NFL Nation: Panthers-Packers rr
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
The hype starts now. The game of the year, maybe the biggest game ever in the short history of the NFC South, will be played Dec. 8 at Bank of America Stadium.
If anyone doesn't already know the NFC South is the best-kept secret in football, they'll figure it out between now and that Monday Night Football game. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Carolina Panthers will play a game that could go a long way in deciding the NFC South title.
They're both 9-3 and they're both coming off impressive performances Sunday. After three games where they didn't look very good, the Panthers went into Lambeau Field and won. The Bucs found a way to slow down Drew Brees.
Part of the reason why the NFC South may be overlooked at times is because its top two teams, Carolina and Tampa Bay, don't have a lot of big names and neither team plays with a lot of flash.
But put those two teams under the Monday night lights with the division on the line and you can't ask for a better game.
It's safe to assume that Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy will face some second-guessing for calling three consecutive running plays in a goal-line situation late in Sunday's loss to Carolina. The game was tied at 28, quarterback Aaron Rodgers had been lights-out in the second half and the Panthers defense seemed confused for most of the second half as the Packers rallied from a 21-10 deficit.
Brandon Jackson gained six yards on the first play, but Jackson and fullback John Kuhn were stopped for no gain at the 1-yard line -- forcing a 19-yard Mason Crosby field goal with 2:19 remaining. The difference between a touchdown and field goal ended up the margin of defeat in an eventual 35-31 Panthers victory.
It's possible that Rodgers was still shaken up after absorbing a late hit from Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers. But given the way the Packers' passing game was producing, you would have liked to have seen at least one throw in that goal-line situation.
Even so, the Packers' special teams deserve just as much blame, if not more, for this loss. Green Bay thoroughly dominated after halftime, but a pair of long kickoff returns from Mark Jones -- for 51 and 45 yards -- set up Carolina on both of their second-half touchdowns.
Stranger things have happened, but it's hard to imagine the Packers' playoff chances surviving this weekend. They will be two games behind whoever wins Sunday night's game between Chicago and Minnesota, and at 5-7. They're on the far fringes of the NFC wild-card race.