FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - Judging by what transpired inside Gillette Stadium on a crisp, fall evening, you would have thought it was the New England Patriots who were 3-3-1 and desperate for a victory.
In turn, it would have been hard not to consider the Packers the 6-2 team on a five-game winning streak the way they trotted around the field.
On the one hand, there was Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniel installing a fast-tempo attack that used some of the same quick-snap tactics that the Los Angeles Rams had used with success against the Packers the week prior.
There he was putting the ball in the hands of running back James White six times during a 10-play, 59-yard drive to open the game, often using the quick-to-the-line attack that made it difficult for defensive coordinator Mike Pettine to get the calls in on time.
And there was McDaniel calling two flea-flickers, including one that put the Patriots at the 2-yard line where they broke a tie and took the lead for good two plays later.
“They emptied out their tank,” said Tramon Williams, who made his debut at safety Sunday night. “I respect that. They came to win and emptied out their tank of everything.”
The Patriots, the 6-2 team, came into the game with a huge challenge having played a subpar game against Buffalo on Monday night and being forced to prepare for Aaron Rodgers on a short week.
What’s more, they had to go without the services of two of their best offensive players, tight end Rob Gronkowski (ankle/back) and running back Sony Michel (knee) as well as right guard Shaq Mason (calf) and his backup, Brian Schwenke (foot).
For most teams, that would have been a disaster.
But not coach Bill Belichick’s Patriots, who pulled away from a third-quarter tie with a pair of touchdowns, leaving Gillette with a 31-17 defense of their homefield. It was a masterful display of patching things together and getting the most out of what was left over.
Then there’s the Packers.
They’re the 3-3-1 team who had lost two of their last three games and not won on the road this season. They were the team that was coming off an offensive resurgence that nearly saddled the then-undefeated Rams with their first loss.
They’re the team that came into the game trying to do what they always do, which is ride Rodgers’ arm as far as they can and hope the defense holds up. They’re the team that believes they can win by doing what they do better than what the opposition does.
On offense, coach Mike McCarthy and Rodgers continued to under use running backs Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams, who combined to rush 21 times for 110 yards when they were used. That’s 22 called rushes (one was a Rodgers unsuccessful third-down run) and 44 called passes against a team that came in ranked 25th in defense and 14th in rushing yards allowed.
The ongoing excuse for not using them is that the offense is way behind, which was never the case Sunday until the end. Only Jones’ untimely fumble marred the rushing performance, although it didn’t have to be the reason the Packers lost the game.
While the Packers were running their usual offense, the Patriots threw a blanket on receiver Davante Adams by double-covering him about 80% of the time, according to his estimates. No matter where he went, they found a way to make things tough for him.
And when they didn’t double-team him, they brought everybody up on the line of scrimmage and threatened to blitz everybody. Even when they brought heat against Rodgers, they doubled Adams.
“They were just trying to keep pressure on a quarterback that extends plays,” Adams said. “It becomes tougher when you’ve got more guys in pursuit jumping after him. It worked out well for them a few times and it makes it tougher for us to communication.”
So, the Packers essentially tried to beat the Patriots running the ball 14 times with Jones and throwing into double coverage nine times (six catches for 40 yards and a touchdown). They had no answer to getting Adams free and the only time they made New England pay for that attention was a 51-yard connection.
Rodgers was only sacked once, but the pocket around him was often collapsing because the Patriots had mixed up their fronts and made it look like they might blitz on some downs and play coverage on others. They continually moved their safeties up near the line and then moved them back at the snap.
“I think it had more to do with the rush than anything,” Adams said of the safety movement. “It puts our line in a tough spot and I mean, it’s something that I don’t know exactly how much we were ready for that.”
After managing just 10 points in the first half, Rodgers caught the Patriots in a blitz on the deep ball to Marquez Valdes-Scantling on the opening series of the third quarter and finished it off with a 15-yard touchdown pass to Jimmy Graham to tie the game at 17-17.
But that was it.
Their last four drives ended in punt, fumble, punt and downs. They had no answer for the wave of different looks Belichick threw at them.
“Some of the disguise looks, we were trying to make it tough for Aaron,” said safety Devin McCourty. “We knew that would be clutch.”
Added Belichick: “I thought he had to make some throws with kind of the line closing in on him and wasn’t able to really get to make the kind of throw that I think maybe he wanted to make.”
Rodgers finished 24 of 43 for 259 yards and two touchdowns. His passer rating was a mediocre 89.2 because so many of his completions were for short yardage. Instead of playing in a more controlled manner or with an eye on running the ball more, Rodgers played the way he has all season.
Neither he nor McCarthy seemed to treat the game with the full-out creativity it takes to win a must-win..
“We’re not hitting on all cylinders,” Rodgers said. “We’re hurting ourselves with negative-yardage plays and missed throws and turnovers at the wrong time and not being on the same page too many times, whether I’m missing a throw or we’re not in the spot I think we’re going to be at.
“It’s happening in the worst times. When we have to play our best in those crunch times, we haven’t been playing our best.”
The same thing could be said on defense. Pettine lost cornerback Kevin King to a hamstring injury and safety Kentrell Brice left later on with an ankle injury. But those two were on the field when the Patriots came out and set the tempo for the game on the first series.
Instead of taking it to the Patriots, Pettine let them take it to him. The 17 points the defense allowed in the first half were more than the Packers could afford to allow with their offense struggling.
In the second half, the defense made several key stops, including one on fourth down at the 1-yard line, but it never changed the momentum of the game. The Patriots didn’t turn the ball over and they managed to run 31 times and pass 35, an almost perfect balance.
“When they can get started like that, it’s tough,” Williams said. “They get all the momentum. You’ve got to be able to match the same tempo. I thought Brady did a great job understanding that in the game, whether he needed to go fast tempo or slow it down.
“He understands the game that way. He’s one of the best.”
And the Packers are 3-4-1.