Two teams coming off games that went down to the wire last week will meet Sunday at Lambeau Field. The Green Bay Packers (4-2) escaped with a last-second victory over the Miami Dolphins, and the Carolina Panthers (3-2-1) avoided defeat when the Cincinnati Bengals missed a field goal as overtime expired, leaving the game in a tie.
Will there be any carryover effect?
ESPN NFL Nation reporters Rob Demovsky, who covers the Packers, and David Newton, who covers the Panthers, discuss the matchup:
Demovsky: David, when the Packers tied the Vikings last season, it almost felt like a victory, considering they didn't have Aaron Rodgers and Matt Flynn came on in relief and rallied them from a 16-point, fourth-quarter deficit. But the Panthers were in a different situation when they tied the Bengals on Sunday. Now that they're several days removed from that tie, how do they feel about it now and what impact will it have?
Newton: As coach Ron Rivera said Monday, he's "still kind of ambivalent" to it. The Panthers had chances to all but put the game away late in the third quarter and didn't. They also had a chance to win it in overtime, but Jerricho Cotchery let a touchdown get through his hands. So from that standpoint they look at it as a missed opportunity. But the way the game ended, with Cincinnati missing a short field goal, it was almost a sense of the same relief you mentioned above. And, as the Packers found out last season, half a game can mean the difference in making the playoffs. So the Panthers are trying to focus on the positives. There weren't a lot defensively, but the return of quarterback Cam Newton as a running threat in a way has overshadowed the downside of the missed opportunities.
Rodgers appears to be playing at an MVP level again, but he has been sacked 15 times. Is pressure the only way to slow him down? Or can he be slowed down the way he's playing?
Demovsky: The sack numbers are a little deceiving. He almost never turns the ball over, so where some players might have higher interception totals, Rodgers' sack numbers might be a little higher, but it's a trade-off the Packers happily accept because they don't have to worry much about interceptions. His only interception this season came in Week 1 on a ball that went off the fingertips of Jordy Nelson. It's a big reason the Packers are tied with the Patriots for the NFL lead in turnover differential at plus-9. Rodgers is on a 40-touchdown, 2.7-interception pace. And if you want to try to blitz Rodgers, he’s usually pretty good at picking that apart, too.
What was different about Cam Newton against the Bengals? Why did he run so much more than he had early in the season, and how much do you think he'll try to do more of that against a Packers defense that has had all kinds of trouble with the read-option?
Newton: The difference was the Panthers finally let him run the read-option. They've been overly protective of the left ankle that was surgically repaired in March, going strictly by what the trainers said. They finally felt it was strong enough this past week to turn him loose. It's as simple as that. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula never planned to run Newton 17 times, but when you're getting 6-7 yards a carry, as he averaged on his final 14 attempts, it's a pretty easy call. The threat of Newton running the read-option will be more valuable than anything. It could keep the Packers on their heels and open up the rest of the offense. Carolina's best chance might be to outscore Green Bay. Having said that, the Panthers have struggled against the 3-4 schemes of Pittsburgh and Baltimore when Newton wasn't a running threat.
Since we're on Green Bay's run defense, Rob, why has it been so porous?
Demovsky: It's a multifaceted problem, to be sure. Part of their problem against the run has been missed tackles. Only four teams have more missed tackles than the Packers do this season, according to ProFootballFocus.com. Part of the Packers' problem is they don't seem to know what to play against the run. Early in the season, defensive coordinator Dom Capers -- a longtime proponent of the 3-4 defense -- actually played more 4-3, but they haven't played any of that in the past couple of games. And then there’s this: They might not have the right players suited to stop the run. They decided they wanted to get longer and more athletic up front, so they dumped their big-bodied defensive linemen, and so far it hasn't worked. Losing their lone big-bodied veteran (B.J. Raji) to a season-ending injury in the preseason hasn't helped, either.
Speaking of defense, what's happened to Carolina’s the past few games? I know the Panthers miss defensive end Greg Hardy, but giving up 37 points or more in three of the past four games can’t be attributed to missing just one player, albeit a great one, can it?
Newton: Well, yes. To a degree. The one thing Rivera has said repeatedly the past four games is players are trying to do too much and losing gap control. They are trying to do too much, in my opinion, because they are trying to make up for a player who led the team in sacks with 15, was a great run-stopper and could drop into coverage. I liken it to Green Bay losing Rodgers last season. You take a weapon like that out of the mix and it has an impact. I also blame the secondary. This group hasn't meshed as well as the one last season.
A player the Panthers could have used with Hardy gone is Julius Peppers. How has Carolina’s all-time sack leader fit in with Green Bay?
Demovsky: Peppers hasn't been dominant by any means -- he has only 1.5 sacks in six games -- but he has made enough big plays (a strip sack and fumble recovery in Detroit, an interception return for a touchdown against Minnesota) to be the difference-maker the Packers had hoped for when they signed him in free agency. It has taken some pressure off Clay Matthews, who in the past has been about the Packers' only big-play threat from the front seven. The Packers are actually getting good balance in production from their outside linebackers, which Peppers is a part of now after playing mostly defensive end in a 4-3 in his career.