GREEN BAY—They were two crunch-time plays the Packers defense will have to make as the season continues into December and possibly January.
The Packers made them on the final day of November to pull out a 26-21 victory over the Patriots on Sunday at Lambeau Field.
New England was just 20 yards away from a go-ahead touchdown with just over three minutes left.
On second down, QB Tom Brady challenged rookie safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix with a throw into the end zone for monstrous tight end Rob Gronkowski. As the two players dove parallel to the ground and one another, Clinton-Dix got a hand in there to disrupt Gronkowski enough and get the ball out as both players lay prone on the turf.
Then, on the next snap, outside linebacker Mike Neal flew around the edge to pressure Brady, and Neal combined with Mike Daniels for the Packers' only sack of the game, at the most opportune time.
On the resulting fourth-and-long with 2:40 to go, the Patriots missed a field goal, and the Packers defense didn't have to take the field again.
"'Pep' always talks about in meetings before practice, he said he wants the defense to go out and close a game for once," Clinton-Dix said, referring to veteran Julius Peppers. "I think we did that tonight."
Clinton-Dix, who got his share of time covering Gronkowski, said the star tight end had been running option routes based on Clinton-Dix's coverage. He knew if he pressed Gronkowski at the line, the ball was going deep. He also figured Brady was coming after him no matter what.
"Most definitely," Clinton-Dix said. "I'm the rookie. I'm the youngest one in the pack. I knew they were going to challenge me, and I was up for it.
"It happened so fast. I knew I just had to finish the play."
Gronkowski nearly hauled it in for a great catch, but the ball eventually bounced off both his and Clinton-Dix's hands before falling to the ground.
"A guy who doesn't want to let his teammates down, crunch time, going to the end zone, this play can possibly put them in the lead, and the guy competes to the end, all the way to the ground, gets the ball out," veteran Tramon Williams said of the rookie safety. "That's just a lot of heart the guy is showing out there."
The third-down sack was the payoff for a long day of steady pressure on Brady. Adept at side-stepping and sliding away from trouble in the pocket, Brady never saw or sensed Neal this time, and he held the ball a tick longer than he had much of the game.
"I got a good jump on the ball, I beat my dude clean, I just saw the number 12, and you can't miss that one," Neal said.
He almost did, though, falling off of him as he got an arm on Brady's backside. Neal quickly righted himself just as Daniels got free and the two rushers sandwiched the future Hall of Famer for a 9-yard loss.
It was the only sack on a day the defense would have racked up many more against a lesser QB.
"We were close. If you look at all our rushes, Clay (Matthews) missed a couple sacks, Nick Perry got close, 'Pep' got close, I got close in the first half," Neal said.
"We were able to get good pressure, and that's the tale of the game. Once you rattle those quarterbacks and get them off, good things happen."
The final stop capped a resilient effort by the Packers defense. Green Bay gave up three long touchdown drives but nothing else to the highest-scoring offense in the league, which hadn't been held to 21 points in a game since September.
On New England's other five possessions, the Packers forced two three-and-outs and allowed just six first downs, four of them (including one fourth-down conversion) on the final drive that ended with the missed field goal.
Gronkowski (seven catches, 98 yards) and running back LeGarrette Blount (10 rushes, 58 yards) broke their share of tackles, but neither was able to take over the game. Brady was held to 245 yards through the air and finished with just three completions longer than 20 yards.
The Packers defense had been turning a corner since the bye week and it may have cleared the curve on Sunday.
"We finally seem to be carrying our own weight in light of how well the offense has been playing," Matthews said. "It's great to see we can string these together, and we're not riding the roller coaster that we'd done maybe in the first half of the season."
December, and possibly January, await.
"We've still got a long way to go," Williams said. "We haven't won anything yet." COMPLETE GAME COVERAGE
The Green Bay Packers hosted the New England Patriots at Lambeau Field Sunday afternoon. Photos by Jim Biever, Packers.com.