The Patriots got a scare on Sunday night and did not look invincible for the first time since the first half of their Thanksgiving game against the Lions.
The Packers' defense seemed to confuse Tom Brady, and the Pats' "D" returned to its bend-but-don't-break style and had trouble slowing down a Matt Flynn-led Packers offense. Not what you expected to see, considering the way New England had been rolling, let alone at home.
But once again, an opportunistic pick-six and just enough points put the Patriots one win closer to clinching home-field advantage in the playoffs.
But Sunday night's close win brought to light a concern we have yet to see from the Patriots. We've seen the passing defense give up third-down conversions, but we hadn't seen the missed tackles and poor run defense like we saw Sunday night.
The way the Patriots have stopped teams is forcing 3rd-and-long situations. It takes pressure off a young secondary and applies pressure to opposing QBs, hence creating turnovers. But when teams rack up 3-5 yards on first down, that plan is foiled. The Packers had a game plan to attack New England on the ground, and it worked well. The Pack ran it 38 times for 143 yards, the most a team had gained on the ground against the Patriots since the Browns ran all over them in Week Nine.
Without ILB Brandon Spikes (suspension), the Patriots are missing a key run stopper, not to mention the injuries on the defensive line that have knocked out Mike Wright, Myron Pryor and Ron Brace. Without those guys available, Bill Belichick cannot get creative and move Vince Wilfork to the DE position to slow down runs off the edge.
It also hasn't helped that the outside linebackers have struggled setting the edge. Jermaine Cunningham has improved, but Tully Banta-Cain is much better rushing the passer. The Patriots rank near the bottom of the league in yards per rush allowed when teams run off tackle, but they lead the league in allowing the fewest yards per carry up the middle, where Wilfork, Spikes and Jerod Mayo reside.
They will get Spikes back for the playoffs, which will be helpful, but could also use the extra time (and a first-round bye) to get their defensive linemen healthy. Last week in this spot, we talked about big special-teams plays being part of a recipe for an upset. Another one is establishing a run game that eats up clock, wears down defenses and, most importantly for the Patriots' opponents, keeps Brady off the field. The tackling and edge-setting need to improve, and it will be crucial to get their linemen healthy to keep backs from getting extra yards.