Carolina’s hopes of becoming one of many NFL teams to pull improbable upsets Sunday came down to the final play, when the Packers tackled Christian McCaffrey at the goal line as time expired. But before everything started to look oh-so right for the Panthers, they made plenty of damning mistakes.
Here’s a look at six fatal flaws by the Panthers, and one redeeming quality from their 24-16 defeat.
- Tackling. We all know how difficult Aaron Rodgers is to bring down. It’s no coincidence that his super powers engaged as soon as the snow started falling Sunday evening at Lambeau Field during the Packers’ second drive, slipping sacks en route to Green Bay’s first touchdown. But Jimmy Graham against two safeties? That’s a battle Carolina should win. On a third-and-6 shortly before the two-minute warning of the first half, Rodgers hit Graham wide open down the middle of the field for 48 yards. Twenty-seven of those yards were after the catch, with about 10 coming after contact thanks to two missed tackles by Eric Reid and one by Tre Boston. Reid eventually got credit for a solo tackle on a third effort. ... Aaron Jones (three touchdowns) was also almost impossible to tackle in the open field, so the Packers kept feeding him in the second half.
- Roughing Rodgers. On the same drive as mentioned above, the Packers faced third-and-13 from their own 7. Gerald McCoy and Brian Burns pressured him to throw incomplete, but after the throw, McCoy couldn’t stop his momentum and fell on top of Rodgers, drawing a roughing-the-passer penalty. Instead of the Panthers getting the ball back with good field position with 4:21 until halftime and down 14-10, Green Bay ran out the clock on the drive.
- Reset the counter. Kyle Allen had a severe case of fumblitis his first three games of the season, putting the ball on the turf six times and losing four. But since his Week 5 start against Jacksonville (one fumble), Allen hadn’t coughed the ball up once ... Until Sunday. Allen fell and fumbled after an exchange with the center in the second quarter at Green Bay’s 47-yard line. The Packers scored six plays later to take their first lead of the game, 14-10, and never trailed again.
- Pick for minus-6. Down 21-10 midway through the third quarter and needing a score to remain competitive, the Panthers had second-and-10 from the Green Bay 11. Allen was flushed up from the pocket, and instead of scrambling for a couple of yards, he threw a pass intended for a double-covered Jarius Wright in the end zone. Packers safety Adrian Amos stepped in front of the ball, punching it into the air and into the arms of cornerback Tramon Williams. Replay showed there was never a passing lane for Allen to throw in. Prior to throwing the pick, Allen had a passer rating of 121 — higher than that of Rodgers (97.7 at the time).
- Health. James Bradberry (cornerback) and Greg Little (offensive tackle) were inactive, so the secondary and O-line were already at a disadvantage. But then cornerback Ross Cockrell left the game with injury, and later position-mate Donte Jackson did, too (though he’d return). Then came Dennis Daley’s departure, leaving Carolina with only Daryl Williams to play left tackle. It’s hard to win on the road at Lambeau when you’re lacking so many key starters.
- Third downs. Carolina went 4 of 10 on third downs Sunday. Three of the failed attempts went for negative yardage, including two sacks of Allen. Two conversions were on the final drive.
What’s so redeeming?
With the Saints’ loss to the Atlanta Falcons in the Superdome on Sunday, New Orleans saw its record fall to 7-2. They’re clearly still the front-runner in the NFC South with a two-game lead over the second-place Panthers (5-4); however, despite Carolina’s loss, it still controls its own destiny to win the division. Should the Panthers find a way to win out — which would mean two victories over the Saints — they would take the South’s guaranteed playoff spot.