Patriots

When is a loss impressive? When the Patriots are down to a rookie QB against Aaron Rodgers

Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff
Bailey Zappe (left) connected with DeVante Parker for his first touchdown pass in the NFL.


Welcome to the Unconventional Review, an instant reaction to standouts, stats, and story lines from the Patriots’ most recent game . . .

That was one admirable performance by the Patriots. And almost — almost — so much more.

On the road at storied Lambeau Field against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, with starting quarterback Mac Jones out, backup Brian Hoyer knocked from the game in the first quarter, and rookie fourth-round pick Bailey Zappe getting his NFL initiation in the most overwhelming of circumstances, the Patriots nearly pulled off the heist.

It would have been one of the most impressive regular-season victories during Bill Belichick’s 23 seasons in New England, and perhaps the most impressive since the greatest quarterback in NFL history split from the greatest coach in NFL history and headed to Tampa.

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They couldn’t quite finish the job, unable to hold a lead in the fourth quarter, then falling, 27-24, on Mason Crosby’s 31-yard field goal in overtime, and so it ends up a could-have-been, a nearly, an almost and a what-if.

You know what else it was, especially when the scale of expectations are adjusted? Extremely impressive. Zappe acquitted himself relatively well, finishing 10 of 15 for 99 yards and a touchdown pass to DeVante Parker that, for once, was not a 50-50 ball. The defense frustrated Rodgers in the first half – he was an almost unfathomable 4 of 11 for 44 yards with a pick-6 at halftime – before he found his rhythm in the second half.

A certain old coach used to say you are what your record says you are, and the Patriots are now 1-3 and a game back of the Jets in the AFC East. But as far as losses go, this was one that does not leave a bitter aftertaste. Yeah, this season has been a drag in a lot of ways. But this was about as inspiring as a defeat can be.

Some further thoughts, upon immediate review . . .

THREE PLAYERS NAMED JONES WHO WERE WORTH WATCHING

Players suggested in Unconventional Preview: Romeo Doubs, Jonnu Smith, Rhamondre Stevenson

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Jack Jones: Man, this kid is a gambler and, when it goes right, like it usually did Sunday, a legit playmaker. The rookie fourth-round pick got the start with Jalen Mills sidelined and made his presence felt immediately, stripping the ball from Allen Lazard after the Packers’ second play from scrimmage and recovering the fumble. And that wasn’t even his biggest play on the day. With 13 seconds left in the first half, Jones picked off a Rodgers pass toward the sideline and took it 40 yards for a touchdown, giving the Patriots a 10-3 lead. His skill-set and confidence suggest his ceiling is as a J.C. Jackson/Asante Samuel type of ballhawk, but tell me you didn’t think of Ty Law when Jones was sprinting unchallenged to the end zone.

Marcus Jones: I’m sold. I don’t want to see anyone other than this rookie third-round pick returning kicks and punts the rest of the season. Jones had four kick returns for 111 yards, including one of 37 yards in the final seconds of the third quarter. He also had what would have been a 28-yarder early in the third quarter called back because of a holding penalty on Raekwon McMillan. Jones also returned two punts for 49 yards, including a 20-yarder to midfield in overtime that ended up being wasted. Jones looks like a threat to break one every time he touches the ball.

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Aaron Jones: Rodgers’s early struggles were so surprising in part because the Packers were having no trouble running the ball and theoretically setting up the pass. Jones gained 36 yards on his first four carries and had six attempts for 53 yards by halftime en route to 110 yards on just 16 carries. Jones, whose most important run was a 17-yarder on fourth and short that set up Robert Tonyan’s third quarter TD catch, worked in productive tandem with former Boston College star AJ Dillon – he had 17 carries for 73 yards and did the heavy lifting in overtime.

GRIEVANCE OF THE GAME

Really, there’s not much to complain about. The Patriots’ special teams didn’t help the cause much early in the game, with special-teams-only players Brenden Schooler and Cody Davis committing first-half penalties. The Patriots committed seven penalties for 75 yards overall, which isn’t going to cut it when you’re at a significant talent disadvantage. It wouldn’t shock me if right tackle Isaiah Wynn, who committed two penalties, including a somewhat understandable false start on Zappe’s first play from scrimmage, lost his job to Marcus Cannon soon. But the main grievance? That Packers kicker Mason Crosby didn’t pull a Billy Cundiff on his 31-yard winning field goal in overtime. The Patriots have nine ties in their history. This would have been pretty satisfying as the 10th.

THREE NOTES SCRIBBLED IN THE MARGINS

Predicted final score: Packers 27, Patriots 20

Final score: Packers 27, Patriots 24

Linebacker Rashan Gary was a force for the Packers, particularly in the first half, when he recorded seven tackles and a pair of sacks, the first of which knocked Hoyer from the game, and the second forcing a Zappe fumble, which Gary recovered. He beat Wynn on both of his sacks, though on the Hoyer play it looked like Rhamondre Stevenson was supposed to supply some help . . . Gary has a sack in all four of his team’s games this season, which is also something Matthew Judon can claim after he hauled down Rodgers for a 7-yard loss to stall a first-half Packers drive . . . It was a mixed bag kind of day for Packers rookie receiver Romeo Doubs, who made a terrific play on a back-shoulder throw for a 13-yard touchdown catch to give the Packers the lead with just over 6 minutes left in the fourth quarter, but then couldn’t hold on to a beautiful Rodgers throw that would have been a 40-yard touchdown catch with just over two minutes remaining in regulation. Relatedly, why does Rodgers usually have a look on his face that suggests he can’t believe he has to play football with all of these unenlightened, stone-handed incompetents?

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