GREEN BAY PACKERS (7-6) AT CAROLINA PANTHERS (9-4)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, Bank of America Stadium. TV: FOX, Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Erin Andrews (field reporter).
SERIES HISTORY: 14th regular-season meeting. Packers lead series, 8-5. The first meeting came in the playoffs to cap the 1996 season for Carolina, which lost at Green Bay. The Panthers won two years ago at home, 37-29.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Aaron Rodgers will make his much-anticipated return from a broken collarbone as the Packers cling to playoff hopes.
The key word for Green Bay will be balance. Mike McCarthy, now in his 12th season as the Packers’ coach, has thrown the ball roughly 60 percent of the time in his tenure. With Rodgers sidelined, though, rookie running backs Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones emerged as big-time threats. Green Bay will want to protect Rodgers and keep the Panthers honest. The best way to do that would be a 50-50 run-pass split. The Panthers continue to realize the benefits of a strong rushing attack, so they’ll have to keep that mindset even with the Packers perhaps hurting some in the secondary.
The confidence should be high for running back Jonathan Stewart, and the team continues to show confidence in him. If Stewart gets going early, that would give Cam Newton a better chance to break a key play later, much like he did against Minnesota.
The Panthers have shown the ability to produce on offense without huge numbers in the passing attack, and that ought to be the priority again.
On defense, the Panthers have relished the ability to pressure quarterbacks this season and the expected return of Rodgers puts heightened importance on getting to the quarterback.
The Panthers have counted on the defensive line applying most of the pressure, and they certainly don’t want to expose their cornerbacks any more than necessary in this game.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Panthers QB Cam Newton vs. Packers LB Clay Matthews. Will Matthews spy Newton all game, or will the Packers turn him loose as a pass rusher? Newton is averaging 61.9 rushing yards in his last eight games, and the Packers can’t afford to let him win the day with his feet. So having Matthews spy Newton is certainly one option the Packers can take. But Matthews has provided the only steady pass rush the last few weeks, and Green Bay needs him to get after Newton the passer, too. Matthews, of course, can’t wear both hats, so defensive coordinator Dom Capers must decide on the right role for his standout linebacker.
–Packers QB Aaron Rodgers vs. Panthers DE Julius Peppers and defensive front. The Panthers will want to give Rodgers different looks and also apply plenty of pressure. Peppers spent the past three seasons with the Packers before returning to Carolina this year, so he’s likely to be geared up for this game. The Panthers are coming off a six-sack effort against Minnesota.
FRIDAY INJURY REPORT
GREEN BAY PACKERS
–Out: CB Davon House (shoulder, back)
–Questionable: CB Demetri Goodson (hamstring), LB Nick Perry (foot, shoulder), LB Jake Ryan (knee), T Jason Spriggs (hip)
–Out: LB Shaq Thompson (foot), G Trai Turner (concussion)
–Questionable: WR Devin Funchess (shoulder), C Tyler Larsen (foot)
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Panthers LB Thomas Davis. This veteran linebacker has had some productive outings against the Packers through the years, including an interception the last time the teams met in 2015. Davis appeared to move better last week after dealing with a hamstring injury; if LB Shaq Thompson remains out or limited, Davis could be in line for another productive afternoon.
FAST FACTS: Packers QB Aaron Rodgers has 1,230 passing yards (307.5 per game), 12 TDs and two interceptions in four career games at Carolina. … RB Jamaal Williams tallied 118 scrimmage yards (69 receiving) and two TDs last week. In the past three games, he has 376 scrimmage yards and five TDs. He aims for his fourth game in a row with 100 scrimmage yards and a rushing TD. … LB Clay Matthews has five sacks in his past three games. He aims for his fourth game in a row with a sack. Since entering the league in 2009, he is the only player with 400 tackles (432) and 80 sacks (80). … Panthers QB Cam Newton had a 62-yard run in Week 14 and is the first QB in the Super Bowl era with multiple 60-yard runs in a season. He has five TD passes and one interception in his past two games at home. He leads NFL QBs in rushing yards (585) and is tied for first in rushing TDs (5). … RB Jonathan Stewart rushed 16 times for 103 yards and a career-high three TDs last week and is the second player in franchise history (Tim Biakabatuka) to rush for 100 yards and three TDs on fewer than 20 attempts. He has nine career games with two-plus rushing TDs, the second most in team history (DeAngelo Williams, 11). … DE Julius Peppers had a sack last week. In his past four games against Green Bay, he has 5.5 sacks, a forced fumble and an interception. He spent three seasons with Green Bay (2014-16) and had 25 sacks. He has 9.5 sacks and can become the fourth player to have 10 seasons with 10-plus sacks.
PREDICTION: Never sell the Packers short with Rodgers under center, but, he was idle for two months so there has to be some rust involved, and the Panthers aren’t the ideal opponent to face in a return game with so much at stake.