CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — It’s now or never for the Green Bay Packers.
After back-to-back losses to the New York Giants and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Packers (6-8) find themselves on the outside of the NFC playoff bubble, making Sunday’s game against the league-worst Carolina Panthers (2-12) a must-win.
The same can be said of their final two games at Minnesota and at home against Chicago.
The Packers have no one to blame but themselves for their circumstances.
Last Sunday’s home loss to the Buccaneers dropped Green Bay from the seventh seed in the NFC to the 11th spot, and its chances of making the postseason plummeted from 50% to 18%, according the NFL's projections.
“Yeah, we’ve got to win,” quarterback Jordan Love said. “We’ve got three opportunities to go out there and get a win. The goal right now is to get to 9-8 and then let the playoffs kind of play themselves out, see if we can get a shot in there. Obviously bouncing back after two tough losses, we’ve just got to find a way to go win these last three.”
On Sunday, the Packers get the Panthers (2-12), who knocked visiting Atlanta out of a three-way tie for first place in the NFC South last Sunday with a 9-7 win.
“There’s a lot of fight in them, no matter what the score," Packers coach Matt LaFleur said. "It’s evident because it shows on their tape. You can always see it. And it was pretty evident last week. ... I’m pretty sure that we’re going to get their best shot this weekend.”
The Packers still have a viable path forward because their conference record is comparable to teams directly ahead of them in the standings, and their final three games are against NFC foes.
The Vikings, Los Angeles Rams, Seattle Seahawks and New Orleans Saints all enter the weekend one game ahead of the Packers. The Packers hold head-to-head tiebreakers against the Rams and Saints.
Here’s some good news for struggling Panthers rookie Bryce Young: The last two quarterbacks to face the Packers both performed well enough to be named NFC offensive player of the week.
After Tommy DeVito rallied the New York Giants to a 24-22 victory over the Packers, Tampa Bay’s Baker Mayfield posted a perfect 158.3 passer rating in a 34-20 win at Green Bay.
Green Bay’s issues led to LaFleur being asked after the Bucs game whether he’d consider firing defensive coordinator Joe Barry. LaFleur said Monday he’s keeping Barry for now and cited poor communication as the biggest problem facing the defense.
Carolina has not scored an offensive touchdown in the first half since Oct. 29, a string of seven straight games.
That means the team has been playing from behind. The Panthers have only snapped the ball this season with a lead on 14.1% of their plays, the lowest mark in the league.
“It starts with myself doing a better job and then we all take ownership,” Young said. “We definitely want to start stronger and not wait to score touchdowns.”
POWER OF LOVE
While the Packers have been slumping, Love has continued to surge in his first season as their starter.
Love has thrown 11 touchdown passes with only one interception over his last five games. He has completed 68.8% of his passes during that stretch.
“I think I’ve been getting better every week, just understanding little scenarios better, understanding the plays better, where to go with the ball, just situational awareness, things like that,” Love said. “But I think this has been a learning process for me, and every week I’ve been growing, learning from mistakes that I made.”
The Packers drafted a pair of tight ends this year, taking Oregon State's Luke Musgrave in the second round and South Dakota State's Tucker Kraft in the third.
Musgrave had much more productive start to his rookie season. He caught 33 passes in 10 games before going on injured reserve. But since Musgrave went down with an abdominal injury, Kraft has thrived in a bigger role.
Kraft has caught eight passes for 121 yards over his last two games. He scored his second touchdown of the season against Tampa Bay.
“The game’s slowed down a lot,” Kraft said. “I’m just very thankful for my teammates. They’ve made it very easy and welcoming on me.”
HUBBARD ON THE RUN
The Panthers are getting some production out of Chuba Hubbard, who has rushed for at least 87 yards in each of the last three games. Hubbard took over the starting role from Miles Sanders early in the season and hasn't surrendered the job.
Hubbard is set to make slightly more than $1 million next season while Sanders is entering the second year of a four-year, $24.5 million contract.
If the team were to cut Sanders, it would take a dead cap hit of $8.4 million in 2024.
KEEPING UP WITH JONES
Don't be surprised if the Packers lean heavily on running back Aaron Jones, who has had tremendous success against Carolina. Jones has run for 238 yards and four touchdowns in two games against the Panthers, both of them 24-16 wins for the Packers.
After missing three games with a knee injury, Jones had 13 carries for 53 yards against the Bucs.
AP Sports Writer Steve Megargee contributed to this report.