GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Come back next Sunday night if you want to see how the Green Bay Packers fare against the type of team they might face in the playoffs.
The Carolina Panthers gave them no opportunity for such an assessment, other than this: five straight empty possessions like they had on Saturday night probably won't cut it against a quality team.
Otherwise, the Packers showed a national audience little that everyone didn't already know: They have a superior quarterback, and he's an MVP candidate despite a middling performance (20-of-29, for 143 yards with one touchdown pass and one touchdown run). They have a running back who's apt to break off a big run at any moment. And all their tight end does is catch touchdowns.
Next week against the Tennessee Titans (9-4) should provide a more accurate review of where the Packers (11-3) stand as they head toward the playoffs.
Against the slumping Panthers (4-10), the Aaron Rodgers-Aaron Jones-Robert Tonyan combination was enough for a grind-it-out 24-16 victory at Lambeau Field, where the Packers hope they're playing throughout the month of January. No matter what happens in the rest of Week 15, the Packers will go into the final two weeks of the regular season with the lead in the race for home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.
The Packers went through a horrific offensive lull Saturday -- five straight empty possessions before Mason Crosby's 51-yard field goal with 3:34 left in the game -- after they scored touchdowns on their first three drives of the game, but the punchless Panthers didn't have enough without their offensive star, Christian McCaffrey, who couldn't test the Packers' greatest weakness: their run defense.
The Titans and the NFL’s leading rusher, Derrick Henry, should do just that.
Until then, the Packers can celebrate Rodgers, who reached 40 touchdown passes on the season for the third time in his career to set an NFL record. They can marvel at Jones' 46-yard run that set up his 145-yard rushing day and know they have a second scoring threat to Davante Adams in Tonyan. Saturday was Tonyan's fifth straight game with a touchdown, making him the first tight end in the NFL to do that since Rob Gronkowski (spanning the 2014-15 seasons).
While Adams' streak of consecutive games with a touchdown ended at a franchise-record eight, he and Tonyan made it the third time in Packers history that multiple players caught 10 or more touchdowns in a season. It also happened in 2014 (Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb) and 2016 (Adams, Jordy Nelson).
Pivotal play: The Panthers were about to cut into a 14-3 Packers lead early in the second quarter when rookie linebacker Krys Barnes made the defensive play of the game. He knocked the ball away from Teddy Bridgewater on a quarterback dive on first-and-goal from the 1, and Packers cornerback Kevin King picked up the fumble and returned it 48 yards. The Packers scored on the ensuing possession for a 21-3 lead. Barnes also had a tackle for a 6-yard loss on a screen play in the third quarter before he departed with an eye injury.
Troubling trend: ESPN Stats & Information charged the Packers with three drops in the first half, including one by Allen Lazard with 16 seconds remaining in the second quarter that would've put them in field goal range. They finished with four drops, two by Adams and one each by Lazard and Jones. They have 25 drops on the season, trailing only the Steelers (33) for most in the NFL. Adams still caught seven passes but for only 42 yards.