THE BIG PICTURE
The Packers' offense remains a work in progress and their defense was exposed Sunday in a 29-10 loss at Denver that dropped Green Bay from the ranks of the unbeatens. The Packers (6-1) struggled against the Broncos’ fearsome pass rush and made life easy for 39-year-old Peyton Manning, who showed he still knows how to win. "That's a humbling loss," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "I haven't had my (butt) kicked like that in a long time." Next up for the Packers is another road showdown against a potential unbeaten at Carolina, which takes a 6-0 record into its Monday night game against Indianapolis. A win over the Panthers will be essential in the Packers' bid for the top seed in the NFC playoffs, and the NFC North title suddenly is up for grabs with surging Minnesota (5-2) only one game back. "These two games will show us how good we are after a 6-0 start," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said, "and we weren't good enough tonight."
Clay Matthews’ value to the Packers’ defense became painfully obvious when the standout inside linebacker was forced to limp off the field in the third quarter. Green Bay had trimmed Denver’s lead to 17-10 midway through the period and seemed to be gaining momentum when Matthews suffered a left ankle injury. While the Packers’ defensive stalwart was being examined on the sidelines, the Broncos’ C.J. Anderson burned them on a 28-yard TD romp up the middle that restored Denver’s two-touchdown lead.
The marquee matchup of Rodgers vs. Manning seemed to favor Green Bay going in, as Manning entered Sunday’s game with more interceptions (10) than touchdown passes (seven). But Manning looked more like the Peyton of old than an old Peyton, completing 21 of 29 passes for 340 yards. The Packers’ secondary was forced to adjust after losing cornerbacks Sam Shields and Quinten Rollins to shoulder injuries, and neither Casey Hayward nor Damarious Randall could keep up with Demaryius Thomas. Thomas torched the Packers for 168 yards on eight catches. Denver tight ends Owen Daniels and Virgil Green also found plenty of wide-open spaces over the middle. The Packers had put pressure on opposing passers all season, but much like the Chargers’ Philip Rivers did two weeks ago, Manning kept them off-balance by hitting quick, short passes underneath.
There was very little positive about this game for the Packers. Perhaps the only bright spot came on special teams, with kicker Mason Crosby sending a 56-yard field goal through the thin Denver air and punter Tim Masthay performing well while being kept busy (five punts for a 46.2-yard average and good hang time that prevented any damaging returns).
RANTS AND RAVES
RANT The Packers’ receiving corps hoped to get a boost from Davante Adams’ return, but the second-year wideout had only one first-half catch for eight yards. The Broncos’ defense made a point of “spying” Rodgers and trying to keep him inside the pocket, and the Packers’ quarterback again seemed to search without success for an open receiver against Denver’s outstanding secondary. Favorite target James Jones had one catch for two yards and Randall Cobb gained only 27 yards on six receptions as Rodgers (14-for-22) was held to 77 passing yards.
RANT: The Packers' offensive line figured to be in for a long night against the Broncos' pass rush, and Denver’s front lived up to its billing, keeping the pressure on Rodgers. Denver consistently got a strong push up the middle, and with the Broncos’ secondary blanketing his primary receivers, the Packers quarterback rarely had time to look for a second option. He was sacked three times.
RANT: McCarthy described the Packers’ ground attack as a “1-2 punch” after James Starks started in place of Eddie Lacy against the Chargers and proceeded to have a career day (112 yards rushing and two touchdown). Against the Broncos, Lacy got the bulk of the work with Starks slowed by a hip injury and showed flashes of regaining form. Lacy’s 2-yard touchdown run in the second quarter was his first since the season opener at Chicago. But the ground game still wasn’t successful in helping to take the heat off Rodgers.
RANT: A Packers run defense that had performed better than expected went up against a Broncos ground attack that had been sluggish all season, with Anderson and others failing to take the pressure off Manning. But Anderson and Ronnie Hillman combined for 161 yards and three TDs while frequently finding running room around the ends. And when Matthews was sidelined by a knee injury in the third quarter, Anderson burned the Packers on a 28-yard touchdown gallop.
DID YOU NOTICE?
• The Broncos’ first-quarter touchdown was the first they’ve scored in the opening period this season, and the first the Packers had allowed. Meanwhile, the Packers’ streak of first-quarter scoring was snapped at 22 regular-season games by the Broncos, who have yet to allow a point in the opening period this season. The Packers had outscored their opponents 66-9 entering the game.
• Rodgers passed the 2,000 career rushing mark during the first half, becoming only the eighth quarterback in NFL history with more than 30,000 passing yards and 2,000 rushing yards.
• The Packers’ loss was only their fourth in their last 14 Sunday night games. Under McCarthy, they are 11-6 (.647) on Sunday night.
• Green Bay fell to 23-8 all time in Sunday night games, a .742 percentage that still ranks as the best in NFL history dating to 1978.
• The Packers failed to score 25 or more points for only the third time in their last 13 Sunday night games.
• The Packers lost for only the second time in 10 games immediately following a bye under McCarthy.
• Randall Cobb extended his streak of regular-season games with at least one reception to 47 with a first-quarter catch that lost two yards.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @Stucourt.