Aaron Rodgers vs. Bailey Zappe (which rhymes with “happy’').
A four-time NFL MVP vs. a fourth-round draft pick who’d never played a down of professional football?
A Super Bowl champion against a third-string rookie who made his last meaningful pass against Appalachian State in the vaunted Boca Raton Bowl?
A “Jeopardy!” host with 29 career game-winning drives against a 23-year-old who was playing at Houston Baptist two years ago?
It was a true Cinderella story, ‘til Zappe turned into a pumpkin ‘neath the cover of October skies. The undermanned Patriots pushed the Packers into overtime, but Rodgers finally stepped up and the Packers beat the Pats, 27-24, on a 31-yard walkoff field goal by Mason Crosby.
Zappe finished the day with 10 completions in 15 throws for 99 yards. He threw one touchdown pass and was not intercepted. He didn’t have fans saying, “Who needs Mac Jones?” but demonstrated pretty good poise. When it was over, veteran Rodgers met with unhappy Zappe at midfield.
“[Rodgers] said, ‘Congrats on playing for the first time,’ and that was about it,” recounted Zappe.
The loss dropped the 1-3 Pats into sole possession of last place in the AFC East (very Red Sox-like), but there was no disgrace. Bill Belichick was at the top of his game, turned it into a Leather Helmet Special, and almost stole the night from 78,317 Cheeseheads at legendary Lambeau Field.
The big story leading into the weekend was the Pats going with their backup quarterback, Brian Hoyer, in the aftermath of last weekend’s high ankle sprain sustained by Mac Jones.
Unfortunately, Hoyer lasted only two series and 15 plays, and never returned after he was pancaked by Packers linebacker Rashan Gary (more bad work by Isaiah Wynn).
Poor Hoyer. He’s 36 years old and hasn’t won an NFL start since 2016. He’s played for seven NFL teams and been released enough to qualify for Chaim Bloom’s bullpen. He got to make his first start in two years, but was KO’d with a head injury, which is serious stuff (finally!) after the Tua Tagovailoa fiasco last week. NFL medical personnel are going to be a lot more careful regarding concussion protocols after what happened with Tua. Hoyer was ruled out of this game faster than you could say, “day-by-day.”
“I saw him come off and Joe [Judge, the Pats’ quarterback coach] turned to me and said, ‘You’re going in,’ " said Zappe.
Zappe threw for almost 6,000 yards and 62 touchdowns for Western Kentucky in Conference USA last year. But that’s not the SEC. He never played in front of 78,317 when he was at Houston Baptist, dropping back against Lamar and Abilene Christian.
Still, Patriot Nation hoped for a miracle.
Nobody was expecting Zappe to be Tom Brady, stepping in for Drew Bledsoe and leading the Pats to a Super Bowl championship, but folks were maybe hoping Zappe could replicate Scott Zolak, shooting his six guns and making himself AFC Offensive Player of the Week in his first NFL start against the Colts in 1992.
The Patriots led, 3-0, when Zappe came in for his first snaps at the end of the first quarter deep in his own territory. He wasn’t able to move the Pats, and fumbled on his third series when he was hit by Gary after another Wynn whiff.
“After the first handoff everything quieted down,” said Zappe. “I kind of settled in on the task at hand. I just had to do my job and do it well.’’
At halftime, Rodgers was 4 of 11 for 44 yards, with no touchdown passes and a pick-6. Happy Zappe was 6 of 10 for 31 yards, one lost fumble, and a stunning 10-7 lead. It was easily the worst first half Rodgers has ever played at Lambeau.
Mr. Discount Doublecheck finally threw a touchdown pass to start the third, but Zappe came right back, capping a five-minute drive when he feathered a 25-yard touchdown pass to DeVante Parker to give New England a 17-14 lead. It was the first TD pass thrown by any rookie in 2022. It was also the fourth lead change of this game. According to the “NFL on CBS,” Zappe is the first player to ever make his NFL debut as a visitor at Lambeau Field and throw a TD pass in that game … Lambeau opened in 1957.
“That felt good in that moment,’’ said Zappe. “I felt comfortable with that play. I was able to play pitch-and-catch with receivers … We settled down in the second half and started playing football. I’ve been preparing myself. That’s how I continue to grow as a player.’’
After the Packers tied it with a field goal, Zappe game-managed another TD drive, handing the ball off to Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson and connecting with Nelson Agholor on a 21-yard beauty in the red zone for his only completion of the drive. Harris’ 5-yard touchdown run gave the Pats a 24-17 lead with 11:14 left.
Amazing. Happy Zappe from Western Kentucky was in a mano a mano steel-cage match with the much-decorated Rodgers.
But Rodgers took the challenge and led the Packers 75 yards, throwing his 500th career touchdown pass to Romeo Doubs with 6:14 left to make it 24-24.
And there was no more Zappe Magic.
“Losing a game is always the worst thing,’’ said the disappointed rookie. “The O-line played well. Receivers played well. Running backs played well. There were things personally for me. If I had made a throw …‘’
“In the end, Rodgers was just too good,” said Belichick. “We had pretty good coverage on some of those. He was just too smart, too good, too accurate. But Bailey really competed well. We just obviously came up a little bit short.”
“I will just continue to do my job,” said Zappe. “Let the playmakers do what they do best. Continue to stay cool calm and collected back there and do the best I can do for the team.’’
The slipper wouldn’t fit.
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