The intrigue surrounding the Carolina Panthers’ home game Sunday against the Green Bay Packers mostly surrounded opposing quarterback Aaron Rodgers:
Would Rodgers’ Hall-of-Fame talent trump nine games of inactivity, following a broken collarbone on the right (throwing) side of his torso? Could the Panthers’ defense withstand a run-pass versatility comparable to their own former MVP, Cam Newton?
The Panthers’ back seven had this one: They picked off Rodgers three times in building a two-score lead, and rode it to a 31-24 victory at Bank of America Stadium. The Panthers improved to 10-4, keeping them in the race for the NFC South championship and, at minimum, strengthening their grip on a wild-card spot in the playoffs.
Green Bay made this interesting by recovering an onside kick in the final three minutes, after closing the gap to a single score. Panthers rookie Christian McCaffrey failed to pull in the ball on the onside play. But Panthers’ safety Mike Adams recovered a fumble with just under two minutes left. Packers wide receiver Geronimo Allison gave up possession on a hit by the Panthers’ James Bradberry.
Rodgers had his moments: His rollout in the Packers’ final drive of the first half created time as he patiently found Randall Cobb for a 33-yard go-ahead touchdown.
But Panthers cornerbacks Bradberry and Daryl Worley each picked off one of Rodgers’ attempts. He kept challenging Carolina’s secondary long, and those throws too frequently fell short of their targets.
Rodgers broke his collarbone in mid-October, against the Minnesota Vikings. It was the second broken collarbone of his career. Typically, those fractures need 12 weeks to heal; it was uncertain until midweek whether Rodgers would even be cleared to play Sunday.
The Panthers put this game away when Damiere Byrd caught his second touchdown pass with about 12 1/2 minutes remaining. It was a 13-yard completion for Newton, extending the Panthers’ lead to 31-17. Byrd also had a 9-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter.
Three who mattered
Greg Olsen: Two one-handed catches so athletic it looked like he was posting up in basketball, rather than preparing to be hit on a football field.
Byrd: This is quite a comeback for Byrd’s season, after he broke an arm in Week 4.
Kurt Coleman: The Panthers veteran safety was constantly in on tackles in the first three quarters, when this game was essentially decided.
▪ Newton’s ability to win with his legs was so well illustrated with about three minutes left in the first half, when he slipped a potential tackle in the end zone, scrambled to his right and bowled into a defender at the sideline for a first down.
▪ The re-sod in the middle of the playing surface at Bank of America Stadium seems to have filled in well; that area still looked beaten up during the ACC championship game between Clemson and Miami.
▪ At least based on jerseys in the stands, it didn’t look as if so many tickets were resold to Packers fans this time. A function of the Panthers’ record and the stakes of this game?
▪ Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers, a former Packer, got in on a sack of former teammate Rodgers with about 5 1/2 minutes left.
▪ Panthers nickel back Captain Munnerlyn was a healthy scratch from the active roster. He left practice Wednesday, frustrated with his limited role in this week’s game plan.
▪ It took until early in the third quarter for any Panthers wide receiver to have a catch. Finally, Devin Funchess had a 21-yard reception.
▪ Former Panthers tight end Wesley Walls used to joke he would sprinkle himself with “invisible dust” before games. Current tight end Greg Olsen looked that preposterously open on his touchdown reception 4 1/2 minutes into the second half. Looked like total confusion in the Packers’ secondary.
▪ Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis drew a 15-yard penalty for a blindside block on Packers wide receiver Davante Adams, following an interception. Davis appeared distressed on the sideline when Adams needed assistance to leave the field. Adams was being evaluated for a possible concussion.
Rick Bonnell: 704-358-5129, @rick_bonnell