Explosive start powers statement win

Weston Hodkiewicz
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Packers receiver Jordy Nelson (87) scores a touchdown in the first quarter against the Panthers.

There wasn't any need for last-second heroics this week.

An explosive offensive start and the Carolina Panthers arriving one quarter late to Lambeau Field on Sunday afternoon gave the Green Bay Packers all the separation they needed in an uneventful 38-17 victory, the team's fourth straight.

Last week in the South Florida heat, the Packers needed quarterback Aaron Rodgers to orchestrate a 60-yard scoring drive with 2 minutes, 4 seconds remaining to squeeze out a 27-24 comeback win over the Miami Dolphins.

The scene was substantially less dramatic with the temperature 40 degrees cooler Sunday. Rodgers led the Packers down the field for touchdowns on their first three possessions, while the defense was one pass-interference call from forcing the Panthers into three consecutive three-and-outs.

The oft-discussed threat of Cam Newton was nonexistent. Through the first 15 minutes, Carolina's dynamic quarterback didn't have a completion and the Panthers had 5 yards of total offense, a complete reversal from the last time the teams met in 2011 when the Packers spotted Carolina an early 13-point lead.

Green Bay eventually won that game 30-23, but only after Newton passed for 432 yards and rushed for another 53. This time, the Packers led throughout en route to cutting his production to 246 total yards (205 passing, 41 rushing).

"Defensively, we needed to stop Cam Newton," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "He was our focus all week. We have a lot of respect for what he does and what he does in that scheme. We were able to get that done.

"Offensively, we wanted to get the ball on the perimeter and the statistic that jumped off the charts at me at halftime was I think we had 13 broken tackles at halftime. We executed our plan."

If Panthers coach Ron Rivera would have known how the first half would play out, he might have thought twice about deferring after his team won the opening coin toss.

It worked out great for the Packers, who capped a six-play, 80-yard opening series with receiver Jordy Nelson shaking Panthers safety Roman Harper in the open field for a 59-yard touchdown over the Cover-2 defense that haunted Green Bay earlier this season.

Carolina couldn't match the outbursts. The Panthers ran six offensive plays in the 12:53 it took for the Packers to score three times. They would have been shut out entirely in the first half if it wasn't for Graham Gano's 33-yard field goal to cut the deficit to 21-3 at halftime.

They were outproduced 271-113 in total yards in the first 30 minutes and even lent Green Bay a hand by amassing eight penalties for 55 yards. One call for 12 men on the field gifted the Packers' offense a first down on its second series.

A few minutes later, Eddie Lacy plowed into the end zone for a 5-yard touchdown.

"It was disappointing. We had opportunities," Rivera said. "In that first quarter, we self-inflicted, and that is our fault. We had every opportunity to come out and play better than we did and we didn't do those things."

One of the overwhelming questions entering Sunday was how the Packers would stop Newton and the Panthers' take on the read option. Carolina toyed with it on a few occasions, but struggled to establish the run game to keep the Packers' defense honest.

Running back Jonathan Stewart, who has been out since Week 3 with a knee injury, had six carries for 11 yards in the first half against a Packers defense that lined up regularly in its base 3-4. Newton didn't fare much better with four scrambles for 28 yards.

The Packers spent the week scheming to contain the 6-foot-5, 245-pound Newton, who rushed for 107 yards and a touchdown in last week's 37-37 tie with Cincinnati. They accomplished that feat with constant pressure and a few new defensive rotations.

Inside linebacker Sam Barrington, a seventh-round pick in 2013, received a surprise start next to veteran A.J. Hawk in the 3-4 base defense before giving way to veteran Jamari Lattimore in the nickel subpackage. The Packers also deployed their NASCAR package, a six defensive back package that doesn't include any traditional lineman.

Instead, they utilized Julius Peppers and Mike Neal as their interior rushers with Nick Perry and Clay Matthews rushing from the two-point stance. The Panthers were 2-for-7 on third-down conversions in the first half, containment that helped the Packers forge a 38-3 lead by the time Carolina finally started to move the ball in the fourth quarter.

"When you get points like we did early, they can't run the ball as much as they would've liked," linebacker A.J. Hawk said. "We worked on that all week. It's something that we've gotten gashed before with different quarterbacks running the ball on us. We made sure we were all on the same page. I think the coaches did a good job of kind of having us all work together as a defense."

While the Panthers struggled to get their ground attack going, the Packers had no such problems against a Carolina defense that's looked like a shell of its 2013 self when it ranked second in the NFL in yards allowed.

The Lacy and James Starks duo rushed for 99 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries (5.2 yards per carry) against Carolina's Cover-2 look. Lacy made one error when he fumbled near the end of the third quarter, but the ensuing scrum resulted in the disqualification of Panthers Pro Bowl linebacker Luke Kuechly for making contact with an official.

It was a microcosm for Carolina's frustrating day, which also saw Newton sacked three times and throw a third-quarter interception directly in the hands of Packers cornerback Casey Hayward.

"I feel like we made a big statement," cornerback Davon House said. "Was this our best ball? No, we still gave up 17 points late in the game. But we're on the right track."

On the other sideline, Rodgers posted the second-highest quarterback rating of his career (154.5). The Packers scored on six of his eight series. Carolina scored twice on Newton's 10 drives, six of which had less than six plays.

The win extended the Packers' streak to four games. Since last month's 19-7 loss to Detroit, they've averaged 36.3 points per game and allowed 17.0.

Sunday's blowout would have been enough to take a one-game lead in the NFC North had it not been for Detroit's 24-23 comeback victory over New Orleans. Instead, the 5-2 Packers remain tied for the division lead with the Lions with a road game in Louisiana all that remains before the bye week.

"That's how we want to play," receiver Randall Cobb said. "I think we've been consistent the last few weeks showing the type of team we can be.

"This is what we want to do. To be able to have three drives, three touchdowns, that's good for us as an offense. That puts our defense in a good position."

— and follow him on Twitter @WesHod

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