FOXBOROUGH – It was as entertaining as NBC hyped it. The television network recruited basketball great Michael Jordan to sell a product that didn’t really need it – a rare meeting between multiple MVP winners and two of the best quarterbacks of all time.
While Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers may have made more eye-popping individual plays throughout the night, it was New England’s Tom Brady who demonstrated once again why – even without two of his best weapons – he and his offense can exert their will on opposing defenses.
“Both No. 12s looked good, man. I was excited for this game to see both of those guys go at it,” wide receiver/kick returner/running back Cordarrelle Patterson admitted afterward.
“When you go against the greats, it’s hard to be perfect,” safety/co-captain Devin McCourty acknowledged, “but you’ve got to be close if you want a chance to win.”
Minus both TE Rob Gronkowski and rookie ball carrier Sony Michel, the Patriots offense and coordinator Josh McDaniels needed to utilize every player – and play call – at their disposal to beat the Packers.
“We’ve got a lot of playmakers,” maintained wide receiver Julian Edelman. “It’ll be good to have those guys back when they get back, but until then, we’ve just got to keep doing what we’ve got to do to win games. That’s what we did tonight.”
The opening drive relied heavily on co-captain James White, both as a pass catcher and rusher. He was responsible for three runs and another three catches, capping off the possession with an 8-yard TD run.
When the Packers took over, Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers showed why he’s one of the best and most athletic players ever at his position. New England’s defense had considerable difficulty getting to Rodgers behind the line of scrimmage because of his ability to wiggle out of would-be sacks and throw accurately on the move.
“He’s a good quarterback, one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. So, you expect that to happen,” defensive lineman Lawrence Guy observed. “But the best we could do was continue to get pressure, because even when he’s escaping, that’s still a positive for us.”
Overall, the Patriots defense did a decent job of making Rodgers uncomfortable. Yes, the Pack moved the ball fairly effectively, but New England didn’t give up any really big plays until the second half. They bent, but didn’t break throughout the first half, and that was about as good as cold be expected against a passer as talented as Rodgers.
“Some of the disguised looks, trying to make it tough for Aaron, we knew that would be clutch,” added McCourty. “He still had a couple of throws where he just put the ball where you couldn’t get it. He even caught us in one of our blitzes.”
For a while, it looked like White was going to have to leave the game with a left knee injury. He spent several plays on the sideline trying to jog and flex the problem out, but wasn’t able to return to duty until the second half.
With Michel unavailable and White temporarily hobbled, Patterson once again was called on to help shoulder the load at running back. By halftime, he’d already improved on his yardage total from a week ago – running five times for 51 yards and a 5-yard touchdown.
“I just tried to make plays,” said Patterson matter-of-factly. “Every time my number’s called, no matter if it’s receiver or running back, I’ve just got to show my best abilities.”
“He’s a beast,” Edelman said about Patterson. “He’s a powerful, strong runner that can stop on a dime. It’s awesome to see that. He does a lot for us. It shows his versatility and how important he is to our team.”
Taking the ball at the start of the second half, Rodgers didn’t need long to connect with receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling on a 51-yard reception – the first big play New England surrendered to Green Bay. It set up Rodgers’ touchdown toss to TE Jimmy Graham.
Then Patterson appeared to score again on a 1-yard plunge, but the play was overturned following a review. With the ball inside the Green Bay 1, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels inexplicably dialed up two straight pass plays, both of which were batted down by the Packer secondary.
The Patriots D forced a punt, though, on Green Bay’s ensuing three-and-out possession. Yet, Rodgers went back to Valdes-Scantling a couple more times for big gains and it looked like Green Bay might have a chance to take the lead.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, though, defensive lineman Lawrence Guy forced a Packer fumble that cornerback Stephon Gilmore recovered at the New England 23.
“It was one of those plays you think about all the time,” Guy admitted to reporters. “Oh, exciting. It’s a big play. Everybody was all hyped and pumped, and even bigger when [the offense] went down and scored the touchdown.”
“Yeah, that was clutch,” McCourty concurred. “Us creating that turnover, it was kind of a back-and-forth game. Teams driving, holding in the red area, they score in the red area, they held our offense, we scored. So, just to get a takeaway, we kind of talked about that during the week – which defense could create some type of takeaway, some type of play to give the offense the extra possession. That is what wins games.”
Following the Gilmore recovery, McDaniels got creative again, calling for an Edelman double-pass to White that picked up 37 yards. The OC apparently learned from his earlier mistake, too. From the Green Bay 2, McDaniels called three consecutive White runs. The third finally found the end zone.
Playing with a one-score fourth-quarter lead, the Patriots pass rush finally got to Rodgers when Adrian Clayborn and Trey Flowers converged on him on a third-down play down in Packer territory. When Brady got the ball back after the subsequent punt, he effectively put the game away with a 55-yard touchdown connection to WR Josh Gordon. To his credit, Gordon did most of the work, eluding a would-be Packer tackler 15 yards down field and taking it the remaining 40 yards to the end zone.
“Complementary football,” Edelman emphasized. “Our defense has been doing well throughout the whole year really. They’ve been working really hard and we’ve been seeing it in practice, taking that ball away. It lights a fire under our butts. And don’t forget [special] teams. They do well, too.”
They do, indeed. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski continues his solid season, while punter Ryan Allen may have had his best outing of 2018, pinning the Packers deep with his three boots of the night.
“We are coming along even though we have been up and down,” defensive end Trey Flowers declared. “The one thing is to be consistent and that is what we are trying to do especially in the final stretch of this season.”