It wasn't always pretty, but the Green Bay Packers came away with a victory on Saturday Night Football. Aaron Rodgers had one of his least-efficient games of the year, averaging just 4.9 yards per attempt, and the offense as a whole sputtered after halftime, but Green Bay ultimately held on for a 24-16 victory over the Carolina Panthers.
The Packers very nearly blew a double-digit lead in the second half, allowing the Panthers to score on three of their first four post-halftime drives. Carolina even had an opportunity to drive for the tie with 55 seconds remaining after the Packers' own clock-killing drive failed to produce a first down, but the defense managed to secure a stop before Teddy Bridgewater could engineer his way to the end zone.
The win improved the Packers' record to 11-3, while it dropped Carolina's to just 4-10. The NFC North champions remain in first place in the conference and have an opportunity to secure home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs if they can take care of business in each of the next two weeks.
Why the Packers won
Their hot start was too much to overcome. The Packers scored touchdowns on each of their first three drives, and that was all they needed for the victory. Aaron Jones got things started with a 46-yard run that set up an eventual short touchdown catch by Robert Tonyan. Jones kept things rolling throughout the rest of the first half, getting the Packers into the red zone to set up a short touchdown run by Rodgers, then finding the end zone himself on the team's third drive. It didn't much matter that Green Bay then punted on five consecutive possessions. An early 21-3 lead essentially put the game away, even if it did eventually get a bit closer.
Why the Panthers lost
They just made everything a bit too hard on themselves. Curtis Samuel had two drops. Teddy Bridgewater had a fumble and took three sacks. The defense got gashed by Aaron Jones several times in the first half. All of those things combined to put the Panthers in an early hole, and it was ultimately just too deep for them to climb out of given their style of offense, which emphasizes short, quick passes and doesn't create very many big plays. Beyond an early 37-yard completion to D.J. Moore on a jump-ball down the sideline, the Panthers didn't have a play gain more than 16 yards until Moore ripped off a 40-yard catch-and-run just before the two-minute warning in the fourth. (Matt Rhule also made a couple of questionable decisions to kick field goals when he could and arguably should have been trying for touchdowns.)
This was the run that got the early-game offense started for the Packers.
Carolina stacked the box to stop the run on third-and-1, but a simple jump-cut by Aaron Jones enabled him to scoot through the one open hole in the line and scamper 46 yards downfield. Green Bay got into the end zone a few plays later, setting the stage for the win.
Midway through the second quarter, the Panthers were trailing 14-3. They matriculated the ball down the field, even converting a fourth-and-1 from the Green Bay 13-yard line. On first-and-goal from the Packers' 1-yard line, Teddy Bridgewater tried to take a page out of his former teammate Drew Brees' book. It didn't work out so well.
Packers linebacker Krys Barnes met Bridgewater at the top of the pile and swatted the ball out of the QB's hands before he could reach it out over the goal line. Kevin King scooped it up and returned it to the Panthers' 47-yard line. Seven plays later, Aaron Jones found himself in the end zone, and instead of trailing 14-10, the Panthers went down 21-3. And that was all she wrote.
The Packers are now 11-3, and they'll maintain their hold on first place in the NFC North and the NFC overall no matter what happens on Sunday. Their two remaining games are home against the Titans (Dec. 27, Sunday Night Football) and on the road against the Bears. They control their own destiny, so winning both will secure home field throughout the NFC playoffs.
The Panthers, meanwhile, drop their record to 4-10. For the moment, they have the fourth-worst record in the NFL, though they could be tied by the Falcons, Texans, and/or Cowboys on Sunday. They're headed toward a top-10 pick in the draft; the only question is exactly where it will land. Their two remaining games are on the road at Washington and then at home against the Saints.
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