Panthers suffer another tight loss in Green Bay

Carolina is 4-10 with two games remaining

Green Bay's Krys Barnes knocks the ball away from Panthers quarterback Teddy Bridgewater at the goal line during the first half of the Packers' 24-16 win Saturday. (Matt Ludtke / AP Photo)

GREEN BAY, Wis. — A fast start helped the Green Bay Packers overcome a shaky second-half performance and remain on pace to earn the top seed in the NFC playoffs.

Aaron Jones rushed for 145 yards and a touchdown as the NFC North champions reached the end zone on their first three series before hanging on to beat the Carolina Panthers 24-16 on Saturday night.

Aaron Rodgers threw for a season-low 143 yards but produced a touchdown pass — his 40th of the season — and a touchdown run for the Packers. Rodgers is the first player in NFL history to throw at least 40 touchdown passes in three separate seasons; he had 45 during his 2011 MVP campaign and 40 in 2016.

Green Bay (11-3) won its fourth straight despite getting outscored 13-3 and outgained 214-49 in the second half. Rodgers called the second half “definitely a stinker for the offense.”

“We just know that type of football in the second half is not going to get it done in the playoffs, where we’re going,” Rodgers said.

Green Bay took a half-game lead over New Orleans (10-3) in the race for the NFC’s best record. The Packers own a tiebreaker over the Saints after winning 37-30 at New Orleans on Sept. 27.

Under the NFL’s new 14-team playoff format this year, only the No. 1 seed in each conference earns a first-round bye.

“It’s very critical,” Jones said. “We want everything to run through Lambeau. We know we control what happens.”

The Packers built a 21-3 halftime lead before withstanding a comeback attempt from a gritty Carolina team playing without injured 2019 All-Pro running back Christian McCaffrey and left tackle Russell Okung.

Carolina had a chance to force overtime when it got the ball at its 20-yard line with 55 seconds and no timeouts remaining. But the Panthers only got to the 26 before losing the ball on downs.

The Panthers (4-10) have lost eight of their last nine games.

Carolina’s Teddy Bridgewater was 21 of 35 for 258 yards with a touchdown run, but he also had a critical fumble. D.J. Moore caught six passes for 131 yards, and Joey Slye kicked three field goals.

Rodgers capped Green Bay’s first series with a 1-yard touchdown pass to tight end Robert Tonyan,  who has scored in five consecutive games. After Carolina cut the lead to 7-3 on Slye’s 36-yard field goal, Green Bay reached the end zone again as Rodgers ran it in on third-and-goal from the 6.

Trailing 14-3 in the second quarter, Carolina had first-and-goal at the 1 when Bridgewater tried leaping over the line and Green Bay’s Krys Barnes knocked the ball loose. Kevin King recovered the fumble and raced 48 yards before Moore brought him down.

“That was the play of the game, no doubt about it,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said.

Jones capped the Packers’ ensuing drive by  high-stepping untouched for an 8-yard touchdown around the left end.

“I think the biggest thing we said to our guys is we weren’t playing football at first,” Panthers coach Matt Rhule said. “Like they were throwing the ball out on the perimeter and catching screens, and they’re running the ball downhill and running the ball through us, we’re not tackling. And then I think our pride kind of kicked in. We played better after that.”

Carolina scored the first 10 points of the second half on Bridgewater’s 13-yard scramble and Slye’s 22-yard field goal. That made it 21-13 with 8:39 left. The Panthers settled for the field goal after John Miller’s holding penalty nullified a touchdown.

Mason Crosby gave the Packers some breathing room with a 51-yard field goal with 3:39 left, but the Panthers wouldn’t go away. After Bridgewater threw a 40-yard completion to Moore, the Panthers sent their field-goal unit on for Slye’s 33-yarder, which cut the lead to 24-16 with 2:04 left.

Panthers cornerback Troy Pride injured his groin late in the first quarter. Defensive end Brian Burns said he tweaked his knee late in the game, but should be fine.

Carolina plays at Washington on Dec. 27.