By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
FOXBORO (CBS) — So, how did you enjoy the big Tom Brady-Aaron Rodgers showdown? Was it everything you hoped for?
While it’s no scientific measurement, from my vantage point, I saw and heard from a number of people who found the whole thing to be underwhelming. That sentiment was expressed mostly during the third quarter, when an early Packers scoring drive was the lone disruption to some stagnant offenses. This wasn’t the shootout we all wanted.
Then, of course, business picked up. Lawrence Guy forced a fumble, Julian Edelman threw a pass, and Josh Gordon broke a big one. The Patriots, as they often do in these things, won the football game.
While the matchup of two Hall of Fame quarterbacks (kindly take your “GOAT” talk and take a walk, please) warranted the excitement and hype, the final result — a 31-17 Patriots win — was likely not what many folks had in mind. Something more like the Patriots’ 43-40 win over Kansas City from a few weeks back, or the ridiculous 45-35 Saints win over the Rams from earlier in the day. It’s the new NFL, after all, and offense sells.
But one person who seemed to really appreciate the moment and significance of the evening was one Mr. Bill Belichick. It may seem odd for a Hall of Famer who’s coached in eight Super Bowls — plus two more as a coordinator and one more as an assistant — would get all geeked up for a midseason matchup against a non-conference opponent, but Belichick appeared to be one happy camper following this game.
He spoke at the podium for 12 minutes. His opening statement was 613 words long; Mike McCarthy’s entire press conference was 178 words long. He gushed about Rodgers, about Brady, about the New England defense. He singled out Josh McDaniels and Brendan Daly as Patriots coaches who had particularly exceptional weeks. He praised Cordarrelle Patterson, and James White, and he took time to mention the Salute To Service ceremonies, mentioning Andrew Bibbo by name to begin his press conference. He even made sure to mention Alex Cora and the Red Sox, who were in the building for a pregame party.
“I’m proud of the way the guys came back after a tough game in Buffalo on Monday night and really competed all week to prepare and be ready to go tonight,” a victorious Belichick beamed. “I thought we competed hard against a really good football team. Aaron [Rodgers] made a couple of throws there to [Marquez] Valdes-Scantling, I mean, that were just unbelievable plays. We were all over them. One on the sideline and one on the over route that I don’t know how the coverage could’ve been much better than what it was. Just being the great player that he is, he made great throws there. He made a great throw on the post when we were in blitz coverage, so those are the kinds of plays you’ve got to live with when you play the Packers, Coach [Mike] McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers and the receivers that they have. Like I said, we just kept competing.
“Just kept battling, kept fighting,” Belichick added. “Like I said, I’m really proud of the way the guys hung in there and just competed tonight and that’s really what it took. It’s good to be 7-2.”
Maybe it was just a good night for a number of reasons for the head coach, but Belichick sure seemed a little extra enthused after this win. It was perhaps a reflection of a man who knows himself some NFL history appreciating a big-time quarterback matchup that doesn’t pop up too often these days. And it was of course a reflection of a man who was quite happy with the final results.
It just made the whole thing kind of cool. The game itself was just that — a game. But stepping out of it, hearing maybe the best coach of all time talk about a game that involved the best quarterback of all time and one of his closest contemporaries (for this stage of Brady’s career, anyway) … it was cool. And it felt like Bill appreciated the moment and the challenge.
Now, on to some leftover Patriots thoughts.
–We’re going to have to go ahead and talk about James White. James Calvin White. Five-foot-10, 205 pounds. See him on the street, you might not even notice him. See him on a football field, and he’s likely doing something absurd.
That was the case, yet again, on Sunday night, as White racked up 103 yards from scrimmage and scored two touchdowns. He now has 10 total touchdowns, smashing a career high of six, and he’s accounted for 766 yards from scrimmage, far and away the most on the team.
When he limped off the field in the second quarter, your heart should have briefly stopped if you care deeply about the Patriots. Because while the team has survived in spurts without Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman and Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead and whoever else, it does feel like White has been the most important skill player this season. He’s accounted for 25 percent of the team’s handoffs, 24 percent of the team’s targets, 27 percent of the team’s receptions, 21 percent of the team’s receiving yards, 22 percent of the team’s rushing yards, and 38 percent of the team’s touchdowns from skill position players.
He’ll never get the national attention the way that a Todd Gurley or Alvin Kamara does, because he just doesn’t have the numbers. But that doesn’t change the fact that on one of the NFL’s best teams, James White is the most important non-quarterback on the team.
James Calvin White. Big-time football player.
–The Patriots have often used a no-huddle, hurry-up offense, but I don’t think they’ve ever run a drive as fast as their opening drive on Sunday. Referee Brad Allen had not even finished announcing an offside penalty on the kickoff when Brady and the Patriots broke their huddle and hurried to the line. The whole drive looked like someone DVR’d the game and then stuck the remote control on 1.5 speed in order to catch up to live action.
Given how successful that drive was — 10 plays, 59 yards, touchdown in 3:20 — they perhaps should have stuck with more no-huddle. But as Brady explained after the game, “It doesn’t help to run bad plays fast. You’ve got to run good plays with good execution.”
–This was the fourth play of the game. Apparently Green Bay didn’t get the “Patriots use James White a lot” memo:
Come on, guys. Game started.
–The only thing rarer than a Brady-Rodgers matchup is a funny tweet on Twitter.com. But this was a funny tweet!
–Twitter jokes aside, the Patriots’ pass rush was tremendous. It started with Devin McCourty bursting through a gulf on the right side of the Packers’ line to force a third-down incompletion late in the first.
(That came two plays after Jason McCourty broke up a deep ball to Valdes-Scantling. Good night for the McCourtys.)
It continued with Adam Butler simply winning a 1-on-1 battle with Byron Bell, spinning off the block of the right guard and making a beeline for Rodgers. The quarterback had to throw it away on third down:
Adrian Clayborn was a man possessed. As was Trey Flowers. Those two finally brought Rodgers down in the fourth quarter amid the most important stretch of the football game. Just an excellent night for the pass rush, even if the one sack on the stat sheet wouldn’t necessarily indicate it.
–Belichick credited Rodgers’ exceptional escapability for that low sack total.
“I thought we did a good job of rushing him. He’s just so hard to get,” Belichick said of Rodgers. “He has such presence in the pocket. We pressured him. I thought he had to make some throws with kind of the line closing in on him and wasn’t able to really get to make the kind of throw that I think maybe he wanted to make. But God, he’s a hard guy to get. You look at the pictures – everybody’s where they’re supposed to be. We feel like we had a good rush plan against him and he escaped a couple of times and extended plays and then got out and threw the touchdown there on a scramble. It looked like we had him on that. It looked like we had him on a lot of plays, to be honest with you. He’s just so good. Then, of course, the accuracy throwing the ball in addition to him getting out and getting away from the rush. I thought our guys did as good a job as they could do. Really, he’s just tough. He’s just tough to get.”
–Speaking of escapability and historical greatness, Cordarrelle Patterson set an NFL record for most yards from scrimmage by a guy wearing a T-shirt made out of mozzarella cheese:
Just some classic cheese humor for you on a Monday.
–The numbers may not have been eye-popping, but both Brady and Rodgers made some incredible throws. I’ll spotlight one of each.
For Rodgers, let’s go midway through the first quarter. This may not have been the most spectacular throw of all time, but everything about this replay required so much skill and vision. It was art:
For Brady, let’s go with this dart to Edelman in the fourth quarter. The broadcast didn’t show any replays, but Brady zipped this thing through a rapidly closing window to hit Edelman in the bread basket. Nobody in the stadium even knew Edelman caught until he popped up with the football:
The old man has still got some zip.
–The Patriots’ best play of the game was made by Josh Gordon. It didn’t even count. But that spinning back-shoulder catch up the right sideline was pretty incredible. Out of Brady’s hand, the pass almost looked like a throwaway. But Gordon was about a centimeter away from pulling off a catch of the year candidate. He may have actually gotten the toe in, too:
Gordon also earns some points for barely missing any snaps despite having to head to the sideline multiple times to have his finger snapped into place. Gross! Football!
–It’s funny that in a Brady-Rodgers matchup, the most historical moment that occurred was a player getting ejected for smacking another player. Not even a punch. Just an old-fashioned five-finger thwack.
Some people say it’s soft to eject players for such things. But me? I say that if you’re foolish enough to use your bare hand to impact a helmet/facemask made out of hard plastic and metal, then you deserve an early shower. What’s the goal there?
(By the way, the internet is so ruthless now, the facts never seem to matter. A lot of people clung to the idea that David Andrews hit Jermaine Whitehead first. And while that is true … Andrews shoved Whitehead in the chest before the whistle blew. It was … downfield blocking. Obviously it didn’t have an effect on the play, but you’re allowed to shove players in the chest before the whistle blows. Whitehead just … didn’t like it. And so he got slappy.)
(Also, the rulebook states that a player can be disqualified if the official rules his unnecessary roughness was “flagrant.” A slap to the face would seemingly qualify.)
(LASTLY, watching the game broadcast, it was odd that Brad Allen’s announcement of Whitehead’s disqualification did not come through. I certainly heard that loud and clear in the press box. Things like that — remember the old ineligible receivers situation back in the 2014 playoffs? — can lead to confusion for the masses at home. Not sure how that goes awry.)
–Speaking of 2014, if you’ll recall in the “Do Your Job” special, it was revealed that the Patriots almost busted out the Edelman-to-Amendola double pass in Week 4 in Kansas City. Considering the Patriots broke the glass in case of emergency on the Edelman double pass this year in Week 9, I asked Belichick if he has to consider the pros and cons of employing such a play midseason and thus no longer having it in his back pocket for a potentially critical moment in the playoffs.
Bill basically gave me the Heisman.
“Uh, no. I think when you put the play in and you work on it, you’re prepared to call it in certain games at a certain point. If it comes up, it comes up,” Belichick explained. “I thought Josh McDaniels, as usual, called a great game and that was a great call. The timing was perfect. Most importantly, it was well-executed. No play is a good play if it’s not executed well and that was executed very well by Tom, by James, by Julian, by the offensive line. We got good movement downfield, had a couple of nice blocks that sprung him. What’d he gain – 35, 40 yards? Something like that, down to the 2 or 3-yard line. It was well executed and it was a great play call by Josh, too.”
On the execution, you could say this was pretty good:
But still, going back to “Do Your Job,” receivers coach Chad O’Shea explained how Danny Amendola calling off the double pass essentially kept the play alive in the Patriots’ playbook.
“In hindsight, obviously, that was going to be critical to our season, because if we don’t have the players execute the part of not giving away the double pass, then we don’t have this play available for us in the biggest game of the year when we needed it vs. Baltimore,” O’Shea said.
So I guess what all of this means is that Josh McDaniels is going to have to draw up a new trick play for January. I’m sure he won’t mind at all.
–One of my favorite pastimes is watching Twitter overreact to one bad Brady throw every week. In windy Buffalo, Brady threw behind Edelman once. Everyone went nuts. In this game, Brady had that real whopper of a pass to nobody on a third down in the third quarter:
People went nuts. How dare Brady throw one bad pass in a football game. He must be finished!
These people who overreact to one bad pass tend to overlook the fact that they are, you know, overreacting to one bad pass.
–It’s hard to conclusively assess the performance of the Patriots’ defensive backfield, considering how little we know about the likes of Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown. However, every member of that Patriots defense deserves credit, because they went from facing Derek Anderson to Aaron Rodgers in a span of six days.
They went from facing the worst passer in the NFL to arguably the best passer in the NFL in less than a week. That can’t be an easy adjustment! That’s like popping in to 1985 really quick, grabbing a Pac-Man player at the local arcade, and asking him to play whatever the newest Xbox One game is — and asking him to be good at it. He would struggle!
The Patriots did a nice job against Rodgers, who threw for a season-low 259 yards and posted his second-worst passer rating of the season.
–Even with the win, there was one stretch from the Patriots that looked concerning. It came after Patterson was initially ruled to have scored. Replay showed that he was down inside the 1-yard line. What followed was a very un-Patriot-like sequence.
Brady couldn’t run a sneak on the ensuing third-and-goal, so the Patriots ran a poorly designed rollout pass to the right side. Brady’s options were … limited:
After this play obviously failed, Brady didn’t break the huddle on the ensuing fourth down attempt until there was less than 10 seconds left on the play clock. They lined up, but with White motioning on from the right side, there wasn’t enough time to run the play. Brady had to burn a timeout.
If it was the first half, that might not matter. But this was the third quarter, in a 17-17 game. Burning timeouts like that can prove costly.
When they finally ran the fourth down play, the left side of the line got overwhelmed by a heavy blitz, and Brady forced a throw to Gordon in single coverage. Gordon slipped, and the pass fell incomplete.
The defense ended up coming up with a three-and-out, and the Patriots obviously overcame the bad stretch. But for a team that tends to always execute well in these situations, it did stand out.
–So, well, yeah, we football meatheads oversimplify things when we say “Brady has such-and-such a record against THIS quarterback.” Obviously a football game requires a lot more than just a quarterback showing up and outperforming his counterpart. Brady — just like every other quarterback in history — has won games where he wasn’t the best quarterback on the field, and he’s also lost games when he was the best quarterback on the planet. It happens.
And in this game, we’re talking about who knows what if Lawrence Guy doesn’t make a play, if Edelman doesn’t make a pass, if Gordon doesn’t break a 55-yard touchdown, if Jason McCourty and Stephon Gilmore don’t play exceptional defense, etc., etc., etc.
But at the same time, no one player in any team sport is more responsible for the success or failure of his team than the quarterback. A bad quarterbacking performance can sink even the best of teams. We know this.
So, on this matter. Two things. First, courtesy of the handy graphic during the broadcast, we know that Brady is now 20-11 when facing either a Hall of Famer or surefire Hall of Famer on the other side:
OK, so you might say, “Brady didn’t play Rodgers, you buffoon.” Fine. Fair enough.
To that I’d say, “Hey, mister, that’s kind of mean.” But also: “Don’t forget this record against top defenses.” (He’s really good.)
From watching this man play quarterback over the years, it is obvious that he is capable of elevating his play when the situation warrants it. Whether that’s facing a great defense or a great opposing quarterback, Brady knows how to elevate.
And, well, what better picture of that than Brady’s fourth quarter performance on Sunday night? Under the bright lights, with a record number of people tuned in at home, here’s what Brady did in a fourth quarter that began as a tie game:
6-for-6, 104 yards, TD, perfect 158.3 passer rating.
You cannot be better than perfect, so it was a fitting ending to a matchup of this magnitude.