NBC's Andrea Kremer caught up with Packers linebacker Clay Matthews on the field prior to kickoff. How will the Packers' defense contain Tom Brady, Kremer asked.
"We need to make this game one-dimensional, said Matthews, echoing the mantra of defensive coordinator Dom Capers. "We need to shut down the run, get (Brady) off his spot when he's back there. He doesn't like throwing interceptions but that's what we need to do. Get pressure on him and have our DBs take over."
His words couldn't have been more prescient. It was Green Bay's turn to show that its lofty defensive ranking wasn't the byproduct of facing a bunch of medicore offenses.
The Patriots entered Sunday night's game leading the NFL in scoring, averaging 31.9 points per game. The Packers were the league's top-rated scoring defense, allowing just 14.5 points per game. Something had to give, and many experts predicted Brady would have his way against the Packers' defense much the same way the Patriots were able to steamroll the top-10 defenses fielded by the Bears, Steelers and Jets in recent weeks.
Through the better part of two quarters, Matthews and his teammates took care of their responsibilities, limiting the Patriots to two touchdowns in the first half. New England's first score came on the opening drive, and then the Packers clamped down on Brady, forcing three consecutive punts. New England was able to close the gap to 17-14 at halftime on the heels of guard Dan Connolly's shocking 71-yard kickoff return to the 4-yard line.
It was Packers nose tackle B.J. Raji who played a key role in the Packers' ability to frustrate and pressure Brady. Raji blew past All-Pro guard Logan Mankins on the first Patriots drive to sack Brady.
"I thought we came and matched their intensity and even outplayed them at times," Raji said.
Raji recorded his second sack with 4:26 left in the third quarter and the Packers leading 24-21. He split the gap between Mankins and Dan Koppen, then blew up running back Danny Woodhead (5-foot-8, 195 pounds) to put Brady on his back. "We like that matchup," Capers joked on Monday.
New England was forced to punt and Green Bay tacked on another field goal to extend its lead to 27-21.
"I think he played well. He's going to be a really good player. He is a good player," Koppen told Packer Report. Koppen mentioned that the toughest part of the game was the physical toughness required to beat Green Bay. "It was just slugging it out there," Koppen noted. "They've got good guys, a good defense. They don't give up many points, so when it comes down to it, we have to make better plays and (be in) better situations to stay on point."
Koppen's candor of the physical nature of the battle in the trenches was telling. Few teams have been able to get to Brady, but Green Bay was one of them. The Patriots average 3.23 quarterback hits allowed per game. Although the Packers were only able to get four, they sacked Brady three times and hurried him enough to cause the Patriots' offense to become unglued on five of their nine possessions. The Packers' pass rush also forced Brady to move off his spot throughout the game, as Matthews alluded to in his pregame comments.
Patriots running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis was able to find one of the few holes in the Green Bay defense when he ripped off a 33-yard touchdown run in the first quarter to put New England up 7-3. Green-Ellis (36) and Woodhead (59) combined for 95 yards on 15 carries as the Patriots had success against a Green Bay defense that played mostly nickel and dime in an attempt to slow down Brady.
I don't think anyone in this locker room is really content with the way we played," Green-Ellis said. Why did New England struggle? "It was a combination of Green Bay playing well on defense – you have to take your hat off to them, they're very good on defense – and us having mistakes on offense, mental mistakes. You've got to tip your hat to those guys, they did a good job of running their defense."
Compliments from the opponent are nice, but a win is the key. Though Green Bay \won the battle of statistics — it controlled the ball for 40:48 minutes compared to 19:12 for New England — moral victories are not what it needed.
"We don't believe in moral victories," Raji said. "We didn't make plays when we needed to, but we played well enough to win it."
"We have to find a way to get it done and get those close games done," added linebacker A.J. Hawk.