GREEN BAY, Wis. — A Lambeau Loss shouldn't have anybody leaping off the Patriots bandwagon. If there is such a thing as a noble, distinguished loss, this was it for the Patriots.
Their seven-game winning streak is kaput, but their Super Bowl contender credentials are intact, perhaps enhanced by what took place on the frozen tundra on Sunday. The result was negative for Bill Belichick and his team, a 26-21 loss to the Green Bay Packers before a Lambeau Field record crowd of 78,431, including many Patriots fans who made the pilgrimage to this idyllic football mecca.
But the manner in which it played out provided positive reinforcement that the Patriots are a team built for the long haul of playoff football as they haven't been since 2007.
You can't win 'em all, even with Belichick and Tom Brady. To paraphrase former Arizona Cardinals coach Dennis Green, the 9-3 Patriots are who we thought they were — one of the NFL's elite. So are the 9-3 Packers.
"This was a test for us. It was a big test. I'm sure it was a big test for them, too," said Patriots cornerback Darrelle Revis. "It's two great teams playing. For it to go down to the wire like this, it was expected when you got two great quarterbacks and two great teams going at it. It was a dogfight today. They made plays. We made plays. They made a bit more plays than us."
For two teams that are not necessarily used to playing a lot of competitive games — the Packers have won five games by 20 or more points and the Patriots have won six — they put on a show. The highest compliment you can pay the game is that it was worthy of its iconic setting.
When you walk up the tunnel and the field comes into view at Lambeau, it's the same sensation you get the first time you see Fenway Park unfold before you. It's majestic; so was the game between the NFL's two best teams.
Neither team committed a turnover, and there were no dunce-cap mental demerits. Just two great teams slugging it out for 60 minutes.
Packers home games are usually over after 30 minutes.
The Packers came in averaging 43.8 points per game at Lambeau and had scored 30-plus points in all of their previous five home games. The Patriots defense held Aaron Rodgers and the Pack under 30, which is like holding Michael Jordan under 30.
The Patriots were at their bend-but-don't-break best, forcing Green Bay to settle for the Lambeau Leg of Mason Crosby all four times the Packers reached the red zone instead of Lambeau Leap TD celebrations.
Conversely, Brady and the Patriots scored touchdowns on each of their three trips inside the Green Bay 20, which negated the Pack's total yards advantage (478-320).
Video: Tom Brady postgame comments
Tom Brady talks after the loss to the Packers
The Packers punted once all day, with 2:29 left in the third quarter,
The Patriots trailed, 26-21, with 8:35 left. They had gotten a gift, as Green Bay rookie receiver Davante Adams marred a career day (six catches for 121 yards) by dropping a sure touchdown pass on third and 5 from the Patriots 10.
You could feel the agita among the Packer faithful. This was an unfamiliar feeling for them as Green Bay had won each of its last four home games by at least 21 points and the last two had been wrapped up like sausages by halftime.
Brady drove the Patriots to the Packers 20. He just missed connecting with Rob Gronkowski for the go-ahead score on second down.
On third down, he was sacked by Mike Daniels and Mike Neal. Stephen Gostkowski then missed a 47-yard field goal kicking a frozen TV dinner.
Rodgers (24 of 38 for 368 yards and two touchdowns) converted a clutch third-and-4 throw to Randall Cobb.
"We played a good football team. That's a good football team," said Belichick. "In the end they made a few more plays than we did. Both teams competed hard. I'm very proud of the way our guys hung in there and fought right to the end.
"We just couldn't quite make enough plays at the end to come out on top, and they did. So give them credit."
Video: Bill Belichick on loss to Green Bay
Bill Belichick talks after the Patriots loss to the Packers
If the Packers proved they were legit, so did the Patriots, particularly on defense. This isn't your older brother's porous Patriots pass defense.
New England held the Packers to just 3 points in the second half. Rodgers was limited to 10 of 14 for 86 yards in the second half and was sacked twice.
The one play the Patriots would like to have back came at the end of the first half, a 45-yard touchdown catch-and-run by Jordy Nelson with 14 seconds left that turned a 16-14 deficit into a 23-14 disadvantage.
It was the football equivalent of a hockey goalie allowing a goal in the final seconds of a period.
The 23-14 halftime deficit was a far cry from the craters that both the Chicago Bears and Philadelphia Eagles found themselves in at Lambeau, trailing 42-0 and 30-6, respectively, on their paths to getting obliterated.
In their last four home games, the Packers had outscored their opponents, 128-9, in the first half.
The Patriots are hoping to get another crack at the Pack.
"Most definitely," said cornerback Brandon Browner, who took the loss as hard as anyone. "They're in another division. The only way we can see them [again] is in the Big One. We got to handle next week. This game is behind us."
After the loss the Patriots were headed straight to San Diego to prepare for next Sunday's game with the Chargers. Going from the frigid air of Green Bay to the SoCal sunshine is about as extreme a climate change as you can get.
But the climate of confidence in this team shouldn't change a bit.
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at email@example.com.