It wasn't a matter of who wanted it more. It wasn't because of one singular broken play. It wasn't because they were outhustled, or outplayed, or outfought.
New England's locker room echoed a familiar tone when asked about Sunday's events.
"Have to tip our hats to the Packers." "They made the plays." "We fought for 60 minutes, but came up short." "The guys just never gave up."
The players aren't defeated after this defeat; they instead sound hungry- they want a second chance at the Packers and they know that they won't let them get away if given another shot.
If we were to point at a one play that changed the landscape of the game, it would have been Jordy Nelson's touchdown right before the half. It was a play where just a little went wrong for everyone on the Patriots.
It was a 3rd and two with 23 seconds left in the half. Should the coaches have dialed up a press coverage play with a single high safety when they were trying to prevent big plays before the half? Nelson managed to nudge All World cornerback Darrelle Revis just enough to gain separation. Free safety Devin McCourty overshot his contain angle and allowed Nelson to cut back into an open field.
This is where Revis said he felt Nelson pushed off. Revis also said no excuses as it's just game contact. pic.twitter.com/eXDEytymbS— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) November 30, 2014
It turned out to be the difference in the score at the end of the game.
But there were so many more reasons for why the Patriots just couldn't get back in front of the Packers.
The Patriots played vanilla on both sides of the ball the entire game. There was a total sense of respect for quarterback Aaron Rodgers where the Patriots rarely tried to send inside pressure with a linebacker blitz (and when they did, it yielded positive results). They played man coverage, but tried to dictate the match-ups for the Packers.
The Packers just took advantage. There were only a few targets in the direction of Revis or Brandon Browner. Instead, the Packers opted to attack and win the game with their third target, Davante Adams- and that's exactly what he did. Unfortunately for the Patriots, their fantastic depth at cornerback just didn't yield a counter to the size and length of Adams on the outside.
Logan Ryan is a zone cover cornerback and was easily handled by quick routes and double moves. Kyle Arrington should stay in the slot, but any corner will struggle to cover Randall Cobb- although the pairings of Revis on Nelson, Browner on the third receiver, and Arrington on Cobb was one of the more natural alignments. Alfonzo Dennard saw the field for the first time in a long time and, apart from a missed offensive pass interference, was competitive in coverage.
The Patriots defensive line was set to contain Rodgers instead of pressure, although it's evident that they struggled to do either. Akeem Ayers played well, but lost contain a fair amount of the time. Rob Ninkovich reverted to his early season struggles and overcommit to the inside, leaving open cutback lanes for big gains.
One might think New England would have been better off with a varied pass rush and drop like they did against the Broncos; a two-man front with two random linebackers providing the additional pressure, with the other two dropping into coverage. There was none of that, and the lack of pressure gave Rodgers all day in the pocket.
To be clear, the Patriots defense was not good on Sunday. The Packers scored an average of 3.25 points per drive on the day. That is an all-time pace of output- for reference, the 2007 Patriots scored 3.46 points per drive. The 2011 Packers rank second with 3.06. But they played good enough.
There's some obvious room for growth. The defense needs to find out who can cover the quick slant routes that the Packers used all day. They also need to improve their ability to contain the outside rushing lanes in four man fronts. It's also clear that the Patriots defense will never be as simple as it was on Sunday for the rest of the year.
What should be noted is that the Patriots defense played vanilla without Chandler Jones and New England still almost won. That goes to the offense.
While the Packers were able to win individual battles of depth while they were on offense, there was never the sense of comfort or rhythm when the Patriots had the ball. There was also the sense of simple play calling.
The offensive line was okay, but the struggles by Marcus Cannon as the 6th lineman shows how much the team is hoping for a quick recovery by the rookie Cameron Fleming. The interior of Dan Connolly, Bryan Stork, and Ryan Wendell struggled, too. They let in pressure during crucial moments and weren't able to consistently win their individual battles.
Tight end Rob Gronkowski was transcendent, as always. Brandon LaFell and the hobbled Julian Edelman looked as good as they could, but they also looked like players in need of better match-ups; the Patriots didn't really give a sense of plays drawn up for separation. Unlike the Packers, who sent Cobb out of the backfield and outside of bunch formations, the Patriots didn't try for any of that. It was vanilla.
Josh McDaniels deserves some of the blame for the game, as much as he does for the victories of the past weeks. To be clear, this wasn't a bad game design as some players just didn't produce, but there were some questions.
Like why would they use Shane Vereen on an 2nd and 4, followed by LeGarrette Blount on 3rd and 2 on their opening drive? Why would they punt on 4th and 1 from midfield? Blount ranks 43rd out of 50 players with 50+ short yardage attempts since he entered the league. Over that same time frame, Tom Brady ranks 5th.
Some might say the Patriots abandoned the run (I probably said that at some point yesterday), but that's not fair. They ran it three times and passed once on the opening drive, followed by three passes on the second drive, and then three runs and two passes on the third drive. That's fairly balanced.
Beyond that? A holding penalty forced the Patriots into a 1st and 20 situation out of the half, and everyone would have grumbled if they ran the ball in those situations. The next drive the Patriots ran twice and passed three times. Then it was the fourth quarter and the Patriots were down two scores and they needed to play catch up.
The game script favored the Packers as their lead prevented the Patriots from grinding down their run defense. The Packers outschemed the Patriots attempts and put a little more spice in their game plan.
It seemed as if New England's attempt to not use anything special in the playbook sunk them in the end. Perhaps their ability to keep close in Lambeau with such a simple game plan revealed more than anything else.