GREEN BAY, Wis. – Third down, third down, third down.
"I can't stress it enough," cornerback Brandon Browner repeatedly told reporters after the game. And he wasn't the only Patriots defender harping on it.
"Third down was a problem. Everything went through third down," defensive tackle/co-captain Vince Wilfork declared. "We have to fix it. We will fix it."
The Patriots' defense was giving Packers QB Aaron Rodgers plenty of time to throw in the early going. Yet, while Rodgers was off the mark on many of his throws to open receivers, running back Eddie Lacy was churning out yards on the ground. He had just shy of 50 after one quarter, and not surprisingly, the Pack dominated in time of possession, 11:20 to 3:40, and on the scoreboard, 13-0.
The New England Patriots take on the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field on Sunday, November 30, 2014.
"You never want to be on the field [offensively] only 21 minutes," tight end Rob Gronkowski remarked after the game.
Penalties cost New England early, too. Akeem Ayers' 9-yard sack of Rodgers on 2nd-and-10 at Green Bay's 17-yard line was wiped out by yet another Brandon Browner infraction (he now leads the Patriots with 10 and this, after missing the first month of the season because of a league suspension).
In the second quarter, New England showed some life, with a long drive for a touchdown by Brandon Bolden, and a key third-down sack by linebacker Dont'a Hightower that forced a Packer field goal when Green Bay was in a goal-to-go situation.
It was a credit to the Patriots that they only found themselves down two with less than two minutes to go in the first half after being out-possessed by a 2-to-1 margin. However, the defense couldn't stop Rodgers and his receivers. The QB shook off a shaky first quarter and seemed to have eyes in the back of his head, eluding New England's pressure in the pocket and making difficult throws on the run. Receiver Jordy Nelson's speed on his 45-yard touchdown catch at the end of the half was typical for him – breaking away from the secondary and out-racing defenders to the pylon.
Mason Crosby's wide-left 40-yard kept New England to within just a touchdown and field goal of taking the lead.
It really felt like New England was thoroughly outplayed for three quarters, but after QB Tom Brady hit Brandon LaFell for the receiver's second touchdown of the night, the Patriots again were behind by just two points early in the fourth quarter.
Davonta Adams dropped a would-be touchdown in the middle of the fourth quarter that forced a Packer field goal which upped Green Bay's lead to just five.
Brady's short 4th-down completion to Julian Edelman near midfield was a crucial play late in the game. So was a 3rd-and-7 catch by Rob Gronkowski to the Pack 33 which kept the drive alive. The running of LeGarrette Blount in the second half was a major factor as well.
But a near-catch by Rob Gronkowski in the end zone that was well-defended by the Packers, followed by a 3rd-and-9 sack of Brady deep in Green Bay territory left the Patriots little choice but to attempt a field goal, which Stephen Gostkowski pushed wide right from 47 yards.
On the Pack's ensuing possession, a Randall Cobb catch in traffic on 3rd-and-3 was the difference. It typified how the game played out: Green Bay was just good enough, and the Patriots just a step behind.
"Tom just threw it up," Gronk said of his would-be game-winner. "It was a fade route, he said, 'Go up and make a play. I was pretty sure I caught it and then at the last second, the DB made a nice play. He hit it out of my hand. Good play by him. When my number's called, I've got to come down with those plays."
Still, the Patriots showed, in defeat to a good team in a hostile environment, a mettle that could serve them well down the road.
"I love the way we competed, though," added Wilfork. "On the road, against one of the best teams in the league. By far the best team we've played. I love the way we fought for 60 minutes and still had a chance to win the ball game within a couple of inches, breaking up a pass. We'll make a few corrections. We're not going to hold our heads down."
The mood in the Lambeau visitors locker room was one that was much more upbeat – deflated, to be sure, but optimistic – than it was following New England's previous loss this season, a debacle in Kansas City in Week 4.
"The last one, you can't even compare them. Obviously, you have to be positive. We have to stay mentally tough. Definitely proud of the way we fought," Ninkovich insisted. "When you hold a team with that potent of an offense to that many field goals as we did, that's always a plus."
"We have a long way to go. This isn't the end of the season here. We have more games to play. We'll take this one, learn from it. Definitely encouraged. Definitely. When you hold a team to three points, you're doing something. Especially in the red zone."
New England doesn't have time to dwell on this loss, and perhaps and immediate departure from frigid Wisconsin to more mild southern California for the next week is just what they need. The team will work in San Diego for the next several days to prepare for another tough opponent, the Chargers, next Sunday night.