Game Review: Another Opportunity Missed

No matter what happens over the final four games of 2008, the Packers are going to look back at the month of November as one of blown chances. The latest was Sunday at Lambeau Field against Carolina, a crushing 35-31 defeat that marks the team’s fourth loss this season by four or fewer points, and third in the past month, leaving Green Bay at 5-7 and two games behind in the NFC North. - More Packers-Panthers Game Center

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No matter what happens over the final four games of 2008, the Green Bay Packers are going to look back at the month of November as one of blown chances.

The latest was Sunday at Lambeau Field against the Carolina Panthers, a game in which the Packers stormed back from an 11-point second-half deficit to grab a seven-point lead, only to be undone by poor short-yardage execution at the goal line, shoddy kickoff coverage, and a couple of big plays by Pro Bowl receiver Steve Smith.

The end result was a crushing 35-31 defeat in front of 70,297 home fans that marks the team's fourth loss this season by four or fewer points, and third in the past month, leaving the Packers at 5-7 and two games behind Sunday night's Chicago-Minnesota winner in the NFC North standings.

"We're disappointed," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "We've just come up short so many times this year. We're not going to make excuses.

"You look at the games we lost, we've lost with opportunities to win in the last minutes, to make a play to win in the last minutes. We haven't done that."

Sunday, the chances to make that key play were numerous.

After falling behind 21-10 at halftime, the Packers were seemingly unstoppable in the second half, rolling up 285 of their 438 offensive yards after intermission. A 32-yard run by Brandon Jackson set up a field goal and Rodgers hit touchdown passes of 5 yards to tight end Donald Lee and 21 yards to wide receiver Greg Jennings to give the Packers a 28-21 lead early in the fourth quarter.

Then came the first series of breakdowns, a sequence that would unfortunately repeat itself later in the game to heartbreaking results.

Carolina's Mark Jones ran back the ensuing kickoff 51 yards to midfield, and Jake Delhomme found Smith deep over the middle for a 36-yard completion down to the 1. Smith outjumped Tramon Williams for the ball, and DeAngelo Williams ran it in to tie the score with 11:10 left.

The Packers countered with another long, clock-consuming drive, moving from their own 20 all the way to a second-and-goal at the Carolina 1. But Jackson, who gained 80 yards on 11 carries in place of an injured Ryan Grant in the second half, was stuffed for no gain. And then fullback John Kuhn, who had been 4-for-4 on the season on third-and-1 conversions, was also stopped short on a dive play, forcing the Packers to settle for a 19-yard field goal and 31-28 lead with 1:57 to go.

"We have to punch that in," offensive tackle Mark Tauscher said.

The inability to do so would prove costly. Once again, Jones burned Green Bay's kickoff coverage for a 45-yard runback, and Delhomme went deep to Smith, this time out-leaping Charles Woodson for a 54-yard gain down to the 1. Williams (21 carries, 72 yards) ran in his fourth 1-yard TD of the game with 90 seconds remaining for what turned out to be the game's final points.

"I should have made the play," said Woodson, starting his first game in Green Bay at safety in place of Atari Bigby. "Maybe I could have gotten up sooner or whatever. But he should have never made that catch. But he did, and they won the game."

The Packers' last chance was thwarted when Rodgers, who was 29-of-45 for 298 yards, three touchdowns and a 96.3 rating, scrambled to his right and tried to hit Donald Driver deep. But linebacker Jon Beason, one of eight Panthers back in coverage, intercepted at the Carolina 39, ending the drama and improving the Panthers to 9-3 to remain tied for first place in the NFC South.

"Donald flashed his hand up, and I felt like I threw a good ball," Rodgers said. "I just need to put a little bit more on it into the wind like that, trying to make a play. No excuses though."

Rodgers lamented the slow first-half start as much as the finish, as the Packers went three-and-out on their first two possessions, setting up a short field for Carolina's opening TD. That turned out to be the story of the game.

In a preview of his fourth-quarter exploits, Jones (four returns, 155 yards, 38.8 avg.) had a 42-yard kickoff return in the second period, setting up a 55-yard TD drive by the Panthers for an early 14-3 lead. And after the Packers climbed back with a 6-yard TD pass to Driver and got a defensive stop, center Scott Wells' shotgun snap sailed over Rodgers' head, and Carolina's Charles Johnson recovered at the Green Bay 17 to set up another short touchdown drive to make it 21-10 at halftime.

With Jones' big returns in the second half, the Panthers' five touchdown drives covered just 42, 55, 17, 50 and 55 yards, or 219 yards total. And their short-yardage execution was flawless, scoring all five times on rushes from the 1, with Delhomme (12-for-17, 177 yards, 104.3 rating) getting the only one Williams didn't.

{sportsad300}"I thought the biggest negative today was field position," Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. "It's two weeks in a row we're playing on a football field that's 200 yards longer than our opponent. It's tough to overcome that. I thought that was a huge factor. And we've got to keep them out of the end zone."

Instead, it's another close loss for the Packers that was every bit as frustrating as the three-point overtime decision in Tennessee and the one-point heart-breaker at Minnesota earlier this month.

It leaves the Packers as a decided longshot to defend their NFC North title, trailing two teams in the standings, including the division leader by two games with only four to play.

"We just haven't been able to, as a team, find a way, when the games are close, to find enough plays at the end to win," Tauscher said.

"It's a situation where we're not where we want to be, and we've done it to ourselves. It's not a case where other people have heaped it on us. We are where we are."

And not where they could have been.

"It shows you how close the margin of error is in the NFL," defensive tackle Ryan Pickett said. "Sometimes when you have a great season, the ball bounces your way. When it's not, you have a poor season like we're having right now. All we can do is go out and keep playing."

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