Insider: Thumbs up to Cobb, down to tackling
The Big Picture
This was a huge victory for the Packers on several fronts. First, it kept them a game ahead of the Detroit Lions in the NFC North Division standings. It's likely the teams will determine the division champion Dec. 28 when they go head-to-head at Lambeau Field. Second, if the playoffs started today (which, of course, they don't), the Packers would have a first-round bye as the second seed behind fading Arizona. Third, they passed the biggest regular-season test they'll face this year by defeating the Patriots.
Randall Cobb was Aaron Rodgers' favorite third-down target, helping the Packers convert 10-of-17 attempts for first downs. Four of Cobb's seven catches came on big third-down plays, including three on a 13-play, 57-yard field goal drive in the second quarter. Cobb caught a 33-yard pass on third-and-5, an 8-yard pass on third-and-2 and a 12-yard pass on third-and-12 to keep the drive alive. But he saved his biggest conversion for the end of the game when he caught a bullet from Rodgers for 7 yards on third-and-4. That catch, which came near the 2-minute warning, allowed the Packers to end the game with kneel-downs.
Missed tackles were a problem again for the Packers, especially attempting to bring down 6-foot-6, 265-pound tight end Rob Gronkowski and 6-foot, 250-pound running back LeGarrette Blount. On an 11-yard pass play to Gronkowski, the tight end broke tackle attempts from Morgan Burnett, Sam Barrington and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. At least half of Blount's 58 rushing yards came after first contact, and Brandon Bolden made several Packers miss on his 6-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.
The Packers appeared to be in control of the game throughout but never were able to pull away. Against the Patriots, that's playing with fire. But when Mike Neal and Mike Daniels combined to sack Tom Brady on third-and-9 from the Packers' 20-yard line with 3:25 left in the game, things finally seemed in hand. Especially because that forced New England to attempt a 47-yard field goal, which went wide right and maintained the Green Bay's 26-21 lead. Neal beat left tackle Nate Solder and got a hand on Brady's shoulder. Before Brady could escape, Daniels finished him off for the 9-yard sack. The Packers were able to run out the clock from there.
Did You Notice?
• A Patriots defender stepped on Aaron Rodgers' left hand on the quarterback's first-quarter 17-yard scramble. Rodgers said after the game that stitches weren't necessary.
• New England entered the game first in the NFL in points per game at 32.5. Green Bay was second at 32.2. After the game, the Packers stayed No. 2 (31.7) behind Indianapolis (31.8). New England fell to third (31.5).
• Jordy Nelson's 45-yard touchdown catch right before halftime was his 10th of the season. He and Randall Cobb (10) are the first duo in franchise history to each catch 10 TD passes in the same season.
• With 14 points, Mason Crosby went over the 1,000-point mark, joining Ryan Longwell (1,054) as the only players in franchise history to surpass that milestone.
• Lambeau Field set an attendance record with 78,431.
Rants and Raves
RAVE: Sam Barrington came to play. The second-year linebacker got the start inside alongside Clay Matthews and quickly made his mark with two big tackles on New England's first series. On second-and-4 from the Patriots' 46, Barrington stuffed Shane Vereen up the middle for a 2-yard gain. On the next play, third-and-2, he stopped LeGarrette Blount for no gain to force a punt. Barrington finished with five total tackles, a quarterback hit and a pass defensed.
RANT: Mason Crosby had his worst kickoff performance of the season. Up until Sunday, his array of directional kicks had been successful in preventing long returns. But on Sunday, he not only had a squib kick go out of bounds, giving New England the ball at its 40, but his other directional and squib kicks didn't work. And, while he made four field goals, he missed a 40-yarder wide left that would have given the Packers a 26-14 third-quarter lead.
RAVE: Mike Daniels had another strong game bringing pressure from inside. In addition to his half-sack on quarterback Tom Brady to put away the game, Daniels had a stretch to start the third quarter in which he dominated left guard Dan Connolly. On the first play, he forced Connolly into a holding penalty, which pushed New England back to its 10-yard line. On the next play, Daniels got one of his three quarterback hits, forcing Brady to throw incomplete. Two plays later, the Patriots had to punt.
RANT: The Packers had trouble scoring touchdowns in the red zone, including on three of their first four possessions and four times overall. Entering the game, Green Bay had scored touchdowns 64 percent of the time. But on Sunday, it stalled because of failed running plays, sacks and missed passes. In his postgame news conference, coach Mike McCarthy said the red zone offense is something they'll likely focus on in practice this week.