CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Fifty minutes into Sunday’s game, the Green Bay Packers were in crisis.
Their near-miracle comeback in the final 10 minutes against the Carolina Panthers at least showed some life. But it can’t completely undo the seven quarters that came before, going back to the Packers’ blowout loss at Denver last week.
Though the Packers are tied for the second-best record in the NFC at 6-2 after their 37-29 loss to Carolina, their arrow for now is decidedly pointed down.
Coach Mike McCarthy made a big adjustment to revive his struggling offense this week, but it’s hard to argue it worked. He went back to his old philosophy of constantly changing personnel groups, rather than the static three-receiver, one tight end and one back set he has favored for the past few seasons to push tempo in his no-huddle scheme.
The results looked promising early Sunday, but in the end solved nothing. The Packers scored only seven points in the first half and then had to abandon the plan in favor of a hurry-up game because they were down by 20 points to start the third quarter.
Coordinator Dom Capers’ defense at least didn’t give up 500 yards of total offense for a third straight game, but at 427 yards, it came relatively close. So not much to hang their hat on there, though rookie cornerback Damarious Randall made a potentially game-turning interception in the final minutes.
Probably the most promising development of the day was the sideline confrontation that Fox TV cameras caught between outside linebacker Julius Peppers and safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in the fourth quarter. It came when the Packers hit bottom, right after they gave up a 14-yard touchdown pass to Devin Funchess that put Carolina ahead 37-14. At that point, the game looked lost.
Clinton-Dix walked up to the seated Peppers jawing. Peppers stood and jawed back. Defensive lineman B.J. Raji stepped in, pushed back Clinton-Dix, and then safety Morgan Burnett pulled Clinton-Dix away.
Some might see that as a troubling sign of in-fighting and disarray. I don’t. It was about time somebody on the Packers showed some fight and fire after the way they’d played for the better part of two games. None of the principals went berserk. Looked to me like a healthy venting, the kind of thing that can get the juices going.
Maybe it’s no coincidence that that’s when the Packers’ comeback started. Remarkably, in the next six minutes they scored two touchdowns and came up with the Randall interception that gave them the ball at Carolina’s 22 down only eight with 3:38 to play. As badly as they played for 50 minutes, they could have tied this game.
That explains Aaron Rodgers’ sideline frustrations after the failed fourth-and-four. He’s the player who carries this team and made several breathtaking throws during the comeback, but he’s also the one who blew the final play when he missed seeing a wide-open Randall Cobb on that final play.
Rodgers said he feared veteran cornerback Charles Tillman, the former Chicago Bears standout who was lined up on Cobb, would anticipate the route in the right flat and make the tackle before the goal line. So Rodgers looked first to his left, where Davante Adams was covered. Then as the quarterback started scanning across the field, defensive lineman Kawann Short broke through center Corey Linsley. Rodgers’ desperation throw as he fell back with Short in his face was intercepted, and that was the game.
When Rodgers returned to the bench he saw the photos of the wide-open Cobb on a computer tablet. Cameras caught him slamming the tablet into the ground.
“(The game) is exhilarating and also frustrating when you make a mistake like that,” Rodgers said. “I had the easy opportunity there for a pitch-and-catch touchdown, but I got scared by something. I can’t explain it. It was a mistake by myself. I will definitely be thinking about that one on the ride home.”
The Packers now start a stretch of four straight games in the NFC North, where they’re tied for first place with the up-and-coming Minnesota Vikings. The Packers also are tied with Arizona for the second-best record in the conference.
Meanwhile, Carolina is the clear front-runner at the season’s halfway point with an 8-0 record. The Panthers’ lead over the Packers in effect is three games, because the win Sunday gives Carolina the tiebreaker.
But the Packers have a lot more to think about than home-field advantage in the playoffs. McCarthy and his play caller, Tom Clements, will have to take another hard look at their offense Monday and Tuesday this week as they get ready to play Detroit.
The Lions are 1-7 and rank last in the NFL in scoring defense, so even a big day next week can mean only so much. McCarthy and Clements will have to decide whether they’re on the right track mixing and matching personnel, rather than emphasizing tempo with three-receiver, one-tight-end sets.
At times in the first half Sunday it looked like McCarthy’s offense in the late 2000s, with a new personnel group on almost every snap.
All five receivers, both active tight ends and both fullbacks got playing time. On one snap, McCarthy went with regular personnel (two backs, two receivers and a tight end), which he doesn’t use often. On the next, JC Tretter came in as an extra tight end. He played both fullbacks (John Kuhn and Aaron Ripkowski) with a running back on a couple of plays, too.
But it’s difficult to claim that it worked. The Packers put up seven points and 133 yards in the first half, and 40 of those yards came on a garbage-play throw to Adams on the last snap before intermission.
The Packers gave off the vibe that they were feeling a little better about things because they at least got back into this game after being badly beaten in Denver. But the truth after half a season is that they were badly outplayed on the road by the two best teams on their first-half schedule.
Things can change in the final eight games, but for now it looks like the Packers will have to come back and win in this same Bank of America Stadium to get to the Super Bowl.
“These two teams have been rolling right now that we’ve played these last two weeks with the home-field advantage,” Rodgers said. “With that being said we feel confident if we have to come here and play in the playoffs that we could get the job done.”