In the first-ever battle between Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, what many thought might be a preview of the Super Bowl, New England took a seven-game winning streak into Green Bay Sunday evening.
Sixty minutes of football later fans witnessed a heavyweight battle between two of the top teams in the game that would have made for a tremendously entertaining Super Bowl.
Green Bay – a team that generally dominates the competition early in home games – built a 13-0 lead in the first quarter and went to halftime with a 23-14 advantage after the Patriots had cut it to 16-14 late in the second quarter.
Brady had a 124 passer rating in the first half, while Rodgers was at 132.9 with the two future Hall of Fame passers living up to the hype in their first meeting.
The New England Patriots take on the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field on Sunday, November 30, 2014.
But the Jordy Nelson 45-yard touchdown with 14 seconds to play in the second quarter -- in which he beat Darrelle Revis off the line on a slant and then continued right to left to the pylon with the Patriots defense chasing – was a huge play to swing the momentum.
All told, both Brady and Rodgers took care of the ball. No interceptions. No turnovers. The teams lived up to their reputation as the top two teams in the league in turnover differential.
On a day when the Patriots played impressive red zone defense to even stay in the game when the visitor didn't force its one and only punt of the day until the third quarter, New England never could seize control of the game.
That forced Bill Belichick to attempt a 47-yard field down five points on fourth-and-18 with less than three minutes to play. The kick sailed right, the Packers got a first down to run out the clock and the Patriots finished the day with their first loss in eight games.
The lack of a pass rush was a problem as Rodgers found time to move around, extend plays and find some plays after an initial impressive coverage by the Patriots secondary.
But even though the team took its first loss since the Week 4 Monday Night debacle in Kansas City, nothing really changed afterwards other than it having the potential to tighten up the playoff seeding picture in the AFC.
The Patriots are still a clear Super Bowl contender as they head on straight to San Diego for next Sunday night's battle with the Chargers, a team coming off a big comeback win over the Ravens.
There were certainly some good things that took place in Green Bay. LeGarrette Blount ran well in limited chances. The secondary covered well at times. Rob Gronkowski was his usually productive self. Rob Ninkovich stepped up to fill-in as a long snapper.
As Bill Belichick said endless time in his postgame remarks, his team "competed hard all night." It just came up a few plays short in the end. Of course a very good Green Bay team probably felt it came a few plays short of a turning the game into a home blowout victory.
Super Bowl preview or not, the Patriots and Packers proved themselves to be two pretty impressive football teams Sunday evening. It was a playoff-caliber game between two Super Bowl-caliber teams.
Before turning the page to the Chargers, here are some of the highs and lows from the hard-fought loss in Green Bay:
Red zone defense – One of the main factors that kept the Patriots in the game was the fact that the defense forced field goals in the red zone. Green Bay, a top 10 team in red zone offense coming in, went 0-for-4 on the night. While the Packers scored on all five of their drives in the first half, three of those came on field goals on trips into the red zone. That kept New England in the game. Bend but don't break was huge in a game when the defense otherwise was giving up too many big plays and allowing Rodgers to lead his offense up and down the field with 478 yards of offense.
Dont'a Hightower** – Having taken over the middle linebacker job after Jerod Mayo went on IR, Hightower has been a force in middle of the front. Against Green Bay he was a playmaker as well as a solidifying presence. He had a big hit that left Davante Adams down on the field. He had a nice sack of Rodgers and three tackles for a loss, including one on Lacy running left that Hightower brought down from the backside. The only downside is that Hightower got banged up a little late. Otherwise he was one of the best defenders on the field on the evening, even if the Packers did move the ball a little too freely.
Brandon LaFell – The veteran had the Patriots two passing touchdowns on the day. He continues to be the guy Brady looks to at the start of games and drives. He's a proven complementary receiver for the Patriots to turn to with regularity. LaFell had five catches for 35 yards with the two scores. He'll never be a guy who is the centerpiece of an offense, but he's a very nice weapon at Brady's disposal.
Logan Ryan – Ryan wasn't the only third corner to struggle – Alfonzo Dennard had his own problems in his return to significant playing time in the second half – but he was the worst. Ryan was matched up with Adams early on and Rodgers went right at him with impressive success. There were even a few incompletions mixed in where Ryan was beaten badly but the Packers didn't take advantage. The Patriots top two corners are set and playing at a relatively high level, but Ryan and the other No. 3 corners have something to prove if they are not going to be picked on by opposing passers.
Marcus Cannon** – Cannon served as the extra blocking tight end with Cameron Fleming sidelined and he struggled. He not only didn't block well, but he also had a false start on a first-and-goal play. The Patriots still scored a touchdown, but it's still an unacceptable type of play. Cannon just didn't seem to bring much positive to the field in his role.
Coaching – While most generally give the Patriots the advantage in terms of coaching, and probably would have pregame in a matchup with Mike McCarthy, the battle of the staffs was by no means an advantage for the visitors. It just didn't seem that the New England staff had its best of games. Early on the matchups of Revis on Randall Cobb and Brandon Browner on Nelson seemed to be working OK. The staff switched out of that and then seemed to struggle as Green Bay moved Cobb around to create mismatches, even though Belichick said he expected the receiver to work out of the backfield at times. The Packers also did a good job getting Ninkovich in coverage on wheel routes, which also gave Rodgers time to roll right. It's also worth questioning why the Patriots didn't run the ball a bit more against the Packers 30th-ranked run defense. Belichick often talks about needing to coach better after Patriots losses and that would certainly seem to be the case after this one.