FOXBORO – For weeks it's loomed on the Patriots schedule with a "Wait ‘till your father gets home . . . " air of foreboding.
The Packers on Sunday night. Aaron Rodgers. If Patrick Mahomes can put up 40, if Mitch Trubisky can put up 31, what kind of horror will visit the Patriots when A-Rod saunters onto the turf at Gillette Stadium and commences wrist-flicking his on-the-move darts?
No horror at all, as it turned out.
For weeks, defensive players have insisted their side of the ball wasn't broken, just in need of some repairs. A turn of the wrench here, a little caulk applied there. Better communication in the secondary, more discipline in the pass rush, making the plays that were there to be made . . . it would all work out fine.
And it did.
The Patriots held Green Bay to a season-low point total in a 31-17 win (the Pack also lost to Washington by the same score in Week 3). They played their most complete game of the season on defense, weathering the Rodgers' storm and coming up with a huge turnover on the first play of the fourth quarter to snuff out a would-be go-ahead drive by the Packers.
After Green Bay scored on their first drive of the second half to tie the game at 17, the defense rose up to force two punts, the aforementioned fumble and a turnover on downs on the Packers final four possessions to send Green Bay home 3-4-1.
"We played together," said linebacker Kyle Van Noy. "We've seen this in the making. We've been a couple plays off here and there. In the past, it was a couple of turnovers here and there and off that it would be penalties in the red zone to extend and then they score. We know we're so close but we still have a lot of work to do but we're excited because we see the making of something special."
The Patriots defense understood the runup to this game was all about two all-time great quarterbacks squaring off, but just prior to the game, Devin McCourty gathered the secondary around him and sent a message.
"Dev said, ‘This game is about more than just the quarterbacks,' " said Jason McCourty. "For us as defensive backs, it was big for us to step up and say, ‘This is all about Brady-Rodgers. We need to do something to make it so it's not about that.' For us as a defense, we're trying to get better trying to get the ball back to our offense."
Rodgers victimized Jason McCourty on his longest throw of the night, a 51-yard completion to Marquez Valdes-Scantling on a third-and-6 early in the second half. Four plays later, Rodgers hit Jimmy Graham for a touchdown from 15 yards out.
"It was third-and-6, I just didn't want to be too deep and give up the first down," said McCourty. "I just needed to do a better job pre-snap of recognizing (Rodgers) bringing guys in (to help with protection). Everyone was back in the formation and we weren't going to be able to force him to get the ball out as quick as I thought. It's one of those plays where you think, ‘Damn, if I can get that one back I would have bailed out of there a little bit sooner.' But you line up and you try to get ‘em off the field and that's one of those things you realize as you get older in this league, ‘I better bounce back because he's gonna come back to me.' "
Rodgers did go back at McCourty
After the Patriots' had a 13-play drive go belly-up on the Packers 1, McCourty sniffed out a second-down screen to Randall Cobb for no gain at the Green Bay 4.
"Just man-to-man on that and once I saw (Cobb) go back, I knew," said McCourty. "I think it was the Redskins game he did the same thing and (Rodgers) just got it out there in man-to-man and gave his receiver a chance to get loose. Just recognizing and getting up there and being in balance and slow him down and make the tackle (made that play work).
Rodgers tried to go back to Cobb with a downfield throw on third down, again with McCourty in coverage. There was jostling but McCourty eventually walled Cobb off and the pass fell incomplete.
"I got my head around so I felt good about it," said McCourty. "When he turned his head, I got my head around. When the refs look at it, if the offensive guy is pushing and the defensive guy is pushing, they usually will let it go if you're looking back for the ball."
After that sequence, the Packers melted down a bit. They ran into punter Ryan Allen on a fourth-and-21 punt, extending a Patriots drive. Then, after forcing a punt and getting two brilliant hookups from Rodgers to Valdes-Scantling, Lawrence Guy forced a fumble on running back Aaron Jones that Patrick Chung recovered.
The Patriots cashed in that turnover with a touchdown thanks to a double-pass to James White that went for 37.
After forcing another punt with a third-down sack of Rodgers authored by Adrian Clayborn and Trey Flowers, Brady hit Josh Gordon for 55 to set up another score.
With the Patriots offense operating without Rob Gronkowski and a wide receiver – Cordarelle Patterson – as their pseudo-bellcow, the New England defense needed to pull its weight in ways it hadn't in previous weeks.
"The defense played spectacular, and 17 points against that offense is great," said Brady. "You know, that's a tough offense to defend. I mean, he could fit the ball into a lot of tight spots. They got off the field on third down, they were great rushing – I mean, it just looked like they had to work for every yard, and I know when they're working for every yard, it's a good night for our defense. So, it was a great team win."
The respect Bill Belichick has for Rodgers was apparent in the postgame. There was no "we have to play it better, we have to coach it better, not good enough" lamenting.
His applied his stamp of approval happily despite some of the plays Rodgers made
"I thought we did a good job of rushing him. He's just so hard to get," said Belichick. "He has such presence in the pocket. We pressured him. 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.
"But God, he's a hard guy to get," Belichick said again. "You look at the pictures (on the sidelines) – everybody's where they're supposed to be. We feel like we had a good rush plan against him and he escaped a couple of times and extended plays and then got out and threw the touchdown there on a scramble. It looked like we had him on that. It looked like we had him on a lot of plays, to be honest with you. He's just so good. Then, of course, the accuracy throwing the ball in addition to him getting out and getting away from the rush. I thought our guys did as good a job as they could do. Really, he's just tough. He's just tough to get."
The last-second Sunday Night Football win over Kansas City may have been more exciting for the country to watch than this one.
But this SNF win got much better reviews in Foxboro.
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