Green Bay Packers' defense finally carrying its weight

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- As difficult as they might be to recall, there have been fourth-quarter defensive stands by the Green Bay Packers. And they've even come this season, when Aaron Rodgers and his offensive mates have been lauded for leading this team into first place in the NFC North.

There was the defensive stop in Week 2 against the New York Jets. (Remember their timeout fiasco that wiped out a touchdown?)

There was the late-game stand in Week 6, when the Miami Dolphins couldn't convert a third down and gave the ball back to Rodgers, who directed the game-winning drive.

Nice moments to be sure, but they came against Geno Smith and Ryan Tannehill.

This time, it was Tom Brady.

Three-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady.

Two-time NFL MVP Tom Brady.

And stop him they did when it mattered most in Sunday's 26-21 victory over the New England Patriots (9-3) in front of a Lambeau Field record crowd of 78,431.

Without a sack for more than three-and-a-half quarters, the Packers finally brought Brady down. Mike Daniels and Mike Neal dumped him on third-and-9 from the Packers' 20-yard line with 2:40 remaining, and the Patriots never got the ball back.

"We finally seem to be carrying our own weight, in light of how well the offense has been playing," Packers linebacker Clay Matthews said. "It's great to see that we can string these together, and we're not riding the roller coaster that we've done maybe in the first half of the season.

"We're feeling good. We've got playmakers on defense. There's still room for improvement, but it's just about putting it together because we feel we can be just as good as anyone else out there."

Maybe now it's safe to say Matthews is on to something.

For perhaps the first time since their 15-1 season in 2011, the Packers might be the NFL's best team. They finally beat a great quarterback, and they did so when their own MVP quarterback and his offense came up empty in the touchdown department during four red zone possessions. With four games remaining, the Packers (9-3) find themselves tied with the Arizona Cardinals and Philadelphia Eagles for the best record in the NFC.

After Sunday, the Packers' defense needs to apologize for nothing. Sure, the Packers failed to take the ball away, which has been their M.O. this season. They let Brady throw for 245 yards and two touchdowns. They let tight end Rob Gronkowski and receiver Julian Edelman each catch seven passes. And they let running back LeGarrette Blount average 5.8 yards per carry.

No, they couldn't get to Brady, though they came close several times.

Then they did when it counted.

Out of a four-man rush, Neal beat left tackle Nate Solder to the outside and got the first hand on Brady. Daniels, who shed left guard Dan Connolly, helped Neal finish off Brady. Coach Bill Belchick opted for a field goal that Stephen Gostkowski pushed wide right from 47 yards, and Rodgers & Co. ran out the remaining time just as they did to preserve a three-point victory at the Minnesota Vikings a week earlier.

Against the Vikings, however, the Packers' defense surrendered a 13-play, 79-yard touchdown drive that forced the offense to run out the final 3:23.

"If you had told me we were going to hold them to 21, I probably would have felt pretty good about the opportunity to win the game," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "So, yeah, I thought our defense did a lot of good things there."

This wasn't the Jets or the Dolphins. This wasn't a quarterback who since was benched (Smith) or struggling to win consistently (Tannehill). This was Brady and the Patriots (9-3), who brought a seven-game win streak to Lambeau.

"You had the No. 1 [scoring] offense in the NFL coming into our house, under the lights, with a very, very dangerous lineup of men, with a coach who's going to make sure they get after it every single play," Daniels said. "So to get a victory against a team that is so well disciplined, so well coached, with as many weapons as they have, that's huge. That's huge. You've got to look at yourself and say, 'Man, we did a heck of a job. Let's make sure it's more definitive next time.'"