FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - They knew the tricks were coming. They prepared for them all week. The flea-flicker. The double pass. The end-arounds.
The Green Bay Packers were ready for all of the above. They wouldn’t be hoodwinked by the Hoodie.
Or so they thought. Then the game started, and Bill Belichick’s team did what Bill Belichick’s teams usually do. The Patriots hoodwinked the Packers at precisely the right time, or exactly the wrong time, depending on the jersey.
So much of what happened in a 31-17 loss at Gillette Stadium was actually promising for the Packers' defense. They made the Patriots' offense, and especially quarterback Tom Brady, work. Brady didn’t fill the box score. He didn’t throw for 300 yards. He had fewer touchdown passes (one) than sacks (two). The Packers even got a goal-line stand in a tie game midway through the third quarter.
All of that was good. At the end, the Packers' defense genuinely felt it did an admirable job.
Then it looked up at the scoreboard and saw 31 points.
“It’s frustrating,” veteran cornerback-turned-safety Tramon Williams said. “It’s very frustrating. But, ultimately, you have to look at it and say, ‘OK, we played well enough to win this game. What happened for us to give up 31 points?’”
Mainly, the tricks.
Make no mistake: The Packers caught the Patriots at the right time. The Patriots were on a short week, given one less day to rest and prepare after playing Monday night football six days earlier in Buffalo. They were without star tight end Rob Gronkowski (back) and their best ball carrier, tailback Sony Michel (knee). Ordinarily, letting Brady drop 31 points in his own stadium might be understandable, but the Patriots were not playing with a full deck.
Whatever the reason — fans who wanted Mike McCarthy fired weeks ago will certainly point to coaching — the Packers perfectly played the Patriots’ foil. They consistently did the hard part, forcing the Patriots to earn everything they got, only to be undermined against the perfect play call. The Patriots showed exactly the type of imaginative offense that has been noticeably absent from the Packers this season.
It started early in the second quarter, when Brady handed off to running back James White, who sold a dive before turning to toss the football back to his quarterback. Brady then found receiver Julian Edelman wide open downfield, gaining 33 yards to set up a field goal.
After stalling for much of the third quarter, the Patriots again pulled from their bag of tricks early in the fourth. Brady lateraled near the right sideline to Edelman, who then threw a pass across the field to White. The former Wisconsin running back had a convoy of blockers escorting him 37 yards down to the Packers’ 2.
The Patriots scored three plays later to take a 24-17 lead they never surrendered.
“That’s New England, man,” defensive lineman Mike Daniels said. “They’re going to do stuff like that. We just have to be where we’re supposed to be, and unfortunately we weren’t on those plays. And they got the better of us.
“We saw that type of stuff on film. That’s what they do. They know we’re preparing for it, and then they lull us to sleep just playing regular football. Then all the sudden, they pop one out on us. And we got caught.”
Late in the fourth quarter, the Patriots twice took advantage of the Packers’ over-pursuit.
Edelman took an end-around 17 yards down the left side, sparking what would be a three-play touchdown drive that set the final score at 31-17. Then, needing to run out the clock, Edelman picked up a first down with 11 yards on the same play one snap before the two-minute warning.
In all, those four plays netted 98 yards. They directly led to 10 points. In other words, those four plays accounted for almost a quarter of the Patriots’ 433 yards and a third of their scoring.
“It’s frustrating that it came down to trick plays,” cornerback Bashaud Breeland said. “They just ran it perfectly. They ran tempo as well as a trick play at the same time. so it’s like they’re hurrying us up, and messing with our eyes. So it was just a good play by them.”
There are two ways to evaluate the Packers' past two weeks. Against two of the NFL’s superior teams — it should surprise nobody if the Patriots and Rams play each other in Super Bowl LIII — the Packers had chances in the fourth quarter to walk away with a road win. That they couldn’t might ultimately define their season. Those are opportunities teams scraping to separate themselves from the NFL’s middling pack simply can’t miss.
Of course, the Packers aren’t looking at it that way. After two promising weeks on the road against two of the NFL’s best offenses, they’re encouraged. These two weeks, Daniels said, gave the Packers something to build on.
“It’s not demoralizing,” Daniels said, “because we know how good we can be. Just have to make sure we are that good. It just shows how good that we know that we can be. We just have to do it. That’s all to it. We just have to do it.”