FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- It was never really what we expected, not a pass-for-pass duel between two of the greatest quarterbacks of this -- or any -- era. All that video of goats frolicking was for naught.
The biggest plays Sunday night were not made by Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. But by another Aaron -- Aaron Jones, whose fumble with the Packers driving into Patriots territory ignited New England's 14-point fourth-quarter burst to break open a tie game. And by a wall of Patriots blockers who set up a screen for James White on a trick play that triggered the first touchdown of that burst. And by a defense that stole the show in what was supposed to be a night of offense.
Coach Bill Belichick was practically giddy in the aftermath, gushing over Brady's work ethic, over Rodgers' on-field sense of a play, over his own defensive front. Because it is so routinely a flat line, Belichick's postgame mood is as accurate a barometer as there is of how good he feels about the Patriots. This is all you need to know: Belichick smiled.
The Patriots beat the Packers31-17. Unless these teams meet in a Super Bowl -- and that looks increasingly unlikely this year for the 3-4-1 Packers, who are in third place in the NFC North -- we probably won't see Rodgers and Brady face each other again. They embraced and shared a few words late Sunday night and then went their separate ways. Brady, with his team at 7-2 and with a victory over the Kansas City Chiefs in their pocket, toward what seems almost certain to be another January assault on the playoffs. Rodgers into his simmering disappointment and irritation with the direction of the Packers.
Rodgers' displeasure is understandable when the teams are so easily compared side-by-side like this. Brady was not particularly sharp Sunday -- he finished 22 of 35 for 294 yards and one touchdown pass, had a startling seven straight incompletions at one point, and looked, for stretches, confused by Mike Pettine's defense. The Patriots had to rely on big plays, because they weren't getting their routine four- and seven-yarders, Brady conceded.
But Brady was surrounded by a better team than Rodgers was, even without the injured Rob Gronkowski or Sony Michel. And Brady is coached by wildly creative coaches. The Patriots went up-tempo occasionally. The play call for a flea flicker and the screen pass by Julian Edelman to White on the other side of the field -- Brady was the lead blocker and admitted he hit nobody -- that is the kind of aggressiveness and derring-do that is absent from the Packers' approach and, to be fair, from practically every other team's, too. New England's final score -- a rocket from Brady to Josh Gordon, which flew over Edelman's outstretched arms and resulted in a 55-yard touchdown -- underscored that the Patriots manage to find contributors where others do not. Cordarrelle Patterson, once known as a receiver and kick returner, morphed into the Patriots' new running back Sunday, with 11 rushes for 61 yards and a touchdown. He entered the game with a total of 61 rushes in his entire six-year career.
"So much of our team is guys being in roles that maybe they didn't sign up for that particular role," Brady said of Patterson. "Injuries, attrition, a lot of guys go down. You're short at certain spots."
Brady wanted to give all the credit to the defense Sunday night. Rodgers finished 24 of 43 for 259 yards and two touchdown passes, but he never got into the kind of rhythm that terrorizes opponents and, improbably, the Patriots might have had their best pass rush of the season against a player most opponents would prefer to keep in the pocket. And the forced fumble changed the momentum of the entire game, which Jones acknowledged as he fielded question after question about his fumble.
"It just looked like they had to work for every yard," Brady said.
It has looked that way for a while now with Green Bay. And with the season half over, and with changes already having been made in the general manager's office and at defensive coordinator, the future of Mike McCarthy is already a topic of mounting speculation. Rodgers looked grim after the game, his frustration with the Packers' near-misses against the Rams and Patriots obvious. When he was asked if anything is missing with the offense, he did not hold back.
"Yes, the consistency," he said. "We're not hitting on all cylinders, we're hurting ourselves with negative yardage plays and missed throws and turnovers at the wrong time, not being on the same page too many times. Whether I'm missing a throw or we're not in the spot I think we're going to be at, it's happening in the worst times. When we have to play our best in those crunch times, we haven't been playing our best."
He isn't alone. The Patriots do this to almost all of their opponents -- they don't just beat them, they outwit them, conjuring new ways to mine their roster while others wilt. It happened to Rodgers tonight -- and in duels of the past, it happened to Peyton Manning, too. You can debate who the GOAT is all you want. But when the GOATs need help, Brady knows the better team has his back.