Panthers nearly upset the Packers in the snow, but Carolina only has itself to blame

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Panthers at Packers

Expanded coverage of Carolina’s Week 10 loss at Green Bay

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Lost in the snow flurries and the bellowing roar of the crowd at Lambeau Field, one overwhelming fact about the Carolina Panthers cannot be ignored:

They did this to themselves.

There will be calls to blame the officiating from Sunday’s game, an eventual 24-16 Green Bay Packers victory — and there certainly were questionable penalties. Certain play calls will be criticized. But for the Panthers, who have struggled to climb above .500 midway through the season, Sunday’s loss was much more about their shortcomings than any little yellow flag.

This loss was about ceding momentum at the absolute worst times.

“It was close, but not good enough. I mean, that’s the truth of the matter,” coach Ron Rivera said. “It was a matter of inches. We had chances to make plays when we didn’t. We missed some tackles. We missed some blocks. You can’t if you expect to win football games, especially against really good football teams.”

And there’s no better illustration of that fact than the final drive, and play, of the game.

Trailing by eight after a missed two-point conversion, the Panthers got the ball back on their own 11-yard line with 2:25 to play. Quarterback Kyle Allen, who will start the remainder of the regular season with Cam Newton on injured reserve, immediately went to work.

It was Allen’s first two-minute situation, but he masterfully sliced and diced Green Bay’s defense, even with a handful of throws that were almost intercepted; Charlotte native and Packers corner Jaire Alexander had one dropped pick that he could’ve returned for a touchdown.

Allen spread the ball around, but mostly honed in on tight end Greg Olsen. He found Olsen three times for 32 yards on the final drive alone, pushing Olsen past 700 career receptions. He’s now just the fifth active player (besides Larry Fitzergerald, Julio Jones, Jason Witten and Demaryius Thomas) to reach that milestone. In particular, he lofted one ball rainbow-style high in an arch into Olsen’s arms, right between two defenders.

“I thought Kyle was awesome,” Olsen said. “Sometimes you get into a groove like that and things come in bunches.”

As Allen continued racking up yards — he finished the game with a career-high 307 — eventually the game reached three turning points. Facing fourth-and-10 from the Packers’ 25-yard line, Carolina called timeout to ready its best play. Green Bay countered with a timeout of its own.

Then, snow finally blanketing the field and still steadily falling, Allen made one of the best throws of his young career: a 12-yard gain to DJ Moore on the left sideline, summoning all the arm strength he had to complete the pass. That kept the drive alive, only before another dramatic fourth-and-1 from 4 yards out. Allen’s pass to Christian McCaffrey was incomplete, but an offsides call on Green Bay somehow kept the miracle drive alive.

The momentum kept building, a palpable tension inside the bowl that maybe — somehow, some way — this young offense would overcome the elements and the atmosphere and the pressure of it all.

At last, the game came down to one play. Facing second-and-goal from the 2 with 0:04 left, the Panthers handed off to McCaffrey and ran him inside. But even though Greg Van Roten tried to throw his teammate into the end zone, he was ruled down short of the line to gain.

Ball game.

So much for momentum.

“(Kyle) marched us down 88 yards — we needed to go 90,” Olsen said. “That’s the way it goes. ... Just tough.”

And while that final drive perhaps best exemplified Carolina’s plight, it was far from the only example.

The unraveling really began early in the second quarter, with the Panthers leading 10-7 and the ball practically at midfield. Allen took the handoff and immediately fell to the turf. As he slipped, he lost control of the ball and let it bounce around under his butt.

And the Packers recovered.

Green Bay promptly took that turnover, the first of the game, and bulldozed down the field for a short Aaron Jones rushing touchdown. That cost the Panthers the lead, one they would never recover.

Then later in the second, the Panthers skillfully backed Green Bay up at its own 7-yard line. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy pushed off the Green Bay linemen blocking him and tackled quarterback Aaron Rodgers in the end zone right as the quarterback threw the ball incomplete.

Seemingly, the Packers would punt and give Carolina the ball back in prime field position with four-and-a-half minutes to play. Instead, McCoy was called for a roughing-the-passer penalty that kept Green Bay’s drive alive.

“I was told that I put all my weight on him, that I didn’t roll off to the side and do whatever the rules say,” McCoy said. “I’m not going to say anything bad about the refs, but it’s tough to deal with ...

“I was surprised by the flag. I said ‘Did I hit him in the head? What’d I do?’ He said you put all your weight on him ... OK, you can’t control that.”

That allowed the Packers to milk the rest of the clock away as they methodically drove down the field to Carolina’s 1-yard line. McCoy ultimately blew up Packers running back Jamaal Williams on an inside run with two seconds left in the half that prevented any points on the drive, but the penalty still cost the Panthers a shot at scoring from prime field position.

“It gave them an opportunity to continue their drive,” Rivera said. “I can’t get up here and criticize the call, even though I disagree with it. ... It extended their drive. At the end of the day, we were able to stop them and keep them from scoring, but we had them backed up and we could’ve had them punt.”

On the flip side, obliterating Williams to prevent points did give Carolina back some mojo — until the third quarter began. On the opening drive of the half, Rodgers and Jones ripped through Carolina’s defense with ease to set up another Jones’ touchdown.

That score made it 21-10, but more importantly, sucked the life out of a winded Panthers defense.

On the next drive, Allen again continued his effective day. Deep passes to Moore and key runs by McCaffrey were the foundation for a steady drive into Green Bay territory. Each throw, each first down, regained a tiny bit of momentum; ever-elusive magic necessary to winning close NFL games.

And then Allen scrambled 11 yards away from the end zone, darting away from defenders, until he found time to throw — across his body and into double coverage. Safety Adrian Amos tipped the ball up, and cornerback Tramon Williams snatched the interception as he rolled to the ground.

Poof. Momentum gone.

“It’s not good enough,” Allen said of his performance. “I had too many turnovers today. Too many missed opportunities by me.

“For me to turn the ball over twice, it put us in a bad position, and I think at the end of the day, that’s the main reason why we lost.”

Those two turnovers from Allen weren’t the only reasons Carolina lost. The Panthers’ run defense, which has been egregiously bad all year (that unit was sixth-worst in the NFL entering Sunday, allowing 133.4 rushing yards per contest) again was a gaping hole. Jones and Williams combined for 156 rushing yards and all three of Green Bay’s touchdowns, but more impressively, they did so at a 6-yards-per-carry clip.

A depleted secondary already missing No. 1 cornerback James Bradberry took two more blows when Donte Jackson and Ross Cockrell each left the lineup. Both returned, but were uneven with their play, allowing Rodgers to hit deep chances after he extended plays.

And still, the Panthers had a chance.

Rather, they had chances. Plural. And at the end of the game, they built their own momentum.

“I don’t know how many would have believed you,” Olsen said, “after everything that went on, if you would’ve said we’d have the ball to tie the game on the 2-yard line.”

Only it took too long to reach that point, with far too many mistakes along the way. So out of the snow Carolina will march, leaving behind clumps of frozen grass and plenty of what-ifs.

But the truth is this:

As close as things ended up, as valiant a comeback attempt as it was, the Panthers have no one to blame for this loss but themselves.

Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.
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