The Packers have their backs to the wall after the loss to New Orleans Monday night, and they are facing one of the six teams in the league who came into the week with eight wins.
Good thing it is still not a must win. Oh, it's pretty close, but if the Packers lose Sunday, they still likely would win the division if the won their last four games.
And that is not that unlikely, since their final four games are against Jacksonville, Houston, Chicago and Detroit. Only the Bears have a winning record, and that game will be on the road, but the Packers dominated the Bears in their first match-up last November 16, 37-3.
Nevertheless, the Packers are already in a hole, and another loss puts them deep enough that they may not get out. I am reminded of one of my favourite lines from a movie that runs every few weeks on TNT, including this weekend, Fellowship of the Ring: "The quest stands on the edge of a knife—move but a little, and all is lost."
But how do the teams match-up?
Scoring and intangibles: slight edge (+1), Green Bay
Green Bay ranks fifth in the league in scoring with an average of 27.5 per game, but ranks 22nd in points against with an average of 23.6. While that is still a net advantage of 3.9 points per game, it is lower than Carolina's 5.4 point advantage; Carolina scores 23.6 (22nd in the league) but gives up only 18.2 (7th in the NFL).
The Packers are +5 in turnover margin, while the Panthers are +4. The Packers get more big plays from their turnovers: they have nine touchdown returns, the Panthers one. Thus, the turnover potential favours the Packers. However, the turnovers and scores factor into the scoring averages above, making this advantage minimal for Green Bay.
The game is in Green Bay, and the Packers play better at home (3-2) and the Panthers (2-3) are an average road team, mitigating the scoring edge for Carolina. Thus, we need to determine this game based on the individual unit match-ups:
Packers pass offense vs. Panthers pass defense: edge (+2), Carolina
The Packers average 223.1 yards per game, giving them the NFL's 15th-ranked passing attack, and Aaron Rodgers is the 10th-rated passer in the league. But Carolina has the eighth-ranked pass defense, yielding only 192.1 per game.
Packers rush offense vs. Panthers rush defense: toss-up
This surprised me, but the Panthers rank only 17th against the run, yielding 109.9 yards per game, and the Packers rank 20th running the ball, averaging 108.4 yards per contest. Moreover, when you consider that because of the teams' records, opponents run the ball less against Carolina and the Packers run the ball less because they are trying to catch up, plus the trending up of the Packers rushing attack, this is a dead heat.
Panthers pass offense vs. Packers pass defense: big advantage (+3), Green Bay
Despite the Packers defense giving up 44 points mostly through the air last week, they are still the seventh-ranked pass defense in the league. The Packers yield 189.2 yards per game, despite an almost 20 point average margin of victory in their five wins which forced opponents to pass.
Meanwhile, the Panthers average only 194.6 per game through the air, better than only ten teams in the league. On the other hand, they often have little reason to pass late in games, so I will submit that this figure is artificially low.
Panthers rush offense vs. Packers rush defense: huge advantage (+5), Carolina
I know the Packers held the Saints under 100 yards and under four yards per carry, but only because they were having too much success passing. The Packers kept eight men in the box even as they were being torched for big plays, suggesting they did not make necessary adjustments. Late in the game, they stayed in that alignment in anticipation of New Orleans milking the clock, but it really didn't happen.
The reality is the Packers defense still yields 142.9 per game (26th in the league) even after two relatively successful outings, and seems to have to choose between stopping the run and stopping the pass. I suggest they do the former Sunday because Carolina has a potent rushing attack, averaging 133.7 per game and ranking seventh in the NFL.
Special Teams: slight edge (+1) to the Packers
The edge in the kicking game goes to Carolina, as John Kasay has made as many field goals as Mason Crosby (20) but missed just one instead of three. Both kickers are great at kicking the ball deep, but Carolina averages 0.3 yards more per return than their opponents, while the Packers average 3.0 fewer yards.
However, the Packers get a significant edge in the punting game. Despite Derrick Frost's inconsistency, the Packers average 5.5 yards more net on punts than the opposition, while the Panthers average only 0.9 more net yards. Moreover, the Panthers have had an astounding three punts blocked.
Final verdict: Carolina +2
I think Rodgers will struggle to score against the Carolina pass defense unless Ryan Grant can open up the passing game with some good early runs. However, I think the Packers will be able to stack eight in the box and still contain Carolina's passing game.
Thus, I have this game as relatively low scoring, and even though the Packers are favoured by three, my tally of the above units added up to a two-point advantage for Carolina. My predicted final score is 23-21, Panthers; I am 7-4 predicting Packers games.