On Saturday night, the Green Bay Packers (10-3) will look to move a game closer to clinching the NFC’s top seed with a favorable matchup against the Carolina Panthers, currently ranked dead last in the conference with a 4-9 record.
Carolina Panthers vs. Green Bay Packers
Saturday, December 19, 2020 – 08:15 PM EDT at Lambeau Field
Green Bay is an 8.5-point favorite at most betting sites. The Packers are 0-2 ATS when favored by more than eight points this season, including Sunday’s 31-24 win in Detroit as a 9.5-point favorite. However, the Packers are 4-2 ATS at home this season with all the wins by 14 or more points. Carolina has had a rough season, but only the Buccaneers (twice) were able to beat the Panthers by more than eight points in 2020.
Carolina’s Close Game Failures
Under rookie head coach Matt Rhule, the Panthers have quite arguably improved on both sides of the ball compared to 2019. This sounds even more impressive when you consider that future Hall of Fame linebacker Luke Kuechly and star running back Christian McCaffrey played in a combined 32 games in 2019, and they will only make three appearances for the Panthers in 2020. Kuechly retired in the offseason and McCaffrey has been out with injuries and will not play on Saturday night.
Unfortunately, that is not going to be reflected in the team’s final record. The Panthers will be lucky to match the team’s 5-11 mark from a year ago that led to the end of the Cam Newton-Ron Rivera era.
A tougher schedule has been one issue, but the biggest problem is that the Panthers have not been able to finish a close game this season. This mostly falls on the offense (and a little on special teams) as the defense has only blown two leads (Raiders and Vikings). The Panthers are 0-8 in game-winning drive opportunities in the fourth quarter this year with Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback. Bridgewater was actually 7-6 (.538) in such opportunities before 2020, but he cannot seem to finish teams off late in the game this year. In clutch situations this year, Bridgewater has thrown three interceptions and the Panthers have three failed fourth downs in the final two minutes of the game, including one on Sunday against Denver.
Kicker Joey Slye has also been a bit unreliable, missing a 54-yard field goal that would have beat the Vikings. However, his misses at the end of the games against the Chiefs and Saints were from 67 and 65 yards, or what would be record kicks in the NFL. That again falls on Bridgewater for not getting the offense closer.
Rhule’s offense overall is not a failure in the NFL. The Panthers have the lowest rate of three-and-out drives in 2020. Robby Anderson and D.J. Moore are both about to go over 1,000 receiving yards this week. Mike Davis has filled in decently for McCaffrey at running back. The unit is lacking at tight end, but the biggest problem again comes back to Bridgewater’s conservative play. In Minnesota, Bridgewater threw a touchdown on 3.3% of his passes, a very low rate. This year with Carolina, he is at 3.4% and has 14 touchdown passes on 406 attempts, or almost identical to what he did with the Vikings in 2014 and 2015.
The Panthers can move the ball and put up some points, but they just cannot seem to break through late in a game and get the final scoring drive to win a game.
How Did Aaron Rodgers Get His Groove Back?
Without being able to see into the future, we can only speculate what has brought on this resurgence in Aaron Rodgers this season, now riding a ratio of 39 touchdowns to four interceptions through 13 games.
Was it as simple as the Packers drafting a quarterback in the first round to motivate him? Why wasn’t he motivated to be great for 2015-19? Maybe head coach Matt LaFleur just needed a second year to fix the problems in the offense. They certainly did not bring in any dynamic receiving talent. This offense is led by the same three wideouts and two running backs as 2019. The most discernible difference is Robert Tonyan has replaced Jimmy Graham as the primary tight end. Tonyan has been fantastic, catching 88.5% of his targets with nine touchdowns, but let’s not crown him the new Rob Gronkowski just yet.
It could just be all those things combined with stellar pass protection (lowest pressure rate in the league), an NFL record for 1-yard touchdown passes (seven) in a season to boost the ratio, and a schedule of defenses that couldn’t stop a nosebleed in 2020. The Packers have played a league-low three teams that currently have a winning record, beating one of them (Saints) back in Week 3 when New Orleans was off to a slow start.
We won’t know if this is a return to sustained dominance like Rodgers had in 2009-2014 or a perfect storm in a pandemic season until next season at the earliest. All we know is the Packers are rolling offensively and the Panthers have little in the way to slow that down this weekend. Carolina’s defense leads the league with 13 fumbles recovered, which can be fluky, but only has five interceptions. This is a bad pass defense that does not rush the passer well, a nightmare formula for facing a quarterback like Rodgers when he’s having a season like this one.
With Carolina’s 4-9 record and 0-8 record at game-wining drives, that means there has only been one game this season (Tampa Bay rematch) where the Panthers could not keep it close in the fourth quarter. Carolina has scored at least 16 points in every game while Green Bay has allowed at least 16 points in every game this season.
If we think of 16 points as the floor for Carolina, is it feasible for the Panthers to score 16-24 points while the Packers top 30 again? Yes, Green Bay has only been held under 30 points three times this year.
Green Bay’s defense is not great, but all four games this season where the Packers allowed 30 points were on the road. For my NFL picks this weekend, I am going to trust Rodgers to stay hot against a bad pass defense and get a 30-20 type of win to cover the spread.