GREEN BAY, Wis. - Lost in the snow flurries and the bellowing roar of the crowd at Lambeau Field, one overwhelming fact about the Carolina Panthers cannot be ignored:
They did this to themselves.
There will be calls to blame the officiating from Sunday's game, an eventual 24-16 Green Bay Packers victory - and there certainly were questionable penalties. But for the Panthers, who have struggled to climb above .500 midway through the season, Sunday's loss was much more about their shortcomings than any little yellow flag.
This loss was about ceding momentum at the absolute worst times.
The unraveling began early in the second quarter, with the Panthers leading 10-7 and the ball practically at midfield. Quarterback Kyle Allen, who will start the rest of this season after the team placed Cam Newton on injured reserve, took the handoff and immediately fell to the turf. As he slipped, he lost control of the ball and let it bounce around under his butt.
And the Packers recovered.
Green Bay promptly took that turnover, the first of the game, and bulldozed down the field for a short Aaron Jones rushing touchdown. That cost the Panthers the lead, one they would never recover.
Then later in the second, the Panthers skillfully backed Green Bay up at their own seven-yard line. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy pushed off the Green Bay linemen blocking him and tackled quarterback Aaron Rodgers in the end zone right as the quarterback threw the ball incomplete.
Seemingly, the Packers would punt and give Carolina the ball back in prime field position with four-and-a-half minutes to play. Instead, McCoy was called for a roughing-the-passer penalty that kept Green Bay's drive alive. That allowed the Packers to milk the rest of the clock away as they methodically drove down the field to Carolina's 1-yard line. McCoy ultimately blew up Packers running back Jamaal Williams on an inside run with two seconds left in the half that prevented any points on the drive, but the penalty still cost the Panthers a shot at scoring from prime field position.
On the flip side, obliterating Williams to prevent points did give Carolina back some momentum - until the third quarter began. On the opening drive of the half, Rodgers and Jones ripped through Carolina's defense with ease to set up another Jones touchdown.
That score made it 21-10, but more importantly, sucked the life out of a winded Panthers defense.
On the next drive, Allen again continued his effective day. Deep passes to D.J. Moore and key runs by Christian McCaffrey were the foundation for a steady drive into Green Bay territory. Each throw, each first down, regained a tiny bit of momentum; ever-elusive magic necessary to winning close NFL games.
And then Allen scrambled 11 yards away from the end zone, darting away from defenders, until he found time to throw - across his body and into double coverage. Safety Adrian Amos tipped the ball up, and cornerback Tramon Williams snatched the interception as he rolled to the ground.
Poof. Momentum gone.
Those two turnovers from Allen weren't the only reasons Carolina lost. The Panthers' run defense, which has been egregiously bad all year (that unit was sixth-worst in the NFL entering Sunday, allowing 133.4 rushing yards per contest) again was a gaping hole. Jones and Williams combined for 156 rushing yards and all three of Green Bay's touchdowns, but more impressively, they did so at a 6-yards-per-carry clip.
All that said, the Panthers somehow had a chance.
Allen and the offense got the ball back on their own 11-yard line with more than 2:00 remaining in the fourth. Allen, in his first two-minute situation, masterfully sliced and diced Green Bay's defense, even with a handful of throws that were almost intercepted; Charlotte native and Packers corner Jaire Alexander had one dropped pick that he could've returned for a touchdown.
Allen honed in on tight end Greg Olsen. He lofted one ball rainbow-style high in an arch into Olsen's arms, right between two defenders. All told, Olsen finished with eight catches for 98 yards, including three for 32 on that final drive. He also caught his 700th career pass, making him just the fifth active player (Julio Jones, Larry Fitzgerald) to hit that mark.
As Allen continued racking up yards - he finished the game with a career-high 307 - eventually the game reached its turning point. Facing fourth-and-10 from the Packers' 25-yard line, Carolina called timeout to ready its best play. Green Bay countered with a timeout of its own.
Then, snow finally blanketing the field and still steadily falling, Allen made one of the best throws of his young career.
He dropped back and summoned the arm strength to find Moore near the left sideline for a gain of 12.
That kept the drive alive, eventually leading to another dramatic fourth-and-1 from 4 yards out. Allen's pass to McCaffrey was incomplete, but an offsides call on Green Bay somehow kept the miracle drive alive.
Two plays later, facing second-and-goal from the 2 with 0:04 left, the Panthers handed off to McCaffrey and ran him inside. But even though Greg Van Roten tried to throw his teammate into the end zone, he was ruled down short of the line to gain.
The Panthers had chances. And at the end of the game, they built their own momentum.
Only it took too long, with far too many mistakes along the way. Out of the snow the Panthers will march, having no one to blame for this loss but themselves.
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