GREEN BAY, Wis. — Even with at least 75 people in it, with Patriots players getting dressed and equipment workers beginning to move things out of the relatively small visitors’ locker room at Lambeau Field, it was as quiet as a library.
As players processed New England’s 26-21 loss to the Packers, their long win streak ended, Tom Brady sat in front of his stall, arms folded across his chest, his ankles still wrapped in white tape. Right next to him sat Vince Wilfork, who leaned in to his longtime teammate and whispered to the quarterback about the game.
The two longest-tenured Patriots hate losing, and Brady especially does not take losses well. They discussed the search for consistency and the road that lies ahead for their team, which has four regular-season games remaining.
Despite the loss in Green Bay, the Patriots remain in control of the No. 1 seed in the AFC, and if they hold onto it, they’ll get to play at home for the AFC playoffs.
After soaring for seven weeks, racking up blowout wins after blowout wins, the two captains and their teammates had been knocked from their perch. It is in part on them to lead the Patriots back to those lofty heights.
“We have to be more consistent, across the board,” Brady said. “We fought hard, we just didn’t make enough plays. They made a lot of plays; they made some pretty important ones. We didn’t make enough important ones.”
“I love the way we competed,” Wilfork said. “Coming on the road, against one of the best teams in the league, by far the best team we’ve played, I love the way we fought for 60 minutes and still had a chance to win the ball game, a couple of inches [away] from breaking up a pass, so it says a lot about this team.
“Right now all we’ve got to do is just stick together, make a few corrections, and we’ll be OK. Not going to hold our heads down.”
The play Wilfork referred to was on the Packers’ final pass, a third-down pass from Aaron Rodgers (24 of 38 passing, 368 yards, two touchdowns) to Randall Cobb. Devin McCourty was tantalizingly close to breaking it up, which would have forced a punt and given Brady and the offense a little more than two minutes to try to get the win.
But Cobb made the catch, converted for a first down, and with the Patriots out of timeouts, the Packers were able to take a knee three times and end the game.
As he cleaned out his locker, Brandon Browner shook his head. “A game of inches,” he said quietly, to no one in particular.
Defensively, the Patriots pointed to one thing as their downfall: third down. Green Bay was 10 of 17, converting on everything from third and 1 to third and 12 and almost every distance in between.
“Third down killed us tonight. Everything went through third down,” Wilfork said. “We have to fix it. We will fix it.”
“We came in saying this guy’s one of the best quarterbacks that we’ve looked at all year . . . you let a guy like that extend that many possessions, he’s going to make you pay,” McCourty said.
The Patriots did do a good job in the red area — all four of Packers kicker Mason Crosby’s field goals were 35 yards or shorter, coming after they came up short in the red zone. Crosby also missed from 40 yards.
Those three-point chip shots kept the game close for the Patriots, but the offense never looked like the high-scoring juggernaut it had been over the previous month-plus. Brady (22 of 35 passing, 245 yards, two touchdowns) and his pass-catchers appeared to have miscommunication issues on a few plays, and the offensive line, which has played well of late, let him down on more than a few occasions, as Brady was hit and scrambling more often than he’s used to.
Not helping matters: New England was just 4 of 10 on third down.
“We had our chances,” Brady said. “Twenty-one points isn’t going to be enough against a good team like that; we’ve got to figure out how to score more points.”
The Packers took a 13-0 lead in the first quarter, little surprise given that they’ve dominated at Lambeau in the opening frame. In their previous four home games, Green Bay had outscored opponents, 66-0, in the first.
The Patriots did come back in the second quarter, with Brandon Bolden getting the first touchdown. Bolden has played very little on offense this season, and his 6-yard score, in which he deftly weaved through the Green Bay defense, was his first of the season.
The Patriots added another touchdown before the half ended, on a short Brady-to-Brandon LaFell pass. But the Packers scored 10 points in the quarter, 7 on a catch-and-run play from Jordy Nelson.
Nelson ran a short in-cut, but caught the ball at full speed, then essentially outran the defense. McCourty caught him near the goal line, but Nelson dived for the pylon for a 45-yard score.
Darrelle Revis was in coverage on that play.
“He ran an inside route, I was kind of figuring out what the route was during the course of the play. I got a little pushoff at the top of the route,” Revis said. “I mean, look, it is what it is, man. I take my punches on the chin. Could it have been called? Yes, it could have been called. It wasn’t called [so] you have to keep on playing. But great play by him, great run, great play.”
The Patriots’ biggest missed opportunity on offense may have come at the start of the second half. The Packers won the coin toss and received the opening kickoff, meaning New England got the ball to start the third.
With a chance to perhaps grab some momentum, the Patriots instead went backward: Dan Connolly was flagged for holding on the first snap of the possession.
The Patriots did score at the beginning of the fourth quarter, with Brady again finding LaFell, this time on a 15-yard sideline pass, which pulled them within two, 23-21.
But the Packers answered with another field goal, Stephen Gostkowski missed from 47 yards, and McCourty was unable to make the play on third down to give the offense one last chance.
Wilfork stressed that he liked the fight he saw from his teammates.
“That’s a great football team. It’s not a good football team; it’s a great football team we just played,” Wilfork said. “We have nothing to be ashamed of — you win some, you lose some, and we lost this one. So we have to move forward. To take one on the chin like this, it’s kind of discouraging, but at the same time, we showed a lot of grit out there. We fought.
“If there’s anybody I would go to fight for, it’s this team. We have another test ahead of us this week going to San Diego, so we have to be able to turn the page and look at the film and make the corrections and see what we could have done better.”