The Panthers are on the road at Green Bay in late December facing the number one team in the NFC. How’s that for a challenge? At least it’s going to be fairly balmy by Lambeau standards – temperatures are forecast to be in the low 30’s at kick-off. While it might be cold on the frozen tundra, the Packers are red-hot coming into Saturday (8:15/ Radio: WBT).
The defending NFC North champs are 10-3 on the season after a win over the Lions last week and have already clinched the division title and a spot in the playoffs. The Panthers on the other hand are coming off another close loss, this time to the Broncos, and are 4-9 on the year.
When you talk about the Packers, Aaron Rodgers is the first name you think of. The 16-year veteran quarterback directs an offense that is tops in the NFL scoring over 31 points per game. Rodgers, once again, is having an outstanding season, throwing a league-leading 39 touchdowns with just four interceptions. The same amount of picks he threw all of last year. He’s been sacked just 14 times, a stat that is 2nd-best in the league behind the efforts of a top offensive line led by left tackle David Bakhtiari. What sets Rodgers apart is his ability to improvise.
“The things he can do on the football field are fantastic,” said Panthers coach Matt Rhule about Rodgers. “He’s got an amazing arm, elite pocket movement, unbelievable feel for the game. Smart – I mean, everything that you do he puts you under duress.”
Rodgers has plenty of weapons at his disposal, starting with star receiver Davante Adams. The Pro Bowler has 1,144 yards on the season along with 14 touchdowns. The Packers other top scorer is Pro Bowl running back Aaron Jones. At 5-foot-9 and 205 pounds, Jones is a Le’Veon Bell-type player that can hurt you on the ground and out of the backfield as a receiver. He has accumulated over 1,100 combined yards with nine touchdowns, and gives defenses plenty to worry about.
The Packers won’t have to worry about the Panthers’ top threat. Running back Christian McCaffrey is nursing a quad injury and won’t be on the field. Mike Davis will be carrying the load for the Panthers in CMC’s absence. He’ll face a Packers defense that ranks 11th in the NFL against the run and is 9th overall allowing 335 yards a game.
They’ve been inconsistent this season, but have plenty of talent. Pro Bowl linebacker Za-Darius Smith leads the team and ranks 3rd in the NFL with 10.5 sacks. Second year player and former Michigan standout Rashan Gary has been impressive on the edge, he has five sacks. The Packers also brought in former Browns standout Christian Kirksey to start at inside backer. Pro Bowl nose tackle Kenny Clark anchors the front line, while hard hitting safety Adrian Amos leads the team in tackles. And keep an eye out for Charlotte native Jaire Alexander, who starts at cornerback.
Panthers quarterback Teddy Bridgewater describes the Packers defense as disruptive. “They do a great job of causing havoc,” said Bridgewater. “They understand their philosophy as a defense and they execute at a high level.”
In spite of the Panthers’ record, this has the makings of a great game. Five of the last six matchups in this series have been decided by eight points or less, including last year’s snowy game at Lambeau, when McCaffrey was stopped just short of the goal line as time expired. And after losing seven games this season by eight points or less, the Panthers want to find a way to finish games – starting now.
“We’ve just got to go out there and play our brand of football,” said linebacker Shaq Thompson. “We gotta play consistent, fast, physical for 60 minutes and get over that hump of just being this close.”