As few as three weeks ago, it would have been impossible for fans to imagine Green Bay’s visit to Charlotte as a must-win for the Packers. Aaron Rodgers and his mates looked to be the presumptive NFC Super Bowl representative, and while the Panthers had rolled everyone in their path, some groused about how the Carolina slate had been comprised of tomato cans.
As the teams prepare to square off Sunday, things have changed. Although the caliber of the Carolina victims hasn’t increased all that much, the Panthers have the NFC’s best record, and Green Bay is struggling to find its identity after escaping with a home win over San Diego, in which the Packer defense surrendered 548 total yards, and then losing decisively to a Denver team that stifled the vaunted Packer attack. As the teams prepare to determine conference primacy — at least at the halfway point — the Panthers are looking to prove themselves worthy, while Green Bay hopes to regain the momentum it created earlier in the season.
Green Bay at Carolina
Kickoff: 1 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Point spread: Green Bay -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. No Offense
Everybody knew the Denver defense was strong, but holding the Packers to 140 total yards in the Broncos’ 29-10 loss was a shock to everyone, including Green Bay. Rodgers managed a measly 77 yards passing and could not get comfortable against the formidable Broncos’ pass rush and secondary.
“We didn’t execute the plan we had in place,” Rodgers said. “They played a lot of base defense. They had a seven-man box most of the time. We had a plan for it. We just didn’t execute it.” Green Bay must get more out of Rodgers; that’s true. But it must also find a way to get running backs James Starks (295 yards) and Eddie Lacy (298) going, the better to keep Carolina from getting too comfortable against the pass.
2. On the Run
The Packers may be struggling to get their offense moving and could use a breakout by either Starks or Lacy, but Carolina has no such ground problems. Carolina ranks first in the league with 144.0 yards/game on the ground and controls the clock with Jonathan Stewart (505 yards, 4.0 yards/carry, 3 TDs) and Cam Newton (286, 4.5, 4). Although we’re not talking about a 1970s-style rushing attack, Carolina is capable of controlling the clock, something that won’t be good news for Green Bay, which had the ball for only 26:33 in the loss to Denver and gave up 101 yards to C.J. Anderson. Green Bay is 26th in the NFL in rushing defense and had better tighten that up before visiting the Panthers.
3. Air Raid
Newton may be dangerous on the run, but he is hardly killing it when he throws the ball. The Carolina QB is completing only 54.2 percent of his throws and already has eight interceptions. Neither of those two figures is too impressive. But Green Bay surrendered 503 passing yards to Phillip Rivers two weeks ago and let a struggling Peyton Manning throw for 340 last Sunday night. The Packers can put pressure on the quarterback, but they haven’t been so tight on the back line.
This isn’t yet a do-or-die game for the Packers, because it’s unlikely the Panthers are going to go 13-3. Green Bay can survive a loss and still have a shot at home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. More important is whether the team can regain the crackle it had earlier in the season. It was fortunate to escape San Diego and was spanked by Denver.
There are those who wonder just how Carolina does it. The Panthers can’t throw it that well, and while they lead the league in rushing, 144 yards is not exactly a bonanza. They have been fortunate with a light schedule so far and have been getting clutch performances from Newton, along with solid play from their defense, particularly linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis.
Prediction: Packers 24, Panthers 20
— Written by Michael Bradley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bradley is a writer and broadcaster based in suburban Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter @DailyHombre.