GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) — A matchup featuring two MVP candidates turned into a stage for a third player to make his case to be included in the MVP conversation.
Preston Smith and Green Bay’s defense stopped MVP candidate Christian McCaffrey at the goal line as time expired and the Packers defeated the Carolina Panthers 24-16 on a snowy Sunday at Lambeau Field.
Aaron Jones scored three rushing touchdowns for the second time this season to lead Green Bay (8-2), which improved to 5-2 all-time against the Panthers at home. Jones is the first Packers player since Sterling Sharpe in 1994 with multiple three-touchdown games in a season. Jones is also the first Green Bay running back since Jim Taylor in 1962 with multiple three-touchdown games in a season. Taylor did it three times that year.
“We all know that Christian is a very talented player, and he’s been mentioned in the MVP race. So maybe it’s time to start talking about Aaron Jones,” Aaron Rodgers said.
The Panthers got the ball with 2:25 left on their own 11-yard line, trailing by eight. Quarterback Kyle Allen drove Carolina down the field, including completing a 12-yard pass to D.J. Moore on fourth-and-10 with 56 seconds left. The Panthers also benefited from an offsides penalty with 13 seconds remaining to convert another fourth down. After Allen threw an incompletion to McCaffrey, the Packers stopped him just short of the end zone as time expired. A brief replay review upheld the call.
“We still had an opportunity to get in,” McCaffrey said. “And at the end of the day, no matter who gets it, you’ve got to make that one yard.”
Five of the last six meetings between the two teams now have been decided by eight points or less.
Rodgers was held out of the end zone, but the two-time MVP completed 17 of 29 passes for 233 yards, including 118 yards to Davante Adams.
McCaffrey had a relatively quiet 108 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries for the Panthers (5-4), who fell to 6-10 all-time against Green Bay. McCaffrey, who entered the day leading the league in yards from scrimmage and touchdowns, also had 33 yards on six catches.
“You’ve just got to move on, you’ve got to get better this week,” McCaffrey said.
Allen completed 28 of 43 attempts for 307 yards. He also had two costly turnovers.
“I think he did a heck of a job managing us,” McCaffrey said of Allen. “Couple things here and there, but he didn’t let it faze him. He made a couple huge throws on third down, made a couple huge throws on fourth down and kept us in the game.”
Allen and the Panthers struck first with a 2-yard touchdown pass to Curtis Samuel.
Jones tied it up with a 5-yard touchdown run.
“I’m just glad I could help my team get the win. It all starts up front with those guys getting the push up front and the rest of the blocking unit,” said Jones, who has a career-high 11 scores on the ground this season.
Allen fumbled with 12:46 to play in the second. Montravius Adams recovered it for the Packers, and Rodgers linked up with Devante Adams for a 37-yard gain two plays later. The reception set up Jones’ second score of the night, a 1-yard run that put the Packers ahead 14-10 with 9:20 to play in the first half.
Rodgers found Jimmy Graham down the middle for a 48-yard gain with 2:53 to go before halftime. But the Panthers, who are allowing the most rushing touchdowns in the NFL, kept the Packers out of end zone. Green Bay coach Matt LaFleur elected to go for the touchdown instead of attempting the field goal and Gerald McCoy blew up a Jamaal Williams’ run to end the first half.
“It was a gut feeling,” LaFleur said. “I thought we were getting some pretty good push up front all game long, especially up to that point. I thought we could cram it up there for a yard and it didn’t work. There was a lot of penetration on that play in the backfield. We didn’t even give ourselves a chance.”
Vernon Butler opened the second half with a sack on Rodgers. The Panthers had two on the day to bring their season total to a league-leading 36. But Rodgers answered by leading a five-play, 75-play scoring drive, highlighted by a 38-yard strike to Adams, a 28-yard run by Jones, and a 13-yard rushing touchdown for Jones that made it 21-10 with 11:50 to go in the third.
Mason Crosby knocked in a 47-yard field goal with 1:25 in the third to increase the Packers’ lead to 24-10.
McCaffrey found the end zone on a 3-yard run to cut the lead to 24-16 with 11:58. Panthers coach Ron Rivera elected to go for two instead of attempting the extra point. The conversion attempt was unsuccessful, as Allen’s throw to Greg Olsen fell incomplete.
“That was purely analytics, 100 percent,’ Rivera said. “The things is, if you get it there and you score at the end, then you’re kicking to win the game. If you don’t get it there, you get an opportunity to go for two again, which we felt pretty good about the play we had called the first time and we felt good about having the second one. It most certainly was just following the analytics of it.”
Smith had two sacks, giving him a career-high 10 on the year.
Panthers: CB Ross Cockrell left the game with a knee injury but returned. DT Dontari Poe was evaluated for a concussion and cleared protocol. CB Donte Jackson let the game with a leg injury. T Dennis Daley also left with a leg injury.
Packers: CB Tremon Smith went to the locker room after making a tackle on a kickoff return in the second quarter and did not return. He was being evaluated for a concussion. Ty Summers also left the game and did not return. He also was being evaluated for a concussion.
Panthers: Host Falcons next Sunday.
Packers: Bye week; Green Bay’s latest bye since the bye was reintroduced in 1990.