After a near-dream month stretch made the Green Bay Packers pretty strong favorites to make the playoffs, the world has come crumbling down around that hope. Despite facing the league’s easiest schedule over the last five weeks of the season, Green Bay has come out of the start of that stretch at 0-2, and has seen their playoff odds drop by over 50% according to the New York Times playoff machine. According to the same machine, Green Bay sits at just 25% coming into the week, and a loss to the Carolina Panthers will effectively end their season. A win doesn’t move things a ton, because the playoff machine gives the Packers a strong likelihood of winning with how horrendous Carolina is, and that is reflected in the spread for this one, which currently sits at GB -4.5 on DraftKings despite it being a Panthers home game.
The Packers should not come into this game thinking it will just be an easy win, despite how terrible Carolina is. The Packers went to New Jersey and got kicked in the teeth by a Giants offense that was flirting with historically bad performances. The Panthers' passing game is a disaster. Bryce Young ranks 35th out of 38 QBs with at least 150 dropbacks in EPA/play, ahead of only Zach Wilson, Tommy DeVito, and Daniel Jones. Note that Green Bay not only lost to one of those players but gave up a career game to DeVito. Only Mitch Trubisky and PJ Walker have worse PFF grades on the season than Bryce Young, so it’s not just production, but the process has not been what they had hoped when they spent a ton of draft capital and DJ Moore to acquire him.
The environment Bryce Young exists in is certainly not aiding his poor performance. They do not rank quite at the dreaded levels of the Jets and Giants lines, but they rank near the league bottom in composite ranks for both pass blocking and run blocking. The Panthers' tackles, Taylor Moton and Ikem Ekwonu, are solid, but the interior offensive line really struggles. With the Packers' defense entirely reliant on generating pressure to get off the field, it will need to be a big game from the likes of Kenny Clark, Devonte Wyatt, and Karl Brooks.
No weapons group is weaker in the league than Carolina’s. Adam Thielen, the guy Minnesota replaced because he was terribly over the hill, has 112 targets this season. He’s been a very reliable target for Young, with only two drops on the season, but he lacks any explosiveness, averaging under ten yards per reception. Jonathan Mingo ranks second on the team in targets, and carries with an abysmal 49% catch rate and ranks 114th out of 120 receivers in adjusted yards-per-route run. DJ Chark is the deep threat on the team, but he has only been mildly less disappointing than Mingo. Veteran tight end Hayden Hurst leads the tight end room, but his production has been entirely forgettable.
The Packers' defense has completely let the team down in the past couple of weeks. They now sit 24th in EPA-allowed per play. The run defense, yes that perpetually bad run defense, is now the strength of the unit, ranking 20th. The pass defense ranks 29th in the league. The Panthers offense is bad. Real bad. Their running game ranks 25th in EPA-per-rush and 22nd in success rate. Their passing game has been about as successful as the four different starting quarterback Cleveland Browns. The Packers' defense cannot possibly blow this again... can they (yes, quite possibly)?
On the other side of the ball, boy does Ejiro Evero look good at his job. The Panthers aren’t world-beaters, but they at least have a competent pass defense despite some generally lackluster personnel. Brian Burns is the star on defense, but the former first-round pick has not had as strong of a year as expected, ranking 55th in total pressures despite not missing a lot of time. Defensive tackle Derrick Brown is probably the actual star here, and he leads the team in total pressures despite playing inside.
In the secondary, third-year corner Jaycee Horn has performed very well when healthy and has recently returned to the lineup after missing most of the season with a hamstring injury. The Panthers' secondary rarely force turnovers, with eight players tied for the team lead with one interception, and that includes the aforementioned Derrick Brown. The Panthers, like Green Bay, are designed to try and limit explosiveness, play shell coverages, and try and force you to execute the entire way down the field. They have largely succeeded in that endeavor given the pretty limited talent base here, as they rank 15th in passing EPA allowed-per-dropback and exactly league average in success rate.
The run defense will also sound similar to Packers fans. Despite Derrick Brown’s presence, the Panthers have the worst run defense in the NFL on an EPA basis, and rank 27th in success rate. The Packers' run game has been unable to get going this season with any consistency. Despite force-feeding Aaron Jones on the first drive this past Sunday, Green Bay managed only 16 rushing yards the rest of the game. The interior of the offensive line continues to be the big problem here. If Green Bay can’t run the ball against this Carolina defense, that will only be the final nail in the coffin for Josh Myers and Jon Runyan Jr’s prospects as starters in Green Bay long-term.
The Packers simply must win this game. Not only for their playoff hopes but to be a respectable NFL team. The Panthers are horrendous offensively, and in total, a below-average defense. In what is effectively a win-or-go-home game, the Packers' defense needs to show up for the first time in weeks, and the offense needs to score points and clean up the mistakes that have resurfaced the past two weeks. You really never know what you’re going to get with the Packers in 2023, but if there’s any hope left for a little late-season drama, only one outcome will do.