FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - When the Green Bay Packers saw the pregame inactives 90 minutes before kickoff Sunday, they had to hear opportunity pounding on their front door.
The New England Patriots’ inactive list surprisingly included their best receiving threat (Rob Gronkowski) and best running back (Sony Michel).
With the Patriots also coming off a short week after playing last Monday night, they were ripe to be upset. It was the chance for a big road victory, Aaron Rodgers against Tom Brady, the kind of game that can help get a floundering team like the Packers on a roll.
But Bill Belichick outcoached Mike McCarthy, Brady outplayed Rodgers, and that was that. What NBC and the NFL hyped as the matchup of the league’s best quarterbacks ended up as just another uninspired road loss for the Packers, their fourth in four tries away from Lambeau Field this year.
At 3-4-1 the Packers are in real trouble. Their season isn’t over — McCarthy and Rodgers have been in worse straits (4-6 in 2016) and bounced back to make the playoffs. But halfway through the 2018 schedule, this team hasn’t found any kind of identity or shown it can blow up the scoreboard the way it needs to with one of the two best quarterbacks in the league.
On this night, a game there for the taking at 17-all in the fourth quarter turned into a fourth-quarter 31-17 rout.
“We’re not hitting on all cylinders,” Rodgers said after the game. “… 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 contrast between the Patriots (7-2) and Packers showed up in ways little and big.
The Patriots didn’t turn the ball over, and while Brady was hardly lights out (99.0 rating) he had only one throw you could characterize as a bad miss. He didn’t come close to an interception.
Then with Michel out and James White battling a sore knee, they got a lot of mileage out of receiver Cordarrelle Patterson at running back (11 carries for 61 yards and a touchdown).
Beyond that, they dug deep into their bag of tricks to help win this game.
They were in and out of a turbo-speed no-huddle offense all game that kept the Packers’ defense on its heels.
They also used a couple of well-timed gadget plays to great success when their undermanned offense was sputtering: Brady’s 33-yard flea-flicker that set up a field goal in the second quarter, and receiver Julian Edelman’s screen pass to White for a 37-yard gain that set up the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter.
McCarthy was right last week when he said the Patriots wouldn’t beat themselves. But they did more than not beat themselves. They were creative and resourceful as well.
“One thing about New England, man, they’re going to empty out their tank,” Packers defensive back Tramon Williams said. “They’re here to win.”
The Packers, on the other hand, did the things that lose games if you’re not putting up big points, which they aren't.
They had the game’s lone turnover, and it came at maybe the worst possible time. When Aaron Jones lost a fumble as the Packers were going in for a score early in the fourth quarter, the Packers lost the chance to take their first lead of the night.
Rodgers, too, had a couple of errors that cost points. He was hit with a big delay of game penalty in the first quarter that stalled a drive in the red zone that ended with three points instead of seven. He also ran a keeper on a big third and short at the end of the second quarter, when a handoff to Jamaal Williams would have converted the first down. There went another scoring chance.
And maybe emblematic of the Packers’ season to date was the timeout they burned late in the third quarter coming out of a TV timeout, when rookie receiver Equanimeous St. Brown was unsure where to line up. How does that happen?
“We’ve got to be better on the sideline there, let (St. Brown) know exactly what the personnel is so there’s not any questions for him,” Rodgers said. “ … I’m not upset about that. I’m upset that I haven’t been as consistent and we haven’t been clicking the way we expect to click.
At any rate, the Rodgers-Brady duel didn’t end up being a great shootout, or the down-to-the-wire, last-guy-with-the-ball wins kind of game that NBC and the NFL were hoping for. After the Jones fumble, the Packers capitulated, getting outscored 14-0 in the final 10½ minutes.
The Packers have now had back-to-back road tests against two of the best teams in the league — the Los Angeles Rams last week and Patriots on Sunday. While they can tell themselves they were in position to win both games in the fourth quarter, that’s hardly a rallying cry for a team whose goal is to play in the Super Bowl, not just put up a decent fight.
New England really was ripe to be beaten on this night. No Gronkowski and no Michel — well, imagine taking Davante Adams and Jones away from Rodgers. When teams are down in the NFL, you have to pounce.
But the only team pouncing at Gillette Stadium on Sunday was the Patriots.