Sunday, November 8, 2015

Late interception douses a furious comeback by the Packers

 Somehow, after three quarters of unsightly football, of defensive incompetency and, for the most part, offensive stagnation, the Green Bay Packers cobbled together an opportunity to tie the game.
A gutty interception by rookie cornerback Damarious Randall, victimized on an earlier possession for a touchdown pass, handed the Packers the ball at the 22-yard line of the Carolina Panthers. Trailing by 20 points at halftime, the Packers needed just a touchdown and a 2-point conversion to tie the game, to rewrite a game that oozed abysmal for the 45 preceding minutes.
An encroachment penalty inched them 5 yards closer. A fourth-down completion to Randall Cobb yielded a crucial new set of downs. A scramble by Rodgers brought the ball to the 4-yard line.
Rodgers took the snap and danced in the pocket, pressure coming up the middle from Kawann Short. He backpedaled. He threw desperately toward the end zone. He lofted a feeble pass that was intercepted by linebacker Thomas Davis.
A raucous, improbable and altogether stunning comeback was erased. The Packers, down by 20 and pulling within a whisper of tying the game, lost for a second consecutive week, 37-29.
Player of the Game: Newton. Erratic at times with his accuracy, sure, but Newton was simply terrific on Sunday. Like Peyton Manning last week and Philip Rivers two weeks before that, Newton found ways to expose and exploit a Packers' defense that is in serious freefall after three straight horrendous performances. Newton was efficient with his arm (15-of-30 for 297 yards and three touchdowns) and churned out first downs with his legs (57 yards and one touchdown) in a game that was comfortable for the Panthers until the final eight minutes.
Turning point: Trailing 27-7 at halftime after an anemic start to the game, the Packers' pulse flickered early in the third quarter. They took the opening possession of the half 80 yards on just three plays for an enormous momentum-swinging score, capped by a beautiful 53-yard touchdown reception by Randall Cobb. But the defense immediately wilted on the very next drive, and the Panthers marched 82 yards on 13 plays that melted more than six minutes off the clock. It was not until the midway point of the fourth quarter, when Rodgers connected with tailback James Starks for a 29-yard touchdown, that the Packers infused energy into the game. They compiled two breathtaking, no-huddle drives that produced 15 points in fewer than five minutes before falling short at the goal line.
Big number: 427 — Total yards for the Panthers, whose balanced attack slashed the Packers with runs by tailback Jonathan Stewart (66 yards) or Newton and carved up a secondary that was undermanned and, at times, non-communicative. After allowing 500-plus yards in back-to-back games, the Packers improved only marginally.
What went right: Little or nothing until the final minutes, especially on defense. The glimmers of hope came from the offense, which put together an 11-play, 65-yard drive in the first quarter to take the lead. It was an inventive possession by the Packers, with Jeff Janis, Jared Abbrederis, Aaron Ripkowski and Justin Perillo all taking the field in a substitution-happy march down the field. The drive ended with a 1-yard touchdown pass from Aaron Rodgers to Richard Rodgers. Later, to start the third quarter, Rodgers orchestrated a lightning-quick scoring drive to temporarily bring life back into the game. He found Randall Cobb for a 53-yard touchdown pass along the left sideline, pulling the Packers within 27-14. Two no-huddle drives late in the fourth quarter showed plenty of gusto, but the initial deficit proved a bit too large to overcome. Rodgers finished with 369 yards and four touchdowns.
What went wrong: For the most part, everything went wrong for the Packers on defense. Minus two key contributors in the secondary — cornerbacks Sam Shields (shoulder) and Quinten Rollins (neck) were sidelined — the defense struggled to contain a group of Panthers' receivers that is mediocre at best and unenviable at worst. There was a blown coverage that allowed Jerricho Cotchery to run wide open up the middle for a 59-yard grab. There was another mistake by Demetri Goodson that opened a window for Corey Brown to haul in a 39-yard touchdown. And rookie Devin Funchess beat Damarious Randall for 52 more. By halftime, Newton racked up 209 yards and two touchdowns — and a 20-point lead on the scoreboard that barely held up.

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