Packers vs. Panthers: Carolina Grades, Notes and Quotes
The Carolina Panthers, thought by many before the game to be the worst remaining undefeated team, served notice that they are the team to beat in the NFC. If the Green Bay Packers, Arizona Cardinals or anyone else wants to represent the conference in the Super Bowl, they’re going to have to top Carolina—the class of the conference.
Even with their perfect start, people wondered how “real” Carolina was. Their 4-0 start came against low-quality opposition, and it was thought that a murderers' row of Seattle, Philadelphia, Indianapolis and Green Bay would prove their true talent level. The Panthers hadn’t beaten anyone of note, and a real challenge would bring them back down to Earth.
In other words, to be the man, the Panthers had to beat the man. Over the last five seasons, no team had won as many games in the NFC as the Packers had—they were the first team Carolina has played in their regular-season winning streak that came in with a winning record. Beating them should question any remaining doubters—the Panthers didn’t get to 8-0 by luck or randomness of schedule. They got to it by being a complete football team, which they proved again in their 37-29 win over Green Bay.
It wasn’t perfect, of course. For the second straight week, the Panthers looked like they were fully in control of a game, only to see their opponents fire back late. The Panthers held a 37-14 lead with less than 10 minutes left in the game, but the Packers still had a chance to win, both with a drive in the Panthers’ red zone with two minutes left in the game and a desperation lateral-filled play at the end of the game.
At the end of the day, however, the Panthers again rose to the challenge and came out victorious. They have a two-game lead on the Packers for first place in the NFC and, assuming they can hold off the Atlanta Falcons in the division, they not only look playoff-bound, but bye-week bound.
Atlanta is the only team remaining on their schedule with a winning record; they’ve gone through the toughest section of their schedule and came out unscathed.
They’re still looking for that complete, perfect game they’ve been striving for all season, but they’re still 8-0. You can’t ask for anything more than that.
Cam Newton had the best half of his career in the first half, throwing for 200 yards and three touchdown passes as the Panthers jumped out to a huge early lead. He cooled off some in the second half, but still finished with 297 yards passing, three touchdowns and one interception. He also added 57 yards on the ground and a rushing touchdown, as he continued to run down Steve Young’s record for games with both a passing and rushing touchdown.
Jonathan Stewart didn’t have tons of room to work, but he ended up with 66 yards on 20 carries on the day, with Fozzy Whittaker adding 13 more on a pair of carries. It wasn’t a very efficient day on a per-carry basis, but it did keep Carolina out of long situations, keeping the offense moving in the first half.
This was, by far, the wide receivers' best day this season. Three of them—Philly Brown, Devin Funchess and Jerricho Cotchery—had more than 50 yards receiving, with Funchess and Brown adding in a touchdown a piece. All four—including Ted Ginn—had a reception of 20 yards or longer, as the Panthers brought surprising amounts of big-play offense to the team.
Greg Olsen, too, had a big day, catching four passes for 66 yards and a touchdown. The passing game as a whole really clicked well, especially in the first half.
The offensive line kept Cam Newton upright all day long—the Packers only had two hits on the Newton in the backfield all day long. They were slightly less effective on the ground, but they were able to get enough of a push for the team to average 3.6 yards per carry.
Kawann Short, Kony Ealy and Star Lotlulelei all had sacks, and they held the Packers to just 71 yards on the ground on the day. They did tire some as the fourth quarter went along, allowing Rodgers to have progressively more time to work, but that shouldn’t entirely erase the good work they did through the first three quarters.
Luke Kuechly went down with injuries on multiple occasions during the game, but came back both times, leading the team in tackles. Thomas Davis outplayed him, however, with a sack and a game-winning interception with two minutes left in the game.
Aaron Rodgers picked them apart in the fourth quarter, but until that point, they had been solid. Josh Norman was left alone enough that there were times when you forgot he was even on the field. Both Bene Benwikere and Roman Harper struggled a bit more, though, and Rodgers finished with 369 yards passing and four touchdowns.
Graham Gano missed a field goal that would have given the Panthers much-needed breathing room. This comes a week after he missed an extra point that would have kept the Colts-Panthers game out of overtime. He made his other three, and the rest of the special teams were solid enough, but that might be something to keep an eye on as the season progresses.
The offense clearly scouted the Packers before this game, taking shots deep down the middle of the field. That’s not something typically in the Panthers playbook, but it’s a major weakness of Green Bay’s defense, so it was nice to see the team taking advantage of it.
Carolina Panthers: Big-Play Offense
Carolina’s supposed to have a stellar defense and a serviceable offense, relying on the run game and opportunistic football to score points. This week, however, the Panthers decided to prove their receiving corps was a little better than people gave them credit for.
For the first time in his career, Cam Newton threw for 200 yards and three touchdowns in a single half, boosted by a number of huge plays.
In the first half alone, the Panthers had the following plays:
- A 23-yard one-handed grab by Greg Olsen
- A 23-yard scramble by Cam Newton
- A 59-yard bomb to a wide-open Jerricho Cotchery
- A 52-yard spectacular catch by Devin Funchess
- A 39-yard touchdown bomb to Philly Brown
Plays like that were the reason the Panthers took a surprising 27-7 lead into halftime.
The big plays vanished somewhat in the second half. Part of that was because, holding on to a major lead throughout most of the third and fourth quarter, the team tried to control the ball and drain the clock more. There wasn’t as much need for the high-risk, high-reward throws when the team was sitting on a 16-point lead.
The Panthers were already serious contenders thanks to their defense, running game and quarterback's clutch performances. If they can start putting up back-breaking plays on a regular basis, who on Earth is going to stop them?
Panthers Finally Give Up First-Quarter Touchdown
The Panthers defense had set the tone for Carolina this season by keeping opposing teams out of the end zone. It hadn’t allowed a single first-quarter touchdown all season until Aaron Rodgers hit Richard Rodgers for a one-yard score with less than two minutes left in the first period.
That’s not to say the defense played bad, of course. It harried and hurried Rodgers all day long, sacking him five times and hitting him 14 more times, consistently getting pressure and preventing Rodgers from scanning the field. Sometimes, you just tip your cap to one of the league's best quarterbacks and fight another day.
While that streak was broken, plenty of the Panthers’ streaks continued.
This was their 12th consecutive regular-season win, the NFL's longest active streak and the longest in their franchise history. They scored 37 points, meaning they’ve scored 20 or more points in every one of their games this season—they only topped that mark eight times in all of 2014. They ran for 130 yards, extending their streak of 100-plus-yard rushing days to 19 regular-season games, tied with Seattle for the league's longest active streak and the longest streak in team history.
The Panthers just keep rolling, which is why they remain undefeated atop the NFC.
Panthers Take Commanding Lead in the NFC
The Panthers are two full games ahead of any other team in the NFC at the moment, with the Atlanta Falcons and San Francisco 49ers still actively playing. They have the head-to-head tiebreaker against the Packers, as well, making it exceptionally unlikely the Packers will come back to take first place away.
According to PlayoffStatus.com’s simulations, the Panthers (as of the early games) now have an 80 percent chance of earning the top seed and home-field advantage in the playoffs. Unlike their unbeaten rivals in the AFC, they’re sitting on an island all alone. The Panthers even have a bit of wriggle room—any 7-1 record will ensure them of home-field advantage at this point.
Their biggest rivals are likely to actually be Atlanta—with two games left against them, the Falcons are the only ones who can really control whether or not they catch the Panthers. That’s the most likely scenario that has Carolina slipping—dropping a game or two to Atlanta and falling out of first place in the division.
In the Super Bowl era, there have been 21 8-0 teams. Not only did all 21 make the playoffs, but 12 of them also made the Super Bowl, and eight won. That’s the class Carolina has put themselves with at the moment.
Ron Rivera: Got to Finish Better
For the second straight week, the Panthers had the game essentially wrapped up, but they let the opposing team back in it. Aaron Rodgers, like Andrew Luck before him, found plenty of room to work in the fourth quarter after being shut down for the first 45 minutes of the contest. The pass rush evaporating late—possibly due to tiredness, thanks to lack of depth—played a large role. Ron Rivera expressed some frustration after the game.
“The ebbs and flows are most definitely getting to all of us. I know they are getting to me. We have to learn to finish better. We can’t make it this exciting,” Rivera said after the game (via the Charlotte Observer.)
On the score sheet, a win is a win, whether you win by one point or 60. The more games the Panthers leave until the final seconds, however, the more likely it will be that they let one slip through their fingers. They’ve played with fire over the last two weeks, and they’ll want to avoid that in the future.
Cam Newton: Thankful for His Defense
While we’re still a couple of weeks away from Thanksgiving proper—and the Panthers’ showdown with the Dallas Cowboys—Cam Newton has found something to be thankful for.
Newton threw an interception in the fourth quarter, giving Green Bay life and the ball with a chance to tie the game late. His defense, which had given up the lead, stiffened, keeping Rodgers and company out of the end zone and securing the win when Thomas Davis picked Rodgers off with less than two minutes left in the game.
In his postgame press conference, Newton said that he was “thankful to have a defense that’s playing lights out”. While whether or not that’s true in the fourth quarter is up for some debate, but they stiffened up when need be. The Panthers, as a team, have cooled down in the fourth quarter these past two weeks. Last week, it was Newton bailing out the defense. This week, it returned the favor.
Roman Harper: Worrying About January in January
While fans are naturally excited and looking forward to playoff potential with half the season under the belt already, Panthers players are saying that they’re still taking things one game at a time.
Roman Harper said that “we’ll worry about December and January when we get there” (h/t Joe Person of the Charlotte Observer), and Kurt Coleman added that “none of us is complacent (via Person). We have a lot to clean up.”
When you’re knee-deep in the season, you can’t afford to look at the bigger picture. Looking past the Tennessees and Washingtons of the world can lead to upsets, and even with a two-game advantage, the Panthers can’t afford that.
The bigger-picture thinking can be left to the media and fans, who can see paths and tendencies. We’ll do projections; the players can just go one game at a time, picking up win after win.
Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the Carolina Panthers. Follow him @BryKno on Twitter.