FOXBOROUGH — Patriots defensive players have no illusions about who the main attraction is at Patriot Place. It’s quarterback Tom Brady. The Patriots are a team viewed through the lens of potent offense and pliable defense. The offense is celebrated. The defense is tolerated.
It’s a rather thankless task not being on Touchdown Tom’s side of the ball, a bit like being a backup dancer who gets noticed only if they bungle the choreography or fall down on stage. The football equivalent of this is allowing a backup quarterback to put up 41 points in the Super Bowl.
But something unexpected happened during Sunday night’s much-anticipated quarterback summit between Brady and Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots’ defense stole the show and stunted the showdown. This time it was the defense that bailed out Brady, paving the path to a 31-17 victory over the Green Bay Packers.
That’s right, the same defense that was carved up by Blake Bortles and the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 2 and was saved by the bell while allowing 40 points to Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs muffled Rodgers.
This was exactly the type of defensive display the Patriots will need if they’re going to lift the seven pounds of sterling silver known as the Lombardi Trophy for a sixth time. They’ve learned the hard way that you can’t outscore ’em all, all the time. As good as Brady is and as much as Josh Gordon’s addition has enhanced the offense, there is going to come a playoff game when the defense has to stand and deliver. They just provided reason to believe they can.
Of course it wasn’t really Brady vs. Rodgers. It was Brady against the Packers defense and Rodgers against the Patriots’ defense. This contest wasn’t decided by an all-time great quarterback. It was won with timely defense that bought time for Brady and the offense to get their supporting act together in the second half. Brady took a backseat in New England’s sixth consecutive win.
“The defense played spectacular, and 17 points against that offense is great,” said Brady, whose numbers (22 of 35 for 294 yards and a score) belied an uneven evening. “You know, that’s a tough offense to defend. I mean he could fit the ball into a lot of tight spots. They got off the field on third down. They were great rushing. It just looked like [Green Bay] had to work for every yard, and I know when they’re working for every yard it’s a good night for our defense. So, it was a great team win.”
Tied at 17 after three quarters, the Patriots limited the Packers to just 22 yards of offense in the fourth quarter. They held Rodgers to 2 of 7 for 15 yards with a sack in the fourth.
The pivotal play came not from the golden arm of Brady, but from the Patriots’ defense. After a pair of passes to rookie receiver Marques Valdes-Scantling that went for 24 and 26 yards, the Packers opened the fourth quarter at the New England 34. Green Bay was hunting the go-ahead points.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, Lawrence Guy hustled to knock the ball free from Green Bay running back Aaron Jones after a 6-yard run. Stephon Gilmore recovered. The Packers never got that close to the Patriots’ end zone again. The inert Patriots offensive rediscovered its momentum on the ensuing drive, resorting to some trickery. A double-pass from Brady to Julian Edelman to James White produced a 37-yard gain that set up a 1-yard White touchdown run.
“Our defense has been playing great all year,” White said. “They’re working hard, trying to give us turnovers. When they get turnovers, we’ve got to turn them into touchdowns, and that was a big play by Lawrence Guy, stripping the ball from that guy. It gave us a lot of momentum.”
A fourth-quarter duel between Brady and Rodgers was percolating in the minds of football devotees everywhere. The Patriots defense ended those thoughts and the Packers’ next drive quickly, forcing a three-and-out. Adrian Clayborn and Trey Flowers sacked Rodgers on third and 7.
Rodgers, who finished 24 of 43 for 259 yards with a pair of TD passes, came into Week 9 leading the NFL in pass plays of 40 yards or more with 10. The Patriots allowed only one pass play of more than 40 yards, a 51-yard pass to Valdez-Scantling on the first drive of the third quarter. That set up a 15-yard TD pass from Rodgers to Jimmy Graham that tied the game at 17.
Those were the last points the Packers scored.
The Patriots held the Other No. 12 and Green Bay at bay by disguising their coverages and forcing Rodgers to hold on to the ball. It’s a plan of attack that was shaped in practice with help from Brady and backup quarterback Brian Hoyer. They critiqued and helped tweak the defense’s disguises, according to safety Devin McCourty.
“You have to change it up,” McCourty said. “He’s too good. If he knows what you’re in on every play you have to be perfect, defensively. That’s a big task. It’s not like we’re covering guys that aren’t good. You’re covering good players out there, too. You get a quarterback that is throwing great balls and knows where he wants to go before the snap, and now you’re trying to stay in front of these great receivers, you can’t do it. I think we did a good job of just trying to mix it up and make it as difficult as possible.”
The Patriots also did a good job of containing Rodgers scrambling. The other A-Rod is like an NBA scorer. He’s going to get his points and make his plays, but as long as you prevent him from going off you have a chance.
Sunday night represented the Patriots best defensive performance of the season. Last Monday’s 25-6 win over the Buffalo Bills was a more dominant defensive effort, but the degree of difficulty against Rodgers was considerably greater. It’s hard to think of a more drastic NFL 180-degree defensive turn than going from defending Buffalo’s Derek Anderson to the most preternaturally talented quarterback in the game, Rodgers.
“I know that this week will get graded a lot better because we played Aaron Rodgers and the Packers,” McCourty said with a smile. “We’ll take it, but I think the consistency of playing well last week, going to Buffalo on a Monday night, playing against Buffalo how we wanted to play Buffalo . . . has showed up two weeks in a row of consistency. Now, we’ll have to do it again, going back on the road at Tennessee.”
This iteration of the Patriots’ defense should be better than last year’s version. It has Dont’a Hightower back. It has Stephon Gilmore capable of playing the entire catalogue of coverages. It has more depth at cornerback. Yet it struggled in the early part of the season on third down, broke down dealing with offensive concepts like crossing patterns, and has disappointed at times in the red zone.
“I think we’re just doing a good job of locking in and playing the way that we want to play,” McCourty said. “I think early in the season it was inconsistent, and I think that inconsistency showed up in points.
“Linebacker coach [Brian Flores] has been on us all year about not just playing well in pockets of the game, but trying to play well for 60 minutes. I thought that showed up over the last two or three games.”
The Patriots defense showed up and made its presence felt in what was supposed to be a passing clinic. The game wasn’t determined by which marquee QB had the ball last. It was determined by a Patriots’ defense that padlocked the Packers in the fourth quarter.
It was a reminder that while this is Brady’s show, the winning script for a championship team always calls for a few scene-stealing performances by the defense.