The icy winds of the frozen tundra, the chilling air evincing ghosts of playoff games past weren’t blowing at Lambeau Field on a rare Saturday night game in December. But to win in the playoffs, to pay homage to those great Green Bay Packers teams of the Lombardi era, usually requires success on the ground, precisely because the chilly air, often filled with snow, makes life difficult on passing games, even if they are helmed by the soon-to-be three-time NFL MVP. Aaron Jones topped 100 yards by the second quarter, the ground game walloped the Panthers for 196 total rushing, in a 24-16 win.
Jones set the tone on the very first drive, breaking off a 46-yard run on 3rd-and-1 to set up an Aaron Rodgers-to-Robert Tonyan touchdown. With it, Rodgers became the first quarterback with in NFL history with 40 touchdown passes in three separate seasons.
Earlier in the week, the quarterback told NFL Network’s Kay Adams “it’s been a while” since he’s been stressed on the field. Despite an offensive lull in the second half and an uneven performance from the offensive line in pass protection, the Packers offense maintained a stranglehold on the game in the first half, scoring on their first three possessions and opening the game 4/4 on third down. In fact, they didn’t fail to convert a third down until the fourth drive of the game, already up 21-3.
That lead proved vital because the Panthers defense stressed Rodgers out in the second half.
For yet another week, Green Bay showed off the different ways it can score, the first touchdown coming on a beautiful play-action play to Tonyan, the second a Rodgers scamper his franchise record by a quarterback 31st rushing touchdown, and the third on a Jones run untouched to the edge, high-stepping at half speed.
And that was just the first half. But also ... it was just the first half.
Despite Green Bay’s dynamic offense this season, in the Matt LaFleur era this group has been prone to mind-numbing lulls, unexplainable Bermuda triangles of offense where the rhythm and verve merely disappear. The Packers went five straight possessions punting, the “Rodgers has more touchdown passes than Green Bay has punts” stat went up in smoke, and Green Bay couldn’t find a way to put the game away early. This explosive offensive managed a scant 19 yards in the third quarter against a bottom-five defense. Carolina covered everything deep, made the Packers go underneath, and rallied to the ball effectively.
After giving up 14 sacks all year coming in, the Packers offensive line allowed four to a defense that came in 27th in adjusted sack rate. The rub routes and mesh concepts couldn’t come together with Brian Burns and Derrick Brown in the backfield. Lucas Patrick, in particular, struggled with his matchup inside.
Green Bay’s defense, despite the poor play of Kevin King, buoyed the offense at times, playing more aggressively than we’ve seen most of the season, covering these explosive receivers in man coverage.
A little fortune never hurts either. Krys Barnes turned a touchdown into a turnover by jostling the ball free from Bridgewater on a quarterback sneak on the goal line. Kevin King scooped the ball up on an otherwise forgettable night for him and returned it back into Panthers territory. Rodgers’ rushing score flipped 14 points, and underscores how dangerous this team can be if it can create turnovers.
If the defense can create extra possessions for Rodgers, Jones and this offense, they’re going to pay them off with points. Green Bay came in the No. 1 offense in football, but the worst red zone defense allowing points. Forcing field goals, as the Packers did on the opening Panthers possession, or forcing fumbles steals points for the offense. Settling for three, or worse, failing to get points at all in the red zone will be death for opponents who come to Lambeau.
The winter temperatures didn’t cool down the Panthers potent offensive attack; that was the Green Bay defense, particularly the secondary, who handled their matchup with a top-10 offense and a trio of dynamic pass-catcher with Carolina. Guys flew around, attacked the ball in the air, defending 7 passes officially, and bothering or blanketing receivers on myriad others.
Late in the game, the pass rush got home with Za’Darius Smith finding Bridgewater on a key sack and Kingsley Keke combing with Preston Smith to force an intentional grounding call on the potential game-tying possession. For the defense at least, they played more within an identity. Rush four, blitz sparingly, and cover with man in the back end, allowing for more man coverage with the talent behind. Players like Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage look like Pro Bowlers the last month or so, and Jaire Alexander’s ascension to the top of the league at the position covers for when King well ... doesn’t.
Carolina came up losers of seven of their last eight, with seven of their nine losses on the year coming by just one score. A Mason Crosby field to make it 24-13 looked like the Packers could stop that streak just by winning by enough, but the Panthers opted for a unique approach late in the game, kicking a field goal with just over two minutes left to make it a one-score game.
Coming off back-to-back games allowing under 300 yards, the Packers defense got the stop that matters, another credit to a team finding some cohesion down the stretch.
No matter what happens in the Chiefs-Saints tilt on Sunday, the Packers needed to beat the Panthers to keep pace in the conference wins race for potential tiebreaker purposes. If they win out, they’re the No. 1 seed in the NFC though and this team’s “won not done” mantra dovetails with that need. In the locker room, the coaches’ offices, the film room, they aren’t parsing playoff scenarios, wondering which games they need to win compared to the games it’d be nice to have.
The playoff race isn’t features on a new house, but it is the chance to play all their NFC playoff games at the house Lambeau built, an advantage the Packers players believe exists whether or not fans agree. Green Bay sits in the pole position in the NFC and as far as they are concerned, after what we saw Saturday, it can’t get cold or snowy enough in January. They’re ready to freeze the tundra, to host the Saints or Buccaneers or Rams, and prove when it matters, they’re not only built for the cold, but built to win a title.