Hurley: Moral victory or not, the Patriots learned they can compete with the NFL’s best in OT loss to Packers
BOSTON — We tend to view things in black and white terms. The term “moral victory” is made up of dirty words, as old-school sports heads will tell it.
But … sometimes you have to be realistic. You have to sidestep the clichés and just call it like it is.
And in the case of the effort and performance in Green Bay on Sunday, you have to consider it a positive day for the New England Patriots.
No, the 27-24 overtime loss wasn’t positive in the standings, which now have the Patriots in last place in the AFC East, a game behind the … New York Jets.
Yet in the perspective of how this team can move forward through the rest of the 2022 season, there’s reason to believe the Patriots can — and will — be more competitive than perhaps most everybody thought heading into the season. And heading into this weekend, for that matter. And the source of that positivity will come back to the 70-minute showing in eastern Wisconsin on Sunday.
The Patriots were, of course, playing without their starting quarterback in Mac Jones. And after two series, they were without their backup quarterback in Brian Hoyer, who left with a head injury. In stepped Bailey Zappe, he of Western Kentucky Hilltopper fame, he of zero NFL experience. Zappe was drafted in the fourth round. His last game action came in the Boca Raton Bowl against Appalachian State. Some 15,000 fans attended. He threw six touchdowns.
He was expected to get an unofficial redshirt season to start his NFL career. Instead, he was under center, at Lambeau Field, going toe-to-toe with Aaron Rodgers, with most of the country watching.
And, all things considered, Zappe played pretty well. He only threw 15 passes, but he completed 10 of them, throwing one touchdown and — most importantly — avoiding interceptions. He did take three sacks, including one where he lost the football and another where he cost the Patriots an opportunity to kick a field goal. But, again, this was 23-year-old was in his first NFL game. At Lambeau Field. Under the watchful eyes of Bill Belichick. Factoring in, well, everything … he handled the pressure quite well.
But if we put the quarterback play to the side, then we can find what can really feel good within the Patriots’ locker room.
The Packers knew that the Patriots’ game plan would rely heavily on the running game. Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson combined to rush for 152 yards and a touchdown on 32 carries anyway.
The Packers knew that the Patriots’ secondary was vulnerable, with starter Jalen Mills out with a hamstring injury. They still kept Aaron Rodgers in check, holding him to his second-worst passer rating of the season and forcing him into just the fourth pick-six of his entire career.
In as difficult a road environment as can be, the Patriots got standout performances from three rookies: Zappe, Jack Jones (the aforementioned pick-six, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery), and Marcus Jones (a 29-yard and a 20-yard punt return, plus a 37-yard kickoff return). Throw left guard Cole Strange in there, too, even if he doesn’t have the individual stats to show it.
Now, the bottom line is that the Patriots lost the game. And if you want to dig into some questionable play-calling and/or some conservative decisions that worked against their upset bid, you’d be well within your rights. After a 20-yard punt return by Marcus Jones set the Patriots up near midfield in overtime, the offense went with two runs before Zappe threw incomplete on third down.
Facing a fourth-and-5 at the Green Bay 46-yard line, Belichick opted to punt the ball back to Rodgers. Considering the circumstances, there probably wasn’t much debate. Nevertheless, that risk aversion didn’t help, as the Patriots never touched the football again.
From one perspective, one could take issue with that moment. And fairly enough. It no doubt contributed to a tally going in the L column instead of the W column, which is the reason these guys take the field every week.
Yet while zooming out from the game, there is this: Had the Patriots gone into Lambeau and gotten their backsides handed to them by Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, nobody would have been surprised. But nobody would think much more of the Patriots than they did heading into the game. That could have included the Patriots themselves. A scheduled loss would have looked and felt routine.
Instead, the Patriots shrugged off the Mac Jones absence, shook off the Hoyer injury, and competed step-for-step with a team that has the fourth-shortest odds to win the Super Bowl this year. That may not mean anything in the standings, but it does mean something for the way the team can operate next week and beyond. It has to.
If that’s a moral victory, then fine. It’s a moral victory. But remember a year ago, the Patriots also dropped to 1-3, but only after taking the defending Super Bowl-champion Buccaneers down to the wire on Sunday Night Football. Nick Folk’s 56-yard field goal attempt clanked off the left upright, the Patriots missed out on a victory by mere inches. They fell to 1-3, yes, but they learned they could compete with the NFL’s best.
They went 8-1 in the next nine weeks heading into their bye, turning a potential lost season into a playoff year.
This year, they’re once again 1-3. But they’re entering the soft spot of their schedule, and they now have some real reason to believe they can take advantage of it. Prior to Sunday’s showing, they might have had some hope in that regard. Now they have belief. There’s a difference.
That difference may seem minor, but it’s actually significant. And that is what the Patriots won on Sunday in Green Bay.
You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.
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