The Packers' second consecutive loss puts them under .500 (3-4-1) and in third place in the NFC North behind the Bears (5-3) and Vikings (5-3-1). With two more challenging road tests looming in the next three weeks (at Seattle and Minnesota), it makes Sunday's home matchup against a decent Dolphins team (5-4 after beating the Jets on Sunday) a virtual must-win game. They really need to win two of their next three in order to take advantage of a softer December schedule and make a late run at a playoff berth.
Packers fans have been clamoring for running back Aaron Jones to get more opportunities, and he did Sunday after the trade of Ty Montgomery to the Ravens. But although he finished with solid rushing numbers (76 yards on 14 carries, 5.4 average), his fumble on the first play of the fourth quarter turned the game around. With the game tied 17-17, the Packers were on the move at the New England 34 after two big catches by rookie Marquez Valdes-Scantling. But the Patriots quickly capitalized on Jones' turnover, seizing the momentum by marching 76 yards in 10 plays to take a 24-17 lead.
Just as he did against the Rams and 49ers last month, Valdes-Scantling again flashed the kind of deep-threat ability the Packers have been seeking at wide receiver. His three receptions were good for 101 yards, and two (for 24 and 26 yards) came when the Packers were driving to possibly take the lead before Jones' ill-timed fumble. His other catch (for 51 yards) set up Green Bay's final touchdown.
The silly mistakes started on the opening kickoff, when Packers safety Josh Jones was penalized for being offside. They popped up sporadically throughout the game, culminating on the Patriots' game-ending drive when the Packers — after having just taken a timeout — were flagged on the next play for having 12 players on the field (the penalty was declined because the Patriots gained 15 yards). The most egregious mistake came when safety/inside linebacker Jermaine Whitehead — an important cog in Mike Pettine's defense, particularly after Ha Ha Clinton-Dix's departure — got himself ejected from the game late in the second quarter for slapping Patriots center David Andrews after Andrews shoved him. You can argue over whether the ejection was justified, but Whitehead can't afford to be losing his cool like that.
» 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 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 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 (hamstring) and safety Kentrell Brice (knee) also left with 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.