It was an ugly day on the not-so frozen tundra of Lambeau Field on Sunday – gray, overcast and no sign of the sun all afternoon.
It was an uglier day for the Carolina Panthers’ defense, which also never made an appearance.
Green Bay scored touchdowns on its first three possessions – each aided by a Carolina penalty – and rolled to a 38-17 victory in front of a crowd of 78,106, the 304th consecutive regular-season sellout at Lambeau.
The only way it could have been worse for the Panthers (3-3-1) is if it had been mid-December and snowing. Next up will be a game against reigning Super Bowl champion Seattle, which will come to Charlotte off back-to-back losses to Dallas and St. Louis.
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“We got the wood taken to us, and now we’ve got to go out and face another great team,” Panthers free safety Thomas DeCoud said.
The Packers (5-2) won their fourth consecutive game and improved to 35-7-1 at home since 2009.
The Panthers’ reeling defense had another day to forget, giving up 363 yards despite the Packers playing most of the fourth quarter without quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Rodgers completed 19 of 22 passes for 255 yards and three touchdowns, with no interceptions. His 154.5 passer rating was the second-highest of his career and wasn’t far off a perfect rating of 158.3.
The Panthers, who had the NFL’s second-ranked defense last season, now have allowed 37 points or more in four of their past five games.
Trailing 35-3 near the end of the third quarter, the defensive frustrations boiled over when middle linebacker Luke Kuechly was ejected for throwing his elbow back at an official.
Green Bay tight end Richard Rodgers pulled Kuechly off a pile following a fumble the Packers recovered, then back judge Steve Freeman grabbed Kuechly’s midsection and arm to try to separate him from the scrum.
Kuechly said he wasn’t sure who was behind him but blamed himself for losing his composure.
“It was one of those things. There was a lot going on in the game. It’s one of those situations where you’ve got to stay calm,” Kuechly said. “You can’t worry about if somebody’s grabbing you or anything. You’ve got keep your cool and do your best to walk away.”
Kuechly ran toward the tunnel at nearly a full sprint and said he didn’t have the opportunity to apologize to Freeman.
“It’s just one of those things,” DeCoud said. “It was a sign of how the day was going for us.”
Defensive penalties hurt the Panthers early, allowing Green Bay to build an insurmountable lead.
With Green Bay facing a third-on-12 on its opening possession, defensive end Wes Horton and Kuechly jumped offside on consecutive plays. The flag on Kuechly nullified a Roman Harper interception and put the Packers in a third-and-2 situation.
Rodgers scrambled 3 yards for the first down, then he hit Jordy Nelson for a 59-yard touchdown strike on the next play to start the scoring.
Most disheartening about the offside penalties was the Panthers had prepared all week for Rodgers’ hard snap counts.
“It’s tough. It’s one thing when another team beats you. And it’s one thing when you do stuff internally that’s going to hurt you,” Kuechly said. “A couple times we jumped offside, and that’s us. The ball isn’t even snapped. There’s nothing they did. It’s just us jumping offside. We made a point of it during the week that he loves the hard count.”
On the Packers’ second drive, Green Bay converted a third-and-3 when the Panthers were whistled for having too many men on the field. One of their defensive linemen didn’t get to the sideline before Rodgers took the snap in the hurry-up offense.
With the Packers ahead 14-0, DeCoud was penalized for leading with his head after receiver Randall Cobb’s 14-yard reception. DeCoud said he thought he hit Cobb with his shoulder.
Two plays later, James Starks danced in on a 13-yard touchdown run, putting the Packers ahead 21-0, and the rout was on.
“It’s like we barely got out of the driver’s seat and it was already 21-nothing,” defensive tackle Colin Cole said. “We know we put ourselves in a bad position and gave them more opportunities than they needed as a high-potent offense.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said the Packers’ fast start was overwhelming.
“I’m trying to tell the defense, ‘Hey, it’s just one (stop) at a time. One at a time, one at a time,’ ” Rivera said. “And you look up and you’re down 21-0, one at a time’s tough.”
The offense didn’t help matters, with two three-and-outs to start the game.
Quarterback Cam Newton had an uneven game, firing several passes over the heads of receivers, getting intercepted once and finishing with a season-low passer rating of 72.6.
Tight end Greg Olsen caught eight passes for a career-high 105 yards, and running back Jonathan Stewart averaged 3.9 yards a carry after missing three games with a sprained knee. But the zone read that was so effective last week against Cincinnati became an afterthought after the Panthers fell behind by four touchdowns.
“It’s hard to run after that,” said cornerback Casey Hayward, who had the interception against Newton. “They had to do some catch-up.”
Touchdown catches by Kelvin Benjamin and Brenton Bersin during the fourth quarter made the final score closer, but that was little consolation for a Panthers defense that has come undone.
“We can’t keep sitting around and waiting on things to happen. As a defense, we’ve got to go out and make things happen,” linebacker Thomas Davis said. “Until we do that, this outcome is going to continue to be like this. But I know we have the guys to get it done and we’re confident that we can get it done. We’ve just got to go out and do it.”