CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It was another maddening exercise in how close, and yet how far, the Green Bay Packers are to resolving the problems that have plagued them for the last month on both sides of the ball.
The Packers, for the better part of 50 minutes, couldn’t do anything right Sunday in a 37-29 loss to the Carolina Panthers in front of 74,461 at Bank of America Stadium. The offense was stale. The defense gave up one explosive play after another. The frustration was visible on the sidelines.
Then, when it seemed like all was lost, everything fell into place after Devin Funchess’ 14-yard touchdown reception gave the Panthers a 23-point lead with 9 minutes, 22 seconds remaining. Aaron Rodgers’ heroics revived the offense and the defense finally began getting stops.
Miraculously, a Damarious Randall interception off quarterback Cam Newton with 3:43 left in the game gave the Packers the ball deep in Panthers’ territory with an outside chance to tie if they scored and converted a two-point conversion.
Rodgers came within four yards of making that a reality before defensive tackle Kawann Short shot through the line on fourth-and-goal to force an errant pass that fell into the arms of inside linebacker Thomas Davis. The comeback was over.
“I think the first 50 minutes of the game sucked,” right guard T.J. Lang said. “I think we were getting our ass kicked. Just dug the hole too deep to come back from. It was tough there, defense getting a stop with a couple minutes left in the game, but just couldn’t cap it off to go tie it up. So it sucked. Big, emotional roller coaster.”
It was an emotional game, from Newton ripping down a Packers fan's sign to Julius Peppers tossing the ball away from Newton — who wanted to give it to a fan — after a second-quarter touchdown run.
If it hadn’t been for an awful first half on both sides of the ball, the Packers actually might have had a chance to derail the undefeated Panthers (8-0) on their home field. However, they carried over their lackadaisical performance in last Sunday’s 29-10 loss to Denver to the East Coast.
For better or worse, the Packers’ offensive coaching staff threw the kitchen sink at their play-calling in the first half, moving out of their no-huddle and substituting players constantly. Justin Perillo, Jared Abbrederis, Jeff Janis, John Kuhn and Aaron Ripkowski all were inserted as change-of-pace options.
Only one series — an 11-play, 70-yard drive in the first quarter — paid dividends. Rodgers’ 18-yard pass to Ripkowski on a roll-out and a 13-yard pass to Davante Adams on third-and-12 put the Packers well into Panthers’ territory.
Running back James Starks, who again outdid presumptive starter Eddie Lacy, produced 28 yards on three touches to set up a 1-yard touchdown pass to Richard Rodgers. It gave Green Bay a 7-3 advantage with 55 seconds left in the opening quarter and marked the only time the Packers led Sunday.
Green Bay’s defense couldn’t stop Newton in the first half outside of forcing a three-and-out on the Panthers' second possession. Carolina’s three biggest plays — a 59-yard pass to Jerricho Cotchery, a 52-yard completion to Funchess and a 39-yard touchdown pass to Corey Brown — all occurred in a 24-point second quarter.
It led to the Packers trailing 27-7 at halftime after giving up 285 total yards to the Panthers. Not exactly the performance Green Bay was hoping for after conceding 500 or more yards in each of its last two games against the Chargers and Broncos.
“We came in at halftime and we weren’t very satisfied with how we were playing,” defensive back Micah Hyde said. “We went back out there and we had to play better — I don’t think we could have played any worse. We went out there and tried to make some plays. We did. But at the end of the day we gave up too many big plays.”
The offense, which had averaged only 17.8 points over the last four games, showed signs of life when Rodgers hit Cobb for a 53-yard touchdown on the third play after halftime. The Packers’ defense held Carolina to only a field goal in the third quarter, but the offense struck out on its next four chances.
It wasn’t until after Newton found Funchess for a touchdown — and the sideline altercation between safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Peppers that ensued — that the Packers began to resemble the team they felt they could be during their 6-0 start.
The running game was again a non-factor with Lacy rushing for only 10 yards on five carries with a lost fumble before leaving in the fourth quarter with a groin injury. Starks, who has been shaky in the pass game, turned into a weapon with six catches for 83 yards, including a 29-yard touchdown off a screen with 7:54 left.
Green Bay’s receivers, who had been quiet the past few weeks, came alive late. Cobb, who had one catch in the first half, finished with four receptions for 99 yards. Receiver Davante Adams led the offense with seven catches for 93 yards, though 40 came on a meaningless Hail Mary before halftime.
Moments after Aaron Rodgers hit Richard Rodgers for another touchdown, it looked like the Packers might complete the comeback when Randall darted in front of a Newton pass intended for Ted Ginn for his second career interception (after it was upheld on a review).
Packers coach Mike McCarthy made it clear he wouldn’t lay up for a field goal, first having the offense go for it on fourth-and-5 from the Carolina 17 and then again on fourth-and-goal from the 4. That’s as far as the offense would get.
It appeared Rodgers had Cobb open in the end zone on the final play, but the rush got to him too quickly.
“We made way too many mistakes,” McCarthy said. “You can’t do that against an excellent football team in Carolina. Coming down here, playing in their environment, slow start, gave up some big plays, dug ourselves in a hole and fought back and almost got it back.”
The Packers looked inspired in the fourth quarter. Unfortunately, it took seven bad quarters of football to get to that point. The Packers hope to turn things around next week against the hapless Detroit Lions, which begins a string of four NFC North games in 19 days.
Rodgers’ takeaway was that the Packers (6-2) aren’t far away from where they need to be, though Sunday’s loss dropped them into a tie with Minnesota for the NFC North lead and left them practically three games behind the Panthers for the NFC lead.
“We’ve played two really good opponents that are undefeated, and at their place,” said Rodgers, who completed 25-of-48 passes for 369 yards with four touchdowns and the late pick. “I think if you flip those home and aways, I think we could be 8-0 soon here, but we’re not, we are 6-2. We have eight games in front of us. We have a tough stretch right now. I feel great about our football team. I think we are moving in the right direction. Guys are making plays. We just have to clean some things up mentally.”
Still, Green Bay realizes it missed out on an opportunity to solidify itself against the NFL’s top teams. The recovery process starts next Sunday against the Lions, who haven’t won at Lambeau Field in 24 years.
“We have to win these games,” Peppers said. “These are the most important games coming up. We find ourselves in a rough spot. We dug ourselves into this hole and we’re going to dig ourselves out of it.”