Right where he wants them.
It’s been two months since the Patriots lost, so you can understand at least some of the angst that festered on Sunday night throughout New England. No worries.
The Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots will meet again, in Glendale, Ariz., on Feb 1, 2015. That matter became more of a likelihood than a proposition after Sunday.
This time around, it was the Packers getting the best of New England, 26-21, a game in which the Patriots never led against the otherworldly Aaron Rodgers (24-of-38, 368 yards and two touchdowns) and unstoppable Green Bay offense, yet it felt like New England was one big play - or one big stop - from escaping from Lambeau Field with its 10th victory of the 2014 season.
It was oh, so close. Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady nearly hooked up with a diving Rob Gronkowski in the end zone on New England’s final possession, but the ball came loose from the hulking tight end’s hands at the last second. Minutes later, the Pats' defense confined the Packers to third-and-four at the Green Bay 43-yard line only to watch Rodgers and Randall Cobb hook up for seven yards.
“I think that sucked,” Brady said in the aftermath of CBS cameras catching him pushing the PG-13 boundary just a bit further immediately following Cobb’s catch.
The Patriots lost their third game of the season at Lambeau Field, where the Packers are now 6-0 this season, and are averaging 41 points per game. In all, losing by five points was a pretty damned good showing.
Imagine what might have happened had Patriots head coach Bill Belichick not saved his game plan for the Super Bowl rematch.
Is there any other reason why Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels elected to run the ball only 18 times against one of the NFL’s worst rushing defenses on Sunday?
How to explain Belichick not going for it on fourth down at a couple opportune moments in the first half, even knowing you risked giving the ball back to a quarterback in Rodgers who was doing donuts around the Patriots’ secondary?
Why else would Belichick decide to have Stephen Gostkowski try for a 47-yard field goal, down by five, instead of going for it on fourth-and-18 with 2:40 remaining, a decision that quickly became the 2014 edition of “4th and two” in the immediate aftermath of the loss?
He knows. It has to be that easy to explain.
Why unleash your arsenal for a November game against an NFC opponent you’re likely to face exactly two months from Monday?
The most glaring evidence that the Patriots approached this game with something other than their “A” game, was the 35-to-18 pass-to-run ratio, even as LeGarrette Blount (58 yards on 10 carries), Brandon Bolden (17 yards on three carries and a touchdown), and yes, Jonas Gray (four yards on one attempt) provided some semblance of rhythm in the limited amount of times they were asked to do something. There was little to dislike about the Patriots’ running attack other than that there wasn’t more of it against a team that came into the game ranked 30th in the NFL against the run.
Clearly you can’t give the Packers too much of a taste of what’s waiting for them in Glendale.
“We had our moments. We had some good runs, just like they did,” Belichick said. “They had some good runs. They had some runs that weren’t very good. We had a couple runs that weren’t very productive.”
Hello, Shane Vereen (six yards on three carries).
“I wouldn’t say that’s taking it away, but we could’ve run the ball better,” Belichick said.
The Patriots averaged 4.7 yards per rushing play against the Packers. They averaged 4.5 yards per carry last weekend against the Lions. The Patriots also ran the ball 20 times against Detroit, which owns the best run defense in the NFL.
So, why run it fewer times against an inferior unit?
All in the plans, folks.
There were factors, however, even beyond Belichick’s Jedi-like control. When Julian Edelman exited the game with a thigh injury, it was evident that Brady lost a bit of the rhythm he had discovered in the first half. The third-down sack on the Patriots’ final possession turned out to be a killer, but perhaps not as backbreaking as when Darrelle Revis was flat-out burned on a Rodgers pass to Jordy Nelson that went for a 45-yard touchdown and a 23-14 Packers lead at the half. It was the most staggering play in a heartbreaking work of genius.
“You know, I felt it was a push-off,” Revis told reporters after the game. “But at the same time I’m not going to use that as an excuse. He made a great play. there’s two great teams playing. I have a lot of respect for Jordy, Aaron Rodgers and their whole wide-receiver group. He made a great play and scored at the end of the half."
And if, if only, Gronkowski could have held on in the end zone, would it have mattered? Or would Rodgers simply have marched down the field one more time and rip out the Pats’ triumphant hearts one more time?
The Broncos beat the Kansas City Chiefs Sunday night, 29-16, to pull even with the Patriots at 9-3. But New England still holds the tiebreaker over Denver, with San Diego (heart attack winners in Baltimore Sunday), and the triple dregs of the AFC East remaining in December. The Broncos have the Bills at home, and the Chargers and Bengals on the road before the season-ending win over the Raiders.
But if you’re Belichick, you take your chances with San Diego, and trust that there won’t be another late-season hiccup against Miami, New York or Buffalo that could put that home-field advantage in jeopardy. Because if you’re suddenly playing in Colorado in mid-January, then as far as moral victories go, Sunday’s loss at Green Bay becomes a hell of a lot more hollow.
But in Bill we trust, and all that jazz.
“Aaron Rodgers is a great quarterback. Coach McCarthy does a good job with their football team,” Belichick said. “They are tough to beat. We had our chances, we just couldn’t quite get enough plays there at the end or throughout the game. Again, I had to tip to hat off to the Packers, they did a good job. It’s a good football team.”
Rodgers was unstoppable this time, but next time it’s going to be different. After Sunday, who wouldn’t like the Patriots to keep up with the Packers on neutral turf, not to mention without Desmond Howard?
“I just wish we would’ve won this one,” Brady said. “I think we put a lot into this one. This was a great test for us.”
Preliminary test. They don’t put the hard questions on the practice exam, which, in the end, was all this entertaining showdown ended up being. A taste.
And it was delicious.
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