Packers outduel Brady, Patriots
They may say this was just another game in a season of 16, but Sunday felt like something more.
In a collision of two of the NFL's hottest teams, the Green Bay Packers showed they can handle the best the league can offer in a 26-21 win over New England in front of a record 78,431 on Sunday afternoon at Lambeau Field, halting the Patriots' seven-game winning streak in the process.
Was it perfect? Not at all. Green Bay's offense whiffed on scoring touchdowns during all four of its red-zone chances and left the door open for another miracle comeback for quarterback Tom Brady.
It just never happened. The defense didn't wilt in the face of larger-than-life tight end Rob Gronkowski, getting stops when the team needed them, and Aaron Rodgers made his usual array of larger-than-life plays.
When the game was on the line, the offense executed a perfect 4-minute drive in the final moments to run out the clock, just like in last week's 24-21 win over Minnesota.
Players in the locker room are fully aware of the Packers' recent reputation for falling short against the league's elite. On Sunday, they met their biggest challenge of the season en route to the team's eighth victory in its past nine games.
"You look for these games," receiver Jordy Nelson said. "You want to play the best teams in the league. We've had them and honestly haven't played the best football against the best teams. It's good for us to go out, play some good football, continue to win at home.
"You want to win, but when you're playing a great team like New England, you always probably enjoy these a little more."
The Packers' offense knew it was going to need other weapons to emerge with the threat of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner matching up against Nelson and Randall Cobb. It wasn't a concern for long, though. The NFL's second-highest scoring offense immediately was aided by its supporting cast.
Rookie receiver Davante Adams caught six passes for a career-high 121 yards, forcing the Patriots to slide Browner into his coverage and allowing Cobb more freedom to roam the middle of the field.
The Packers went back to using the fourth-year receiver as the offense's Swiss-army knife. He lined up out of the backfield on a handful of snaps with one resulting in a 33-yard completion off a wheel route in the second quarter. He finished with seven catches for a team-high 85 yards.
It was one of several tricks Packers coach Mike McCarthy utilized in his chess match with New England's Bill Belichick, who's renowned for his deployment of unscouted looks.
The only issue was Green Bay's inability to convert production into touchdowns. The offense needed Mason Crosby to hit two field goals, including first-quarter chip shots from 32 and 35, to open the Packers' scoring.
Green Bay finally got into the end zone when rookie tight end Richard Rodgers slipped behind the Patriots' coverage to catch a 32-yard touchdown from Rodgers with 8 seconds left in the first quarter for a 13-0 lead.
Unlike the team's season-opening loss in Seattle, the offense challenged the Patriots' top cornerback, Revis, especially after he switched to Nelson. He was successful in holding him to two catches, but Nelson's 45-yard touchdown off a slant came a critical time.
The Patriots, who were going to receive the ball after halftime, had just cut the Packers' lead to 16-14 following a 12-play, 80-yard drive with a little more than 1 minute left in the half. The Packers burned one of their two remaining timeouts to set up Nelson's explosive play, which came with 14 seconds left on the clock.
It gave the Packers a 23-14 cushion they would carry into the fourth quarter.
"It was big," said Rodgers, who completed 24 of 38 passes for 368 yards and two touchdowns. "We had a play there, the previous play called time out, didn't like it, came over and they'd shown some pressure. We decided to scat Eddie (Lacy) out and have a combination we like, Jordy run an in breaker, put the ball slightly behind him. He made a great catch and he's been great in the open field. Just an incredibly athletic play there at the goal line."
The offense went quiet in the third quarter. It had a chance at a fourth Mason Crosby field goal from 40 yards, but the attempt sailed wide left. Fortunately for the Packers, their defense held the Patriots at bay.
New England started to get Gronkowski going in the second half en route to his team-high 98 receiving yards. His 19-yard reception sparked a nine-play, 78-yard drive that concluded with a 15-yard touchdown pass to Brandon LaFell, pulling the Patriots within two to start the fourth quarter.
The Packers' offense drove again, but settled for yet another Crosby field goal after Adams dropped a pass off a slant with 8:49 remaining. With a chance to take the lead, the Patriots established a 6-minute drive that was squelched by Mike Daniels and Mike Neal combining on the Packers' lone sack of Brady on third-and-9.
Kicking into the same end zone that Crosby had on his miss from 40, typically sure-legged Stephen Gostkowski missed from 47. Brady didn't touch the ball again after Rodgers threaded a 7-yard completion to Cobb into double-coverage on third-and-4.
"It looked awful tough," Nelson said. "I was trying to scramble the other direction, but small window, a lot of traffic and Aaron and Randall made a huge play. When it comes down to it, you have to make a play. Those two made it. It was big for us."
The Packers silenced a number of critics in being able to turn back the Patriots (9-3), who looked unstoppable last week in a 34-9 rout of Detroit, the Packers' main competition in the NFC North.
It also gave them the marquee win over a Super Bowl contender equipped with a prominent MVP quarterback that their ledger lacked this season. Maybe it's semantics, but the Packers' ability to outgain New England 478-320 and control time of possession (36:35-23:25) spoke to the team's continued dominance, particularly at home, where it improved to 6-0.
"It means something, because these are the kinds of wins you need late in the season," right guard T.J. Lang said. "It was a big win. We beat a very good team. But we didn't win any trophies today. We didn't win any titles today. We improved to 9-3, and that was the goal. We're going to enjoy this one — probably a little more than some others."
The Packers maintained their one-game lead over the Lions and jumped into a tie for the top seed in the NFC. Although most players kept an even-keeled approach afterward, there was a tinge of redemption after another prolific quarterback, New Orleans' Drew Brees, picked them apart in a 44-23 loss before the bye.
The Packers have looked like a different team in the four games since the bye week with Sunday' strong showing against New England providing an indication of how special this team could be.
"You had the No. 1 offense in the NFL coming into our house, under the lights, with a very, very dangerous lineup of men, with a coach who's going to make sure they get after it every single play," Daniels said. "You've got to look at yourself and say, 'man, we did a heck of a job. Let's make sure it's more definitive next time.'"
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.