The good news: The Patriots beat down the hapless Pack today with such a vengeance, you got the sense they were a little embarrassed on both sides. It was clear, even as the Patriots showed no mercy between the whistles, that the players had respect for each other; early in the game, I saw Richard Seymour approach Brett Favre just after a play and shake his hand. Let's put this in perspective: this is a defensive end shaking the quarterback's hand while the game is still in progress--while the first quarter is still in progress. That has to be just unheard of. But it happened. Time after time, in fact, I saw Patriots and Packers shaking hands, nodding to each other, their postures relaxed. It was a very sportsmanlike game.
There were some beautiful plays, too, especially on offense (I'm still a little disappointed with the defense that they didn't manage even one interception). Today's five-touchdown offensive showing included the longest Patriots offensive play of the season, a 54-yard deep completion and touchdown to Reche Caldwell in the second quarter. Brady's arm, as evidenced by a few needle-threading throws and at least one arm-pumping celebration, appears to be fine.
Probably my favorite moment of the game, though, wasn't actually a play--it was the aftermath of Maroney's firt receiving touchdown of the season, a quick little skip into the end zone to make it 35-0. Maroney literally skipped his last two strides, stomped to the back of the end zone, and mimed, "Shhhhhhh" at the Lambeau crowd, who didn't make much of a response. I can only imagine they were a little shocked.
Brady ran to celebrate with Maroney as usual, and he did for a moment, but then he grabbed Maroney by the sides of his helmet and locked face masks with him, speaking to him seriously and urgently, not letting Maroney look away. From their body language and the few words readable on Brady's lips, it looked like Maroney was getting a bit of a lecture on how he chose to react to the touchdown. This was a tremendously good sign, to me, for reasons I'll get into in a moment.
Now, I don't want to seem as if I'm a total sourpuss by attempting to articulate the reality check below; I don't want to take anything away from a game that had Tom Brady grinning his bestubbled grin on the sideline and, despite how thoroughly miserable Green Bay is as a team, could at least theoretically have been a trap.
The bad news: Despite the pre-game hype, which attempted to paint this as a heavyweight fight between two great quarterbacks, it doesn't quite work when one of the quarterbacks was only great ten years ago. No one, I hope, but the CBS announcers was buying the pregame folderol; this was the Green Bay Packers with the Ghost of Brett Favre at the helm. This was a team that couldn't manage more than one first down for the vast majority of the first half, and who failed to achieve even a field goal following a turnover at the Patriots' 30 yard line. Make no mistake: this is a miserable, miserable football team, in the midst of quite possibly the most miserable season of its storied history. In this way, it was kind of a no-win situation for the Pats. It's simply not a possibility for them not to win this game; the only way this game meant anything is if they lost. Which, as I said, was pretty much just not an option.
One encouraging sign was that, as the game went on, Tom Brady's throwing accuracy appeared to sharpen, and Maroney was handed the ball more; but the bad news there are the questions those things beg, chief among them the following:
1) What's been wrong with Brady the last two weeks if, as his performance today demonstrates, it's not physical?
2) What's been wrong with the team the last two weeks in general, given the way both offense and defense clicked today, Green Bay's obvious shortcomings nothwithstanding?
I don't know, as I said, how much you can really take away from this game in terms of answering those questions. But the more I hear the story of Magini's game preparations against the Patriots, the more I think the answer to the second question might be the most deeply unsettling of all the choices: that Belichick was out-coached, not only last Sunday, but during the week before. Not just out-coached, actually, but out-Belichicked.
Because how much more quintissentially Belichick can you get than being a young upstart and beating your mentor on little but chutzpah and a willingness to outwork him? Why, is the inevitable question when you hear about how Mangini's team practiced in full pads outside in the sloppy wet to prepare for the game, didn't Belichick think of that first?
The questionable thing to me isn't the use of the runningbacks or the signing or non-signing of wide receivers or even the offensive and defensive schemes. The questionable thing to me, on the outside looking in, is what's been going on with the team's culture of discipline, something it appears Mangini more effectively mastered last week. It was reported that the Patriots practiced several times this week in full pads, something that, like the defeat of Green Bay, is kind of a no-brainer. But when it comes to preparing for the tougher teams (like, say, the 9-1 Bears, who are coming in to Foxboro next week), the obvious question is why that level of discipline isn't being enforced before the fact, a la Mangini.
Now that the Patriots have done what was expected of them and dispatched Green Bay, what will their reaction be? Will it be routine practices inside their heated practice bubble? Or is this week's cleaner play and the confrontation between Brady and Maroney in the end zone a sign they're taking a hint from what the Jets did last week?
I hate to say it--I mean I absolutely despise saying it--but so far this season, it seems that the Patriots have gotten a little bit content with themselves. The team that has prided itself on humility and work ethic appears to have let up a little. It's cost them dearly in games against the good teams.
As pleasant as this game was, the mother of all the good-opponent games is coming up next week. I know that's made me already forget about Green Bay, in the style of the last two Patriots Super Bowl squads. Let's hope this year's team has, too.