The Carolina Panthers have had plenty to be thankful for this season, and Sunday’s game at Lambeau Field left them with one more reason. After seeing a 21-10 lead evaporate and having to eventually pull off an unlikely comeback, the Panthers topped the Green Bay Packers and improved to 9-3 on the season and remained tied with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers atop the NFC South.
Carolina’s DeAngelo Williams, quickly emerging as one of the top running backs in the league, rushed for 72 yards on 21 carries.
Those numbers may seem a little slack, considering the production Williams has put up lately. Toss in the four touchdowns he amassed on Sunday, though, and you’ve got yourself a bona fide player of the week candidate.
Williams found the end zone twice in each half and scored the eventual winning touchdown in the waning minutes of the game. His four touchdown runs combined for a total of four yards—a sign that the Panthers’ red zone woes may have had a healthy dose of good play calling.
Carolina got off to a quick start and made a quick blunder. On the first play of the game, the Panthers attempted a flea flicker. Jake Delhomme took the pitch and slung the ball downfield, under-throwing Muhsin Muhammad, who had to slow his stride to make a play on the ball.
Muhammad made the catch and started for the end zone when he was hit and coughed up the ball. Charles Woodson recovered for the Packers and provided a jump start for the Lambeau crowd.
After a three-and-out, the Packers surrendered the ball. In the first 1:10 of the game, both teams had had one unsuccessful possession. The teams then traded three-and-outs and put a halt to the uneventful outset of the game.
On the Panthers’ next possession, Williams broke through the Packers defense and rattled off a 27-yard run to the Green Bay three yard line. Two plays later, Williams scored his first touchdown of the day and gave the Panthers a 7-0 lead.
The Packers responded quickly with Aaron Rodgers and Ryan Grant leading a push down the field that would fall short of the end zone but still produce three points.
Rodgers was solid all afternoon but was unable to produce when the Packers needed him most. He completed 29 of 45 passes for 298 yards and three touchdowns, nearly earning a victory for his team.
Jonathan Stewart has been a valuable back up to Williams this year, and had put up nearly equal numbers before Williams went on his tear. Stewart saw his first substantial action in Sunday’s game in the second quarter just after the Packers put their first points on the board.
On the third play of the drive, Stewart showed why the Panthers chose him early in the draft, bulling his way through the Packers’ defensive front and rumbling for 43 yards.
Stewart had nothing but green pastures a head of him when he cramped up and had to slow down to a near jog. The Packers defense caught up to him and a hit from Tramon Williams jarred the ball loose.
Luckily for Stewart, the Panthers' offensive line was hustling on the play. Travelle Wharton saved the day for the Panthers, scooping up the ball on the Green Bay two-yard-line and preserving the integrity of Stewart’s run.
Two plays later, Delhomme executed a brilliant bootleg to the left and found the end zone, thanks in large part to a big block from—you guessed it—Wharton. The Panthers were clicking on offense and it looked as though they would have their way with the Packers for the duration of the afternoon, but that would not be the case.
With their foot on the Packers’ throats, the Panthers failed to deliver the crushing blow that would have distanced them from a pesky offense. Rodgers again led the Packers down the field, this time with better results.
Rodgers connected with Donald Driver for a six-yard touchdown that again revived a frustrated Lambeau crowd.
After the Panthers went three-and-out, the Packers, down 14-10, had a chance to pull closer or take the lead before half time. That idea was short lived, as the first snap of the ensuing drive was sent flying over the head of Rodgers by center Scott Wells and Charles Johnson recovered for the Panthers.
Four plays later, Williams was celebrating his second touchdown of the game and the Panthers were celebrating a 21-10 lead that they would carry with them into the half.
Mike McCarthy must have had an inspiring half time speech for his squad. The Packers scored on their first four possessions of the second half, coming all the way back from the 21-10 hole they were in and taking a 28-21 lead.
Brandon Jackson had a productive afternoon, rushing for 80 yards on 11 carries to lead the Packers. Most of these came in the second half as the Packers made their push. Jackson had a 32-yard run on the first play of the first possession of the second half for the Packers. After that big play, the drive stalled and again the Packers settled for three.
The Panthers responded with a drive that showed promise but petered out just past midfield. After lining up to go for it on fourth down, the play clock expired, turning a 4th-and-2 into a 4th-and-7, thus forcing a punt. Jason Baker’s kick was downed inside the five-yard line and the Packers faced a long field ahead of them.
Rodgers wasn’t intimidated by being in the shadow of his own goal post, and proved it with a 46-yard beauty of a bomb to Driver, who straight up burned recently re-signed Chris Gamble on the play. Seven plays later the Packers tied up the score with a five-yard touchdown connection between Rodgers and Donald Lee.
One thing that the Packers had going for them in the second half on Sunday was their ability to sustain drives. While the Panthers were busy going three-and-out and scoring on quick, painless drives, the Packers were eating away at the Panthers' defense, completing short passes and rushing for medium gains that kept the chain gang busy.
The Panthers ran only 46 plays in the entire game compared to the Packers’ 78. The Packers also racked up 25 first downs to the Panthers’ 15. All of this turned out to mean nothing in the end, however, as Mason Crosby’s two second-half field goals both came after the Packers had penetrated inside the Panthers’ 10-yard line.
Green Bay’s go-ahead score came after another Carolina three-and-out, and Greg Jennings’ 21-yard touchdown reception sent the frozen tundra faithful into a frenzy. The play was the icing on a cake that played to the tune of a nine-play 76-yard drive that ate up over four minutes of game clock.
The Packers controlled that, too, maintaining possession for 37:52 while Carolina was only on the ball for a little over 22 minutes.
As quickly as the Packers gained the lead, they lost it. Carolina return man Mark Jones had the first of two key returns in the late going, and a Green Bay penalty put the Panthers on the Green Bay 37-yard line to start the drive.
After a couple of runs, Delhomme launched a 36-yard pass to Steve Smith that brought the Panthers to the one yard line. Again, Williams punched it in, this time tying the game and settling a ferocious crowd.
Delhomme finished the day with modest, yet encouraging numbers. He completed 12 of 17 passes for 177 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions. His 104.3 quarterback rating marked the first time since the Panthers’ Week Eight victory over Arizona that he registered a rating of over 100.
It was also just the second time in Delhomme’s career that he ran for a touchdown in consecutive games with the last time dating all the way back to 1999 in his days with the New Orleans Saints.
It was apparent that the Packers were not going to go down without a fight. Rodgers led his team on an epic 16 play, 79 yard drive that used up 9:13 and ended with a Packers’…field goal…again.
Rodgers, along with Jackson, chewed up yards with more short passes and runs that frustrated the Panthers defense. The normally invasive Panthers pass rush was minimally effective Sunday.
Julius Peppers recorded two sacks, but one of them could have cost the Panthers the game. With the Packers facing 1st-and-goal from the Carolina 14-yard line after a penalty, Rodgers scrambled to the right and just as he was stepping out of bounds, Peppers delivered a crushing blow that ignited the entire stadium and had the refs fumbling for their flags.
The replays on the big screens confirmed that Rodgers had barely stepped out of bounds before the blow, likely meaning that Peppers will be a few dollars lighter in the pocket when the NFL reviews the film.
The location of the personal foul penalty couldn’t have been better for the Panthers, as a 15-yard penalty was essentially a seven-yard penalty.
Jackson rushed to the one-yard line on first down and it looked as though the Packers were on the cusp of regaining the lead in the closing minutes. The Panthers' defense that had been so maligned all day held their ground, stuffing Jackson and John Kuhn on consecutive runs to force McCarthy into a tough decision.
Do you kick the field goal, take the points, and hope the defense holds or do you go for it on fourth down and risk coming up empty handed but with the opposition backed up into their own goal line? The Packers chose the former and Crosby kicked his third field goal of the afternoon and gave his team a 31-28 lead.
Mark Jones’ second big return would come on the ensuing kickoff, as he carried the ball 45 yards from his own goal line and set up the Panthers for a chance at a dramatic comeback. In need of only about twenty yards to get in John Kasay’s range, the Panthers were anything but conservative in their play calling—and it paid off.
On the first play of the drive, Delhomme threw up another underthrown ball. When you’re throwing the ball to Steve Smith though, it doesn’t usually matter. Smith went up and made a play against Woodson, coming down with the ball and briefly getting up and advancing before being taken down at the one-yard line.
Replays confirmed he caught the ball and was not touched down by contact before advancing. And, as if you didn’t see it coming, Williams punched in his fourth and final one-yard touchdown on the next play, putting the Panthers ahead for good.
With the Panthers scoring quickly, the Packers still had a little bit of time on their side. Rodgers, however, had no more comeback left in the tank and threw an interception to Jon Beason on the second play of the drive, all but sealing the Packers fate.
As the Panthers celebrated their victory, a massive snow storm took over Lambeau Field, perhaps a fitting end to another frustrating game for the Packers. With the loss, they fell to 5-7 and two games out of the division lead with just four games to play.
The Panthers are now able to readily focus their attention on their showdown with Tampa Bay in Charlotte next Monday night.
Though players and coaches have denied it, the content of some of their interviews have suggested that, although focused on the tasks at hand, the players have been looking ahead to the rematch with the Buccaneers every week since they were embarrassed 27-3 in Tampa Bay back in Week Six.
The matchup between the two 9-3 clubs will be a battle for first place in the NFC South and will go a long way towards clearing the air around the NFC playoff race.