GREEN BAY – That final drive took the Packers and their fans for quite a ride.
It thankfully ended just inches shy of the goal line, as the defense stopped Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey on the game's final play to hang on for a 24-16 victory Sunday at snowy Lambeau Field.
"That's life in the National Football League right there," Head Coach Matt LaFleur said moments after his team improved to 8-2 heading into its bye week. "It's a roller-coaster ride. You have to try to do your best to stay even-keel, but that's what happens when you play a tough opponent."
The Panthers, down by eight because they failed on a two-point try early in the fourth quarter, started at their own 11-yard line with 2:25 left. Over 18 plays and 88 yards, the ebbs and flows of the final possession were exhausting.
- Packers cornerback Jaire Alexander had a chance to end the game on the second play, but he had an interception bounce off his hands.
- Eleven snaps later, it was fourth-and-10 from the Green Bay 25, and Carolina rookie QB Kyle Allen lofted a pass to his left that D.J. Moore hauled in with a slide on the snow.
- Four snaps later, on fourth-and-1 from the 4, the Packers thought they had the stop on an incomplete pass, but outside linebacker Preston Smith was flagged for offsides – a second offside call on the defense inside the 10-yard line, the other on Za'Darius Smith.
- Then from the 2, with 8 seconds left, an incomplete pass preceded the McCaffrey run up the middle that the defensive coordinator Mike Pettine's crew stopped, with replay confirming the game was over.
"I knew that anything was possible," LaFleur said of the Panthers' decision to run it. "Four seconds left, it's the last play of the game…I said to 'Pett' they're going to pick their best football play."
That was McCaffrey, who did have 108 rushing yards and a TD on 20 carries, but he was outgained by the Packers' running back tandem of Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams, who combined for 156 yards on the ground on 26 attempts.
Jones rushed for three touchdowns, his second three-TD game of the season (he had four at Dallas) and the first Packers running back to do that in one season since Hall of Famer Jim Taylor in 1962.
"He's been an incredible player up to this point in the season," LaFleur said of Jones. "Jamaal Williams, too. Those guys did an excellent job breaking tackles, whether they were in the backfield or on the second level. That certainly makes our offense much tougher to defend, to get that type of running game going."
Jones also became the first Packers running back with double-digit rushing touchdowns since Eddie Lacy in 2013, and he's now tied with McCaffrey for the league lead in total touchdowns with 14 (11 rushing, three receiving).
Lambeau Field hosted a Week 10 matchup between the Green Bay Packers and the Carolina Panthers.
"Christian is a very talented player and he's been mentioned in the MVP race," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "So maybe it's time to start talking about Aaron Jones."
Heady praise to be sure, as the Packers won for the second time this season when Rodgers didn't throw a touchdown pass. He finished 17-of-29 for 233 yards and an 84.4 rating, just ahead of Allen's 84.2 (28-of-43, 307 yards, one TD, one INT).
Rodgers was upset he let a couple of chances at a TD pass get away at the end of the first half in a sequence that concluded with the Packers getting stuffed at the goal line. Williams was swallowed up by two Panthers who cleanly beat their blocks as LaFleur passed on a chip-shot field goal and went for the touchdown from the 1-yard line to try to extend a 14-10 lead.
"If I had to do it again, I'd go for it again, but I'd probably pick a different play," LaFleur said. "I would pick a different play, no probably about it. But live and learn.
"It was a gut feeling. I know there was a lot of penetration on the play in the backfield. We didn't give ourselves a chance."
That was the only significant run stop the Panthers could really muster, though, as Jones broke runs of 28 and 13 yards on a TD drive to start the second half, after a 38-yard pass to receiver Davante Adams (seven catches, 118 yards) converted on second-and-26 from Green Bay's own 9-yard line, flipping the field at a critical moment. Williams added runs of 15, 10 and 16 in a span of four plays to tack on a field goal later in the third quarter.
In between, Allen made one of his two big mistakes in the game, trying to force a pass to receiver Jarius Wright in the end zone that deflected off safety Adrian Amos and into the arms of diving cornerback Tramon Williams for an interception.
Allen's other miscue was a fumbled snap in the first half when the Panthers led 10-7 and had crossed midfield. Montravius Adams recovered for the Packers, who converted the turnover into a touchdown to take the lead for good.
"We won the turnover battle 2-0, and we talked about outrushing our opponent," LaFleur said. "We got both of those done tonight.
"That was a tough, four-quarter battle. We knew it would be."