Well, that was familiar, huh? A brilliant offensive game plan, utilizing depth and versatility to exploit the defense’s weaknesses, executed with dazzling precision by a quarterback playing at the peak of his considerable powers.
That has been the satisfying postscript on so many Patriots victories during the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick era, including their recent “gauntlet” of a seven-game winning streak, which over the last month included emboldening takedowns of the Broncos, Colts, Bears and Lions.
So it was strange to see the winning script flipped on Sunday. The host Packers fended off the Patriots, 26-21, in a game between two of the league’s elite teams — perhaps the league’s two elite teams — that lived up to all of the hype and then some.
The Packers led the whole way, but there were harbingers suggesting the Patriots might steal it at the end. And they damn near did. There’s no shame in this defeat. They lost to a superb team on their own hallowed field, a place where they are practically invincible.
Of course, it was somewhat jarring to watch an opponent beat a healthy and rolling Patriots at their own game. It’s so rare that I struggle to come up with a recent example of it actually happening.
That the Packers were able to turn the tables on the Patriots is largely due to the performance of their exceptional quarterback. Aaron Rodgers proved he has much more in common with Tom Brady than the same jersey number. He was in complete and utter command on Sunday, so poised, prepared and precise that he plays with a confidence bordering on casualness.
It is no knock on Brady to proclaim that Rodgers is the premier quarterback in the NFL at the moment, a prime-of-career superstar who played on Sunday as if he were designed covertly in a lab by Bill Walsh in 1983.
That did not happen, at least has far as we know. But what definitely did happen is this: Rodgers was expertly developed by coach Mike McCarthy, who after earning Belichick’s scarce and coveted Postgame Handshake of Approval may finally get his due as one of the league’s better coaches.
But this isn’t entirely about what the Packers did do. In game that came down to one or two players, there were small reasons to be frustrated with what the Patriots did not do.
The Jordy Nelson 45-yard touchdown just before halftime was a killer. Darrelle Revis can gripe that he pushed off, but that’s what receivers do. Nelson beat him, and Devin McCourty took an uncharacteristically lousy route in attempting to cut him off.
Those two don’t mess up often. But they did in tandem on that play, to the point that you wondered whether Logan Ryan was involved. What in the name of Darius Butler has happened to that kid this year? The Packers exploited him over and over again, usually with rookie receiver Davante Adams. The second-year regression among certain Patriots cornerbacks remains an unsolved mystery.
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels had one of those days where you begin to suspect his football mentor was not his dad or Bill Belichick, but someone such as Mike Martz. The Patriots ran the ball just 18 times — nine in each half — against a Packers run defense that was allowing more than 136 yards per game on the ground.
The Patriots did succeed when they ran — LeGarrette Blount had 10 carries for 60 yards, and the team as a whole averaged 4.7 yards per pop. They just didn’t run enough.
The Packers could make the argument that they might have run away with it had they not been held without a touchdown in four trips to the red zone. But that isn’t so much a failing of their offense as it is an acknowledgment that the Patriots defense did make some plays at pivotal moments. And no one around here requires the reminder that a bend-but-don’t-break mode of operation worked pretty well for them when they were collecting Lombardi Trophies in 2001, ’03 and ’04.
Sunday’s frustrations aren’t indicative of any larger issue. It’s simple: They lost to a damn good team, there’s a mutual respect there, and from a New England perspective, you come out of it appreciating the Packers and desperate for another crack at them.
I trust we’re all on board for a neutral-site rematch, right?
Does February 1 in Arizona work for everyone?
You know the road to Glendale is a treacherous one. The Patriots need to lock up home-field advantage. The Packers at some point are going to have to deal with the defending champion Seahawks, who will be no easy out.
But after what we saw Sunday, both the Packers and Patriots look more than capable of keeping the date.