FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - Four years after Aaron Rodgers beat Tom Brady inside his home stadium, it was the five-time Super Bowl champion’s turn to return the favor.
In a classic quarterback matchup Sunday night, the Green Bay Packers lost 31-17 to the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium. Neither quarterback disappointed. Rodgers finished 24-for-43 with 259 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, but he was bested by Brady’s 22-for-35 passing, 294 yards and one touchdown with no interceptions.
If not for a fumble from Aaron Jones on the first play of the fourth quarter, perhaps Sunday night would’ve been different. The Packers were driving with Jones crossing the 30-yard line in a tie game when he fumbled, giving the Patriots possession and momentum.
They quickly scored two touchdowns, capitalizing on a major mistake the way Bill Belichick-coached teams often have over the years.
“This is a team you have to go in and beat them,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said earlier in the week. “They’re not going to beat themselves.”
The Packers (3-4-1) played well enough to give themselves a chance in the fourth quarter on the road, but ultimately they blinked.
Here are five observations from the Packers-Patriots showdown.
Trick plays: The Packers allowed 31 points, and ultimately no defensive performance is good if the opponent puts that number on the board, but it might be telling that the Patriots emptied their bag of tricks. Other than a missed tackle from cornerback-turned safety Tramon Williams against Patriots receiver Josh Gordon, the defense’s downfall was a pair of trick plays. In the first half, a flea-flicker from Tom Brady to Julian Edelman gained 33 yards and set up a field goal. In the fourth quarter, a reverse pass throwback from Edelman to running back James White gained 37 yards, putting the Patriots at the 2-yard line. They’ll be teaching moments for a Packers defense under first-year coordinator Mike Pettine.
Searching for balance: The final numbers showed 43 passes from Rodgers and 21 handoffs to running backs Jones and Jamaal Williams, far from the balance the Packers offense needs. And it wasn’t because they fell behind by two touchdowns, not with the score tied entering the fourth quarter. Consider, also, the Packers had 18 passes and six handoffs in their first two dozen plays, and 27 passes against 13 handoffs at halftime. At both points, the game was very much in doubt. When the Packers have run the football this season, good things have usually happened. They just haven’t been able to stay committed to the run.
On the rise: The Packers have a developing star in rookie receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling. For the second time in three weeks, MVS crossed the century mark. He only had three catches against the Patriots, but each were big plays, giving him 101 yards. The Packers haven’t had a receiver of his size (6-4) and speed (4.37 40) combination in a long time. MVS has the tangibles to stretch the field as a big-play receiver, and the rookie appears to be gaining confidence each week. Not bad for a fifth-round pick.
Delay of game: The Packers' pre-snap operation has been sloppy all season, and on Sunday it cost them on their first drive. Inside the red zone, the Packers were called for a delay-of-game penalty that pushed them back from the Patriots’ 9-yard line to the 14. That’s where they stayed on third down, when the Packers simply dumped off a screen pass to Randall Cobb, a play that had almost no chance of reaching the end zone. The Packers got a field goal instead seven points, a big difference in an arms race against Brady. The Packers had five delay-of-game penalties entering Sunday, fifth-most in the NFL. To put their six delay-of-game penalties through eight games in perspective, that’s how many the Packers had in each of their past four seasons.
Luck runs out: The Packers were playing with house money the past couple weeks, given the great fortune of fully healthy roster. Their luck was never going to last, because every team in the NFL deals with injuries, and on Sunday night it ran out. Right tackle Bryan Bulaga left in the first half with a knee injury and was replaced by Jason Spriggs. Cornerback Kevin King and safety Kentrell Brice also left with a knee injuries and did not return. In the third quarter, inside linebacker Blake Martinez left after rolling his left ankle while chasing Brady. Martinez was carted to the locker room, though he did return.