CHARLOTTE – The fact the Panthers lost to the Packers wasn't necessarily unexpected.
And the Packers didn't even need Aaron Rodgers to do all that much to make it happen.
The Packers built a big lead early and hung on for a 24-16 win to improve to 11-3 and held onto the top seed in the NFC playoff race.
And they did it on the ground, rushing for 195 yards. Their potential MVP quarterback threw for just 143 yards, his lowest single-game total in more than a year.
But the way they ran early made it a moot point. The Packers leaned on the Panthers (4-10) through the night, and Rodgers strolling into the end zone for a touchdown was symbolic.
From the start of the game, it was clear the Packers were going to, and were going to be able to run.
Packers running back Aaron Jones took their third snap of the game 46 yards, and that set the tone for the rest of the first half.
By the time the Panthers showed some fight on defense, they were in a 21-3 hole. The Packers ran for 159 yards in the opening half, averaging 9.4 yards per carry.
For years, Panthers fans were used to expecting certain things in goal-line situations.
Without putting too fine a point on it, having a 6-foot-2, 215-pound quarterback is less good than having a 6-foot-6, 250-pound one there, as it turns out.
Teddy Bridgewater's fumble at the goal line in the second quarter was, for lack of a better word, just sad.
After undrafted rookie Rodney Smith burst through for 12 yards on a fourth-and-1 from the 13, the Panthers were on the verge of cutting the Packers lead to 14-10.
Instead, Bridgewater had the ball poked out of his hands by Packers linebacker Krys Barnes, and it was recovered by cornerback Kevin King and returned 48 yards.
At that point, the fact it didn't go all the way to the end zone was a mild surprise, but it was the moment everyone realized the game wasn't going to go the Panthers' way.
In the fourth quarter, Bridgewater had a better grip on the ball but had it knocked out again. That one was wiped out by a penalty, but ball security becomes another item on the list of things Bridgewater has to explain after games.
DEFENSE WAKES UP
The Panthers showed a little more fight in the second half, with a defense that played much better as the game went on.
Defensive tackle Derrick Brown had a pair of sacks (and forced Rodgers out of the pocket and into the arms of Brian Burns for another sack), as part of a better effort in the second half. Those were the first career sacks for Brown.
Falling into a 21-3 hole changes the dynamics of the game. The Packers might not have been playing with quite the same edge.
But after they scored touchdowns on their first three possessions, the Packers had to punt on the next five possessions.
The Panthers needed something to feel good about, and holding the league's No. 1 offense to 3 points in the second half was something.