The knee-jerk reaction to the Patriots' nail-biting win over the Packers last night is sure to be that it was the result of a letdown, letting up because of the absence of Packers starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers, or the now-popular-in-these-parts "trap game" excuse.
"I'm going to be honest with you, I felt like we prepared just as well as we have the past five weeks," said Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo in the aftermath of a 31-27 victory. "We just didn't go out and execute. ...We can't play like this next week."
Give game Green Bay, a team that matches up well with the Patriots schematically, credit. The Packers had a great game plan and a great deal to do with the lack of execution from Bill Belichick's crew.
Yet, that the Patriots won last night speaks to how good a team they are and why they should be playing in the House That Jerry Jones Built in February. The measure of a good team is the ability to win when it plays less than its best. Beating back the Pack on a night when its game plan didn't go to plan tells us far more about the Patriots than if they had continued their run of routs, because these are the type of tense, taut contests that are likely ahead of them in the playoffs.
Last year's Patriots would have folded faster than an origami crane under last night's circumstances. This was a character-builder and a gut-check for a young team that is paving its own Patriot Way.
The tendency is to lump all the Patriots teams from 2001 on together, but this is a very different group that lacks the postseason cachet or experience of previous Patriots playoff entrants.
There are only 12 players currently on the roster that have ever been on a Patriots team that advanced to the Super Bowl. Half of them were on the almost perfect '07 squad. Mayo, a team leader and defensive captain, has yet to be on a Patriots' team that has won a playoff game. That's to say that not a lot of these guys were in the photographs that Belichick had removed from Fort Foxborough.
With that lack of playoff experience, playing late-season games like the one against Green Bay are necessary for the Patriots. It's both a primer for the postseason and a reminder that the hardest part is yet to come. Let's face it, the Buffalo Bills and the Miami Dolphins weren't going to be able to give the Patriots a reasonable facsimile of playoff play because neither is a playoff-caliber team.
The Packers were the last shot and they delivered -- even without their quarterback.
Green Bay left Gillette Stadium last night shaking their heads, but they were never quaking in their cleats about the prospect of playing the Patriots.
Several Packers said they felt they matched up quite well with New England -- due in part to the presence of cornerbacks Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams, which allowed Green Bay to play more man coverage than most teams against Tom Brady and his collection of toys while still blitzing.
"No one is invincible," said Green Bay linebacker Desmond Bishop. "They're good, probably one of the best, if not the best, but nobody is invincible."
The Patriots looked vincible against a Packers team minus Rodgers, Cullen Jenkins (the team's second-leading sacker) and Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins, who left the game late in the first half with a rib injury.
The Packers had more first downs (26 to 14), more yards (369 to 249), almost twice as many plays (80 to 43) and an outrageous time of possession edge (40:48 to 19:12). But stats are for ... you know the rest. The Patriots led the only place it really counts.
The game really hinged on four key plays/decisions. The first was Charles Woodson's failure to intercept a Brady pass on the Patriots' first drive. Two plays later BenJarvus Green-Ellis ripped off a 33-yard touchdown run.
The second was the most memorable Patriots play in quite some time and already a YouTube staple: "Thunder" Dan Connolly's amazing 71-yard kickoff return in the second quarter, which allowed the Patriots to trim the Packers halftime lead to 17-14. Brady once called his lineman fat cows in training camp, but Connolly looked more like a Pamplona raging bull on his return for the record books.
The third play was Kyle Arrington's 36-yard interception return. There were certainly times that Green Bay substitute QB Matt Flynn looked a bit lost -- the Patriots ran the same blitz on back-to-back plays on Green Bay's first drive and confused him -- but it turns out the turnover wasn't one of them. Flynn threw the ball to the right spot, but his intended receiver, James Jones, ran into a defender and never arrived.
The fourth play wasn't a play at all, and that was the problem. Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy, who channeled Sean Payton to hoodwink His Hoodieness with an on-sides kick, refused to go for it on fourth and goal from the 1, leading 24-21, early in the fourth quarter.
It was a baffling decision considering that the Patriots are the top scoring team in the NFL and anyone who has watched them knows there is a better chance of carpooling to work with a Christmas elf than beating Brady with field goals. Even more odd was that McCarthy's rationale was that he trusted his defense. If that's the case, then why not try to make it a two-score game (31-21, instead of 27-21) there? If you fail you've given your trusted defense 99 yards to play with.
Credit to the Patriots defense for forcing that decision with another goal-line stand against an NFC North foe.
The only "letdown" is that we probably won't see the Patriots win a game this exciting until the playoffs.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.