GREEN BAY – A Packers victory that left a bit to be desired came down to two key moments.
One was Green Bay rookie linebacker Krys Barnes forcing a fumble from Carolina QB Teddy Bridgewater at the goal line midway through the second quarter.
The other was a clutch, 51-yard field goal by kicker Mason Crosby late in the fourth quarter that provided the Packers their only points in a frustrating second half.
The end result was a 24-16 victory over the Panthers on Saturday night at Lambeau Field that kept the Packers atop and in control of the NFC playoff race at 11-3.
But it's disconcerting to think what might have evolved against a four-win opponent had those two events not transpired as they did.
"That was the play of the game, no doubt about it," Head Coach Matt LaFleur said of Barnes' punch-out of the ball when Bridgewater tried to sneak, leap and reach over the goal line on first-and-goal from the 1.
Had the Panthers scored there, the Packers are leading just 14-10. Instead, cornerback Kevin King returned the fumble 48 yards across midfield and the Packers scored their third straight touchdown seven plays later for a 21-3 advantage.
"I think our guys kind of knew what was coming there with the quarterback sneak, and that's just great awareness. That definitely was the play of the game, the turning point of the game. You're talking about a 14-point swing."
From then on, there were few Packers highlights, though. The early scores that featured a dominant running game from Aaron Jones (20 carries, 145 yards, TD) and tight end Robert Tonyan's 10th TD catch of the season gave way to five straight punts spanning the second and third quarters.
Carolina climbed back with a Bridgewater TD run on a scramble and a field goal, making it 21-13 with 8:39 left.
"I'm not a big believer in teams lightening up or losing focus," said quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who did throw his 40th TD pass to make history as the first QB with 40 in three different seasons. "It just comes down to execution and we didn't execute starting the second half. So that's why they got back in the game."
Rodgers threw for just 143 yards, going 20-of-29 and falling short of a 100-plus passer rating for only the second time this season at 91.6.
He managed to direct one productive drive of the second half, converting a crucial third-and-7 from midfield on a shallow crossing route to Allen Lazard (five catches, 56 yards). The play gained 22 and set up Crosby to restore the two-score lead.
Lambeau Field hosted a Week 15 matchup between the Green Bay Packers and Carolina Panthers on Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020.
Calling the 51-yarder in sub-30 temps "equivalent for difficulty" with the 57-yarder indoors at Detroit last week at similarly critical stage of the game, Crosby remained perfect on field goals for the season (16-of-16).
Carolina got it back to a one-score game with an interesting strategy, as first-year coach Matt Rhule kicked a field goal on first down in the red zone with 2:04 left after a 40-yard catch and run by receiver D.J. Moore (six catches, 131 yards).
With just one timeout at his disposal, Rhule wanted to get points before the two-minute warning so the game wouldn't come down to an onside kick, and his ploy almost worked.
When his defense sacked Rodgers for a season-high fifth time, the Panthers got the ball back with 55 seconds left, but a penalty on the punt return put them on their own 20, costing valuable field position.
The Packers' defense cranked up the pressure on Bridgewater (21-of-35, 258 yards, 82.8 rating) to produce a four-and-out, finally sealing Green Bay's 11th win.
LaFleur lamented the inability "to go out there and put somebody away," leaving room for an extensive critique as the Packers prepare for a much tougher opponent, the AFC playoff-bound Tennessee Titans, in eight days.
"We held on," LaFleur said. "We did what we had to do."