure, unbelievably hit Smith for 54 yards through the start of a snowstorm to the Packers' 1. Charles Woodson, playing safety with Atari Bigby and Aaron Rouse injured, seemed to be in position for the interception but the Pro Bowler Smith made a brilliant leaping catch. Williams' fourth touchdown run gave Carolina a 35-31 lead with 1:30 to go.
"We had coverage there, and that happens. He's a big-time player and he made big plays," McCarthy said of Smith.
"I would take myself 100 percent of the time," Woodson said, "especially with the ball in the air, being able to go get the ball, and I didn't make it happen.
Starting from their 17 with 1:24 remaining, a scrambling Rodgers – who up to that point was 17-of-22 for 210 yards and two touchdowns in the second half – was intercepted by Jon Beason on a deep pass to Driver on second down. Rodgers said he thought he threw a good ball but didn't put enough on it into the wind. Another foot, and the ball gets over Beason and Driver makes the catch inside the Panthers' 35.
The Packers trailed 14-3 in the second quarter, then blew a chance to trail 14-13 or even lead 17-14 at halftime – with the ball to start the second half. After Jackson's impressive 24-yard run set up a Rodgers-to-Driver touchdown to cut it to 14-10 with 3:15 left in the half, the Packers' defense forced a three-and-out punt that burned merely 37 seconds off the block.
But on first down from the Packers' 36-yard line, center Scott Wells – apparently playing with a concussion – air-mailed a snap over Rodgers' head, and the Panthers recovered at the Green Bay 17. It was a disastrous turn of events, with the Panthers capitalizing on a way-too-easy 1-yard touchdown run by Williams to make it 21-10 with 34 seconds left in the half.
Barring complete meltdowns by the Vikings and Bears, the Packers will have to win their final four games and get some help to keep their season alive. That starts with a home game on Sunday against Houston.
"We need to win a game," McCarthy said.
Bill Huber is the Lead Analyst for Packer Report and PackerReport.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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