Monday December 1st, 2008

Five things we learned from the Panthers' 35-31 rabbit-out-of-a-hat win over the Packers at a frosty Lambeau Field ...

1. Whenever possible, the Panthers' most well-considered strategy is to chuck it in the general direction of Steve Smith. Carolina had no business winning this game, but in a second half that was statistically dominated by Green Bay, the Panthers made two very smart fourth-quarter decisions: They threw it deep to Smith whenever they really needed a touchdown.

After leading 21-10 at halftime, Carolina trailed 28-21 and was facing a 3rd-and-11 from the Packers' 37 (with 12:00 remaining). At that point, the Panthers' two second-half possessions had produced just two first downs and both ended in punts. In short, defeat looked imminent.

But that was before Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme dropped back in the pocket and fired it deep over the middle to Smith, who beat cornerback Tramon Williams by a step or so and hauled the ball in, getting down to the Green Bay 1. One play later, running back DeAngelo Williams punched it in and the game was tied at 28 with 11:10 left.

After Green Bay marched to a go-ahead 19-yard field goal with 1:57 left to play, the Delhomme-to-Smith magic struck again. And this time, it was even more unlikely. On 1st and 10 from the Carolina 45, Delhomme, throwing off his back foot and into double coverage, lofted the ball down the middle of the field in the hopes that Smith would again prevail.

Somehow, he did. Reaching back and kind of over his head, Smith pulled the ball down despite the coverage of Charles Woodson and linebacker Brandon Chillar, with Chillar touching him down, again at the Packers' 1. Williams again did the honors, plunging the final few feet, and Carolina had the improbable win it desperately needed for its head-to-head division race with Tampa Bay in the NFC South.

Smith finished the game with just four catches, for a game-high 105 yards, but all were in the second half. His fourth-quarter grabs of 36 and 54 yards at crucial times, in the end, vaulted the Panthers to victory.

"Jake had the confidence to throw me the ball, so I had to go get it,'' said Smith, who appeared to catch the back half of the ball on his 54-yard reception. "I saw it the whole way. I looked up and saw the arc of it. Playing punt return, when the nose [of the ball] is up, it's still going, and when the nose is down, it's falling short. So I turned around and kept running. And when Charles [Woodson's] eyes got big, that's when I turned back around. This was an important game to win. This is a dream come true, to be a receiver here in this stadium and make a good catch.''

Williams called Smith's last grab a "circus catch,'' and I couldn't agree more. There was no juggling act included, but Smith might as well have been working on a high wire -- the catch was that breathtaking. I asked Panthers head coach John Fox if he ever thought Smith would catch the ball after watching it leave Delhomme's hand, and he only smiled and said: "Whenever Jake lets it go, I know [Smith] has a chance to catch it. There's no style points to be won.''

2. DeAngelo Williams is a star in fantasy football and real life. Calling Carolina a one-dimensional running team isn't entirely accurate, because as Smith and Delhomme proved in the fourth quarter, they can beat you in the air. But the Panthers make no secret that they're going to try and run over you until they have no other choice. They've got their two-headed backfield of Williams and rookie Jonathan Stewart locked and loaded when the game begins.

Williams saw his streak of four consecutive 100-yard rushing games come to an end; but he didn't mind a bit, since he reached the end zone a career-high four times, scoring 1-yard touchdowns in the first, second and fourth (twice) quarters. All told, Carolina had five rushing touchdowns, with Delhomme adding his own 1-yarder in the second quarter. It marked the fifth game in a row that Williams, the third-year veteran, reached the end zone.

"It's not like they were 40- or 50-yard runs,'' Williams said. "They were all on the goal line. But I'll probably appreciate it more when I get older. It's Lambeau Field. To look up and see the names on the Ring of Honor, playing on the Frozen Tundra, it gave me chills. I grew up watching Brett Favre and Donald Driver and Bubba Franks.''

Williams now has a career-best 955 yards rushing this season, with nine of his team-high 11 touchdowns in the past five games. His 72 yards on 21 carries (3.4 average) was his lowest output since a 66-yard game against New Orleans in Week 7. Stewart added 58 yards rushing on just four carries, including a 43-yard second-quarter burst on which he cramped up and eventually fumbled, with Carolina maintaining possession at the Green Bay 2. Carolina ran for 130 yards on 27 carries and wound up throwing for just 177 yards, on just 12 Delhomme completions.

3. It looks like the Packers might have found themselves a running threat in Brandon Jackson. Green Bay starting running back Ryan Grant left the game in the first half with a bruised hand, and it might wind up being fortuitous for the Packers. That's because Jackson took his opportunity and ran with it, totaling a game-high 80 yards on 11 carries (7.3 average), the second-best performance of his two-year NFL career.

Jackson, a second-round pick in 2007, entered the game with 4:19 left in the first half and immediately made an impact, ripping off a 24-yard burst around left end. That was the key gain in Green Bay's first touchdown drive and helped close the Carolina lead to 14-10.

On the first play from scrimmage in the second half, Jackson gouged the Panthers defense for a 32-yard run around left end, getting the ball to the Carolina 26 and setting up a subsequent 44-yard Mason Crosby field goal. Also, Jackson very nearly scored on the Packers' final field goal drive, gaining six of the needed seven yards on two carries after Green Bay had a 1st-and-goal from the 7 in the final four minutes.

While Grant's 2008 season has been largely a disappointment -- just two 100-yard games and six in which he averaged 3.7 yards or less per carry -- Jackson's showing Sunday was a cause for optimism.

"Everybody knows Brandon's a good back,'' Packers guard Daryn Colledge said. "I think we've got an opportunity to have a real two-headed monster when we can get everything going at the same time. He did a great job filling in. He's always a shot of energy when he comes in and plays.''

4. It's just not going to happen for the Packers this season. With this loss, you can just about turn out the lights for Green Bay in 2008. The party's over. At 5-7, the Packers are going to end Sunday night trailing the NFC North leader by two full games with four to play. That's not insurmountable, but Green Bay now needs to win out, and then see Minnesota all but collapse down the stretch.

The Packers don't have to worry about chasing a wild card; it's division title or nothing for them. They have home games against Houston and Detroit remaining, and they're both obviously very winnable. Road games at Jacksonville and at Chicago will be tougher but not out of the question.

It's a downer for the team that won 14 games last season, including playoffs, and was considered the consensus pick to defend its NFC North title. Making everything a little more painful, the Packers lost their fourth game of the season by four points or less on Sunday.

"We're disappointed to come up short so many times this year,'' said Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers, whose Packers out-gained Carolina 438-300. "We aren't going to make excuses. We had the opportunity. We have four games left. We have to get this next one for sure, and we'll probably need some help down the road.''

5. Green Bay's record stinks, but you can't blame Aaron Rodgers. The more I watch the Man Who Replaced Favre, the more I see a quarterback who's going to play and play very well in this league for a long time. Rodgers did his job Sunday, overcoming a somewhat sluggish first half to put the Packers into position to win a crucial game. They didn't, but that was the fault of Green Bay's shoddy pass coverage -- not their quarterbacking.

Rodgers finished 29 of 45 for 298 yards, with three touchdown passes and just one interception. His passer rating was a strong 96.3, and he led Green Bay to scores on each of their first four possessions, transforming a 21-10 halftime deficit into leads of 28-21 and 31-28.

In the second half, Rodgers was a sharp 17 of 25, for 210 yards, a pair of touchdowns and one interception. Overall, he found nine Packers receivers, and Green Bay finished an effective 8 of 16 on third downs, producing 25 first downs and 438 total yards.

That should have been enough to ensure victory, but Green Bay's defensive liabilities once again wiped out much of Rodgers' good work. Keep that in mind, Packers fans, when you assess 2008 and the controversial switch at quarterback in Green Bay.

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