Rose Bowl Preview: Maintaining History or Changing It

Saturday’s Rose Bowl between the Wisconsin Badgers and the TCU Horned Frogs (seriously) will pit the old school versus the new school. The Badgers are a classic team from a classic conference. The Horned Frogs are newcomers, challengers from the Mountain West Conference. In going undefeated this season, TCU has beaten teams like Air Force, Brigham Young and Nevada-Las Vegas. The Badgers, meanwhile, beat Ohio State and Iowa, classic teams with high BCS rankings (Ohio State was #1 at the time). If TCU wins, it will shatter the notion that classic conferences like the Big Ten, Pac-10 or SEC are somehow superior. The BCS ranking system will have to be re-evaluated to give non-BCS schools a better shot at top rankings. But if the Badgers win, it will prove the BCS system right, as all of TCU’s talents will have come for naught against the first “real” opponent they’ve faced all season.

Just as the Rose Bowl will determine whether the old-guard conferences are still superior, it will also show whether old-school strategy can still hold up. The Badgers play a classic-style of football, one that might recall for Wisconsinites the days of Vince Lombardi, Bart Starr and Paul Hornung. The Badgers don’t do anything flashy, they don’t use trickery and they don’t rely on big plays. What they play is up-the-middle, smash-mouth football. They rely on their monster offensive line (average size: 6-foot-5, 321 pounds) to open up holes, through which their trio of running backs- John Clay, Montee Ball and James White- can burst through. The three backs have racked up 2,829 yards and 44 scores. Football purists must love it.

TCU’s defense, meanwhile, is clearly inspired by Bill Belichick and the shifting, amorphous defensive strategy that has brought the New England Patriots such success over the last 10 years. Their goal is to confuse you, to make you think your man is open, only to throw an interception. Or they delay their blitzes or bring them in from uncommon angles so that the quarterback never sees them coming until it’s too late. All this trickery has created a defense that allows the fewest points (11.4), passing yards (126.3) and total yards (215.4) in the FBS. Gary Patterson may as well be wearing a hooded sweatshirt, and Brett Bielema a trench coat. So who wins?

Statistically, TCU has the offensive advantage, no matter how good the Badgers have been. TCU passes more (235.7 vs. 209.5 yards per game) and even rushes more (261.2 vs 247.3 yards per game), and they score exactly as many points (43.3 per game). Their quarterback, Andy Dalton, has thrown for more yards and more touchdowns with the same number of interceptions as Scott Tolzien (though Tolzien is far more accurate). TCU’s leading running back, Ed Wesley, has out-gained White, the Badgers leading rusher, 1,065 yards to 1,029. Both running backs had 1000-yard seasons, but White has scored more and gets more yards per rush (7.0 vs. 6.6). And neither back is going to play every down, and there’s a far larger drop-off from the Horned Frogs’ #1 to #2 back than there is with the Badgers. The Badgers second-best running back, John Clay, rushed for 936 yards and 13 touchdowns; Matthew Tucker rushed for just 694 yards and seven touchdowns.

On defense, this game seems reminiscent of last year’s Champ Sports Bowl against the Miami Hurricanes and their quarterback, Jacory Harris. Analysts wondered whether the Badgers could contain Harris and the Hurricanes’ running game. Instead of containing it, the Badgers defense pummeled it over and over again. They overpowered the Hurricanes, hitting them so hard that they couldn’t recover. TCU may pose a similar a similar challenge (Dalton has rushed for 407 yards and five touchdowns), and it may pose a similar solution. If the Badgers can out-hit the Horned Frogs, their defense will do more than enough to let the Badgers offense do what it does best. The Badgers cornerbacks aren’t anything special, so players like J.J. Watt will need to break through the line and force Dalton to throw early if they want to throw off his passing game.

In the end, this game is going to be won at the line of scrimmage. If the Badgers’ offensive line can overpower the Horned Frogs’ defensive line, the running game will open up. A strong running game will have a three-fold effect: put points on the board, chew up clock time and keep TCU’s offense off the field, and tire out the Horned Frogs defense for future Badgers possessions. The golden rush-pass ratio is 2:1. If the running game is doing its job, Tolzien won’t have to throw it so often that the Horned Frogs’ tricky defense will get the better of him. Tolzien is incredibly accurate in limited usage, and he has some fantastic receivers to throw to, like Nick Toon and Lance Kendricks. A strong running game will open up play-action, and then the Badgers will start making big plays. But first they have to make all the small plays.

Kevin Garnett’s Injury: An Opportunity in Disguise

Celtics fans, breathe easy: Kevin Garnett did not re-injure his right knee Wednesday night in Detroit. X-rays on Wednesday showed no sign of fracture, and an MRI on Thursday revealed no ligament damage to the knee. The news isn’t all good however: Garnett strained his right calf muscle and will likely miss two weeks (or around 10 games). While a team never wants to lose a player who’s averaging a double-double in December (discounting the shortened Pistons game), this could all have been much, much worse. And there’s a potential silver lining to this injury in the form of Glen Davis, who may prove a more able replacement than Celtics fans realize.

Garnett vs. Davis

Statistically, Davis and Garnett have more similarities than differences, especially recently. Garnett has averaged 14.4 points per game since December 1. Davis is just a half-point behind at 13.9. And Davis’ minutes have incrementally increased each month, from 28.7 in October to 29.6 in November to 30.2 in December, to the point that Davis is producing nearly as many points in nearly as many minutes as Garnett (30.0 in December). What’s surprising is that Davis is scoring so well despite poor shooting. He’s a .477 shooter, whereas Garnett is a .539 shooter. Davis still misses more than he makes, but accuracy is a product of repetition. The more playing time he gets, the more shots he takes. The more shots he takes, the more shots he makes. The more shots he makes, the more his confidence builds. The more his confidence builds, the more shots he makes. We’re already seeing this in Davis’ last two months, where his accuracy jumped from .439 to .471 from November to December.

Davis’ offensive production should not be a concern for Celtics fans fearing a Garnett-less team. But the difference in rebounding should be a concern. Garnett averages over nine boards a game. Davis doesn’t even get six. This is a problem for a team that already doesn’t rebound well (27th in the league in rebounds per game).

A lot of his rebounding problems may stem from his size. Davis is 6 feet 9 inches, while Garnett is 6 feet 11 inches. Davis also outweighs Garnett by 36 pounds. Davis’ odd size makes it difficult to position him. He doesn’t quite have the speed to post up like a classic power forward, but he lacks the height to be a classic center. The result is a combination power forward who has to drive inside and center who has to box out very carefully. But because he doesn’t fit a mold, teams don’t always take him seriously, and that makes him dangerous. Time and again we’ve seen Davis come from nowhere and snatch an offensive rebound, then barrel his way in for an easy layup or dunk.

Defensively, Garnett is better at stealing and blocking, but Davis has the unique ability to draw charges. This again comes from teams not quite understanding how to play him. He’s quicker than people expect, so he gets into the lane before the shooter gets there, and he’s strong enough to absorb contact without hurting himself. Garnett is better at getting his hands out and deflecting passes, but Davis has no fear, and can kill scoring opportunities in the blink of an eye.

The Opportunity to Excel

For Davis to become the player he wants to be, he must seize the opportunity that has been handed to him. Sometimes players increase their skills gradually, getting a little better and a little better until they become starters, All-Stars, MVPs or whatever the upper threshold of their talent might be. But other times players go through a gauntlet that permanently transforms them. Rajon Rondo experienced this in the 2009 playoff series against the Chicago Bulls. Before that series he averaged 11.9 points, 5.2 rebounds and 8.2 assists. But in those seven games he averaged 19.4 points, 9.3 rebounds and 11.6 assists. Rondo took his game to a new level in April 2009, and he never looked back.

Before that series, Celtics fans knew Rondo was good. Great, even. Definitely a starter on a team of future Hall-of-Famers. But a superstar? An assist machine that, were it not for injuries, would possibly break the all time record for assists in a season? Possibly the best overall point guard in the game? No, there was no sign of that, not even in the 2008 NBA Finals. But after the Chicago series, oh year, fans could see all of that.

These next two weeks will be Davis’ playoff series with the Bulls. If he wants to, these next 10 games could open doors he could never dream of. A starting spot when Garnett retires. All-Star honors. Max contracts. Everything Davis wants is right there for the taking in these next 10 days. All he has to do is seize his moment.

Garnett Hurt as Celtics Turn Game Over to Pistons

Offense, defense, ball control. Play with them, you win. Play without them, you lose. Wednesday night in Detroit, the Celtics played without them, and they lost. The Celtics shot 44.2 percent through the first three quarters, allowed the Pistons to shoot 55.7 percent and turned the ball over 21 times, losing 104-92 to the Pistons. Kevin Garnett left in the first quarter with a “lower leg injury” and did not return.

Garnett’s Injury

Garnett injured his leg with 2:38 left in the first quarter. Down 23-14, Ray Allen passed the ball to Garnett under the basket. Garnett caught the pass and slammed it home, but came up limping afterward. He immediately fouled Pistons small forward Tayshaun Prince, then collapsed onto the court. Trainers came out quickly, and Garnett was helped off the court. Upon sitting down, Garnett immediately buried his face in his hands to hide his pain. Garnett was then helped into the locker room, making it most of the way unassisted before collapsing in pain again. He never returned to the game.

X-Rays came back negative for any fracture, but Garnett will undergo an MRI in Boston on Thursday to see if there’s any ligament damage.

Garnett had averaged 14.4 points and 10.5 per game in December.

Sloppy Passing

Even before Garnett’s injury, the Celtics were playing sloppy, ugly basketball. They did not appear to be approaching this game with the same degree of intensity and focus that enabled them to win 15 of their last 16 games.

Nowhere was this more evident than in the Celtics passing game. Missing Rajon Rondo (averaging 13.8 assists per game) for the sixth straight game, the Celtics could not move the basketball with the usual speed and crispness. They had the most trouble with bounce passes, which continually hit their targets in the feet or legs instead of coming up to their stomachs or chests. This led to 21 turnovers, the highest total since the Celtics turned it over 22 times in a February game against the New Orleans Hornets last season. The 21 turnovers led to 23 Pistons points.

For the second time in three games, the Celtics lost the assist battle. The Pistons passed for 27 assists, the Celtics only 18.

Inconsistent in the Paint

The Celtics seemed to have the Pistons on the ropes early in the first quarter. Within the first four minutes of the game, the Pistons had already committed four fouls. But the Celtics stopped going inside after the Pistons picked up their fourth foul. Detroit didn’t enter the penalty until just 30 seconds were left in the quarter, and Boston only shot two extra free throws because of it. They still dominated the paint, outscoring the Pistons 42-32, but they never seemed to establish a clear inside presence. Garnett’s absence may have been a cause of this, as was Shaquille O’Neal’s limited presence. Though he never appeared to be injured, O’Neal played just 16 minutes, the fewest of any player besides Garnett or rookies Avery Bradley and Luke Harangody, who combined to play 10 minutes and score two points.

Slow Defensive Transitions

The Celtics play the stingiest defense in the league, allowing just 90.9 points per game. But the Pistons scored 104 points on 55.7 percent shooting, and they did it through speed and aggression. The Pistons would regularly drive into the lane, then employ one of two strategies. Sometimes they would pull up for a jump-shot, which players such as Tracy McGrady (21 points on 7-11 shooting) usually made. Other times they would dish it back out for the three-pointer, which they hit two out of every three times. This second strategy was on full display midway through the third quarter, where Detroit center Ben Wallace found his teammates for two consecutive three-pointers in less than a minute. The Pistons made four of their 10 three-point shots in the third quarter and stretched their lead from 45-37 at halftime to 74-62 heading into the fourth.

The Celtics could not get stops, so they were unable to make much of a dent in the lead. Though they got as close as 33-30 with 7:22 in the second quarter, the Pistons then went on a 10-2 run for the next six minutes and went into halftime up 45-37.

The Celtics’ inability to contain the Pistons inside, forcing them to rotate extra defenders, led to open Pistons all night long. And the Pistons made the Celtics pay for leaving them open all night long, too.

Paul Pierce: Lone Bright Spot

As he has so many times before, Paul Pierce tried to unilaterally carry the Celtics to victory. He played 39 minutes and scored 33 points, his most since scoring 35 against the Atlanta Hawks last January. He was the most accurate shooter for the Celtics as well as their most prolific, shooting 11-16, including 3-4 from beyond the arc. In the first quarter he drained two treys and found Nate Robinson, but he did his most damage in the second half, where he scored 24 points. On one play in the fourth quarter Pierce dribbled around all five Pistons before laying it in. But his efforts alone weren’t enough to rally a team that looked disinterested and out-of-sorts all night long.

The Celtics started slowly, couldn’t get stops, and couldn’t handle the ball: a good way to lose, no matter how mediocre the opponent.

Previewing Patriots-Dolphins, Final Thoughts for Patriots-Bills

Beating the Bills? Check. Winning the AFC East for the eighth time in the last ten years? Check. Locking up a first-round bye? Check. Securing home-field advantage through the playoffs? Check. What’s left to play for? Nothing. The Patriots have achieved every goal they’ve set, and they did it a week early. Their final game of the season- a home game against the 7-8 Miami Dolphins- will be as meaningless as winning a baseball game in April (or May… or June… or July, for that matter). Win or lose, they’ll finish as the best team in the AFC, and arguably the best team in the NFL.

Facing the quick defense of the Dolphins, Bill Belichick will likely rest his starters , several of whom (including Deion Branch and Aaron Hernandez) have been plagued by minor injuries in the last few weeks. Belichick has not forgotten losing Wes Welker in the final regular-season game last year, and he won’t make the same mistake two years in a row. Expect to see Tom Brady and the gang for a half, then it’s the Brian Hoyer show. Expect to see a lot of Julian Edelman (maybe even a half-back option play), a lot more Brandon Tate, and dashes of Matt Slater and Taylor Price. Fred Taylor will be your running back. On defense, expect a heavy dose of Landon Cohen and Darryl Richard on the line, Tracy White at linebacker, and Tony Carter and Bret Lockett in the secondary. I’ve included Wikipedia links to each player’s bio, because that will probably tell you a lot more about these scrubs than ESPN will. If playing these nobodies means a loss, too bad. Belichick is more than happy to put his 27 consecutive home wins on the line if it means a healthier squad in three weeks.

And who knows? The Dolphins offense is so bad (29th in the NFL in points per game) that the Patriots starters may do enough in one half to beat them. Miami will also have to beat the Patriots in Foxborough, where they usually freeze in the wind and snow. Since 2001, the Dolphins have only beaten Brady in Foxborough once, and that was a give-away Week 17 game in 2005 in which Brady barely played. Ticket-holders should not be shy about flooding Gillette Stadium on January 2. Show your support for a team that has surpassed all expectations, then sit back and enjoy what might be a competitively terrible football game.

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There’s no point in grading the Patriots for their victory over the Bills, because the results make the grades self-evident. The offense put up 34 points, the defense only allowed three (on the opening drive, no less). Brady threw for three touchdowns and no picks (breaking the record for consecutive passing attempts without an interception in the process), and the running backs racked up a touchdown and 235 combined all-purpose yards. The defense forced six turnovers, Shayne Graham made both field goals and all four extra points, and Sergio Brown recovered a muffed punt. Belichick and the coaches figured out how to stop the Bills running game after one series (64 rushing yards on the first Buffalo drive, 61 rushing yards for the rest of the game, including 14 on scrambles by Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick), and the resulting shift to the passing game caused all those turnovers. Given all of this, how can any portion of the team get anything less than top marks?

The best way to describe the Patriots’ victory Sunday is “professional.” Every week since the “Jets” massacre, people have been wondering if the Patriots would have a letdown in intensity and focus, as each opponent has gotten increasingly easier (Bears, Rodgers-less Packers, Bills). But each time the Patriots have taken care of business. With the Bills playing strong football coming into Sunday’s game (winners of four of their last six games), this one looked like a typical “trap game.” But what we got was the opposite. Belichick game-planned well, coming up with a run-based attack (they ran the ball 60 percent of the time for the most rushing yards in over two years) that exploited the biggest weakness of the Bills.

Defensively, Belichick made the necessary adjustments after the opening drive, and the Buffalo offense completely fell apart. Each of Buffalo’s seven turnovers either killed a scoring opportunity or gave the Patriots a shortened field to cover (average start was the New England 45-yard line). Simply put, the team executed on a level that Buffalo could not compete with. Buffalo had no answer to the Patriots after their first offensive drive. The Patriots know that the Bills are the NFL’s equivalent of a AAA baseball team. Instead of playing down to their opponent, they maintained a professional level of play. When they played offense, they scored. When they played defense, they prevented scores. It wasn’t necessarily pretty or exciting. It was simple, workman-like, economic. Go in, get it done, get out. The Bills couldn’t hang with the Patriots, and the lead just went up periodically.

The Patriots knew all week what they would be playing for, what goals could be achieved, and they went out and got it. Their last remaining goal is the Super Bowl. If they can execute as efficiently on February 6 as they did on December 26, they can check that one off, too.

Patriots Defense Forces Seven Bills Turnovers, Clinch Division and Home-Field in Win

The New England Patriots, able to clinch the AFC East, a first-round bye and home-field throughout the playoffs with a win or New York Jets loss, could not have asked for a better opponent than the Buffalo Bills. The Patriots had beaten the Bills 14 times in a row coming into Sunday’s game in Orchard Park, N.Y., having last lost to Buffalo in the first week of the 2003-2004 season. That streak is now at 15. The Patriots offense rushed for 217 yards, its most in over two years, and the defense and special teams forced seven Bills turnovers, beating Buffalo 34-3 on the road, clinching their eighth AFC East division title under Bill Belichick. Tom Brady also set a new record for consecutive pass attempts without an interception, having now thrown 319 consecutive passes without a pick.

The Deadly Running Duo

Despite the MVP-worthy season Brady is having, Belichick recognized that the Bills’ biggest weakness was their run defense (last in opponent yardage). The Patriots ran the ball 60 percent of the time, using their strong linemen and tight ends to open up seam after seam for the Patriots running backs.

On second-and-2 from the Buffalo 29-yard line with about four minutes left in the first quarter, Danny Woodhead put the Patriots on the board by finding such a seam. Woodhead broke through a hole on the left side of the line, got a good block from Rob Gronkowski, then outran the Bills secondary 29 yards to the left pylon of the end zone, putting the Patriots up 7-3 in the first quarter.

Woodhead finished the game with 93 yards rushing, 23 yards receiving, and a touchdown. He averaged 7.2 yards per carry. Not to be outdone, BenJarvus Green-Ellis rushed for 104 yards (plus 3 receiving yards), his second 100+ yard rushing game of the season.

The Patriots’ run success helped them control the clock and win the possession battle, 32:30 to 27:30.

Turnover, Turnover, Turnover… Turnover, Turnover… Turnover… and Another Turnover

Although the Patriots once again allowed an opposing quarterback to rack up yards against them, seven Bills turnovers wiped out every scoring opportunity Buffalo had after their first (a 26-yard field goal). Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (18/37, 251 yards, no touchdowns, 37.1 passer rating) was picked off three times and stripped twice. His first interception, by Patrick Chung on the Buffalo 46 late in the second, occurred when his receiver cut outside and his pass sailed inside. His second, to safety Jarrad Page at the Buffalo 21 right after halftime, happened because Page undercut the route and picked it off. His last, to Dane Fletcher in the New England end zone on Buffalo’s final drive, came after the pass was tipped at the line and Fletcher came down with it.

Fletcher also recovered a fumble when Jerod Mayo stripped Bills running back C.J. Spiller at the Buffalo 36 midway through the third quarter. Mayo also recovered a fumble at the New England 20 when Gary Guyton strip-sacked Fitzpatrick in the first quarter, and broke up several Buffalo passes with strong hitting and tackling, including on a potential fourth-down conversion at the New England 32 in the second quarter.

Spiller also muffed a punt return on what would have been the Bills’ last drive of the game. Sergio Brown recovered the fumbled punt, and the Patriots knelt three times to end the game.

The other turnover came when Devin McCourty stripped Fitzpatrick at the New England 38 on a broken-play quarterback run in the third quarter. Eric Moore recovered the fumble.

Shortened Fields, Lengthened Leads

Two Buffalo turnovers killed drives that had penetrated into the Patriots’ red zone. Three other turnovers gave New England the ball starting in Buffalo territory, leading to a sizable New England starting-field advantage. The Patriots started their average drive at their 45-yard line. The Bills started their average drive at their 23.

Brady and the Patriots milked their good starting spots for all they could, scoring 21 points off turnovers. Rob Gronkowski accounted for 14 of those points, leading all Patriots with four receptions for 54 yards and two touchdowns. After Mayo recovered Guyton’s first-quarer strip-sack, Brady marched his team 70 yards in eight plays, including a 23-yard strike to Gronkowski on third-and-6 from the Buffalo 34. Gronkowski was sprinting down-field on the play, turned his upper body around without changing direction, and trapped the ball against his chest with his left hand. He was finally dragged down at the Buffalo 11. On the ninth play of the drive, on second-and-7 from the Buffalo 8, Brady sat back in the pocket for several seconds before finding Gronkowski for the 8-yard touchdown pass over the middle of the end zone, putting the Patriots up 14-3 in the second.

That drive used up 4:25 of the clock. The second Gronkowski touchdown capped a drive that took just 50 seconds. The Patriots started at the Buffalo 11 after Page picked off Fitzpatrick early in the third quarter and the Patriots got 10 extra yards on a chop block against the Bills. The second play of that drive- a dropped pass to Gronkwoski- broke the record for consecutive pass attempts without an interception, previously set at 308 by Cleveland Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar from 1990-1991. The third play of the drive had Gronkowski line up at the right end of the line, throw a quick block and then cut outside. Brady found him for the easy 8-yard touchdown strike, giving the Patriots a 31-3 lead early in the third.

Brady also found Alge Crumpler for a 4-yard touchdown strike in the second quarter, on a drive that started at the Buffalo 27 after the Chung interception. On first-and-goal from the Buffalo 4, Crumpler ran up the middle, then cut to his left. Brady floated the ball over his head for another easy touchdown pass, putting the Patriots up 21-3.

The Patriots went into Buffalo knowing exactly what a win would mean, and they went out and got it. They were methodical and professional, executing at a level the Bills just weren’t good enough to match. The fruits of their labors: a division title, a first-round bye, home-field advantage. Never content to write the squad off as “rebuilding team,” Belichick has transformed this young Patriots roster into the best team in the AFC.

Their final match will be a home game against the Miami Dophins. This will likely be a game that relies heavily on reserves and practice squad players. The Patriots have nothing left to play for in the regular season, and Wes Welker’s season-ending injury in last season’s Week 17 game against the Baltimore Ravens is still fresh in their minds. It may cost them a 28th consecutive home regular season win, but a fourth Super Bowl title would be a more than adequate replacement.

UConn’s Streak Transcends Gender

The University of Connecticut women’s basketball team set a new record for consecutive wins Tuesday night in Hartford, beating Florida State 93-62. It was their 89th win in a row, dating back to the beginning of their 2008-2009 season, and including two national titles in back-to-back undefeated seasons. Their 89th consecutive victory broke the record previously held by the UCLA men’s basketball team, an 88-game winning streak which began in 1971 and ended in 1974, all under the tenure of legendary coach John Wooden. The reverence with which that streak has been treated is such that many have questioned whether the Lady Huskies’ streak should stand above it in the record books, or perhaps be asterisked or relegated to the title of longest women’s basketball winning streak. Such acts imply that women’s basketball is inferior to men’s, and that UConn’s accomplishment is therefore weaker. Such assertions are silly at best, deeply misogynist at worst.

The Folly of Comparison

Fans and analysts alike revel in comparison. The idea that every player on a team ever has worn the same uniform invites such comparison in an effort to contextualize a player’s accomplishment. Yes, Jon Lester is the best pitcher on the Red Sox right now. But how does he compare with Bill Lee? The relatively stable (barring occasional league expansion or contraction, or franchise movement) nature of sport invites even greater comparison, in an effort to determine not only where a player ranks in the history of his or her own team, but in the history of the sport itself. Fans want to be able to say they saw the greatest quarterback, the greatest pitcher or the greatest point guard to ever play the game. It’s a kind of bragging right that fans lust after and analysts try to satiate.

But if we look at UConn’s accomplishment from an outside perspective instead, we are left with a crucial question: why bother? Why do we need to say that UConn’s or UCLA’s streak is more impressive? Yes, the men’s basketball game is different from the women’s because of differences in the physical make-up and capabilities of athletic men and women. But just as there’s a difference between men’s and women’s basketball, there’s also a difference between 1970s basketball and late 2000s basketball. The game has evolved over time just as it has evolved to embrace women.

The competition UCLA faced was different as well. College basketball teams in the 70s did not travel nearly as much, so their competition was far more localized to the West Coast. The UConn women, meanwhile, beat #22 Florida State, located over 1,200 miles south of Storrs, Connecticut, to set their record. Good teams are not bound by geography anymore, and they can seek out teams that they think will provide good competition and help them improve. But conversely, it does appear as if there’s a dearth of competitive college women’s basketball programs in this country, a stark contrast to the plethora of college men’s teams. This might explain why of all 89 Huskies victories, only two were by single digits.

Perhaps UConn beat easier teams along the way (although they beat four more top-10 teams during their streak than UCLA did), but winning 89 times in a row is not just about physical ability. It also takes concentration and mental stability, and those attributes exist completely independently of the gender or competitive level of the opponent. The Lady Huskies played 89 straight games without a mental lapse, and that is an accomplishment that goes beyond the chromosomal.

The Beautiful Game

Whether or not UConn’s streak is better than UCLA’s, anyone who has watched the Huskies can come to only one conclusion: these women play beautiful basketball. Their offense is as smooth and fluid as any men’s team. Their passing is crisp, constantly moving the basketball from player to player until an open look is found. The players not touching the ball are in constant motion, preventing the defense from ever settling down. This in turn opens up lanes to the basket for lay-ups. If the defense cuts that off, the Huskies can shoot from anywhere on the court. They can shoot the 12-foot jumper from just outside the key. They can shoot the 18-footer. They can shoot the trey. Could a men’s team win 89 straight games with this offensive strategy? Maybe, maybe not. But they’d definitely win a lot of games. And if they executed their own offensive strategy with as much precision as the Huskies execute theirs, they’d win even more games.

The Huskies’ offensive strength is evident in their high-scoring victories. Any team that puts up 93 points at the collegiate level is definitely doing something right. But these Huskies are not content to just be gunners. Coach Geno Auriemma, easily one of the best coaches in the history of college basketball, won’t let them. This is a team that puts as much effort into their defense as they do their offense, something that they could probably give up a little and still win a lot of games (just maybe not 89 in a row). They play their marks tight. They get steals. They transition and rotate. They hustle on turnovers. They block shots. They rebound. This is why their margins of victory are so high, and why some people question the validity of the streak. The Huskies aren’t just dominating on offense. They’re dominating on defense as well. To beat the Huskies, an opposing team would have to play 40 minutes of perfect basketball, and they’d still need to get lucky. The Huskies score a ton, then stop their opponents from scoring much at all. That’s why they keep slaughtering their opponents.

The beauty and balance of Huskies basketball could not be symbolized better than in the play of forward Maya Moore. In defeating FSU, Moore scored 41 points (a career high- nice to see a player seizing the moment presented to her), grabbed 10 rebounds, dished out three assists, stole the ball once and blocked three shots. Moore leads the team in points (total and per game), made field goals (total and per game), rebounds (offensive and defensive), assists, steals, and blocks (totals and per game for all three). Moore isn’t content to score and then rest. Every time she made a terrific play (using post-ups and crossover-dribbles that would impress even NBA players), you could see her sprinting back up the court to get on defense and encouraging her team to get a stop. Auriemma believes in playing every point like it’s a tie game, and Moore has bought into the philosophy. The intensity never diminishes, not for a second.

Enjoy it While it Lasts

If fans enjoy ranking systems because it lets them say they saw the best player or rooted for the best team, fine. But then they should make sure they don’t miss out on this UConn squad. At some point, they’re going to lose a game. And when they do, the streak they’ve created will likely never be broken again. It’s almost impossible to go undefeated in a men’s basketball season even once (it last happened in 1976), let alone twice (necessary to break the streak). And there are so few uber-talented women’s squads that the likelihood that any team but perhaps Tennessee, Stanford or a future UConn squad could manage this is small. So whether or not you like women’s basketball, do yourself a favor: check out these Huskies. You’ll be glad you did.

Allen’s 22 Helps Celtics Overcome Foul Disparity and Push Streak to 14

For almost three quarters, nothing was going the Boston Celtics’ way. The Philadelphia 76ers were playing a switching, active and stingy defense that confused and offset the Celtics offensive ball movement. Even when the Celtics got good looks at the basket, the ball always seemed to rim out at the last second, leading to under 40 percent shooting. And it seemed as if the 76ers drew a foul every time they shot the ball, getting to the free-throw line 23 more times. But even when nothing seemed to go right for the Celtics, they still found a way to win. Ray Allen scored 22 points for the Celtics, who beat the 76ers 84-80 Wednesday night in Boston. The win pushes Boston’s winning streak to 14, fifth longest in franchise history.

Sugar Ray

Allen was the star for the Celtics Wednesday night. His 22 points came with four rebounds and six assists. He played 23 minutes of turnover-free basketball. At times, he was the only person scoring. The Celtics ended the first quarter with a 10-0 run that gave them a 23-17 lead. Allen scored eight of those ten points to go along with his 11 first-quarter points. He has been an offensive force through this 14-game win streak, averaging 17 points per game during that stretch. He sits just two three-pointers shy of 2,500 for his career. They could easily come as a Christmas present to Boston fans against Orlando on Saturday.

Third Quarter Momentum Change

The 76ers went into halftime leading 44-38, but the tide turned in the third quarter. First, Paul Pierce– up until now completely contained by Philadelphia shooting guard Andre Iguodala– hit two shots in a row, including a three-pointer, to cut Philadelphia’s lead to 48-47. Pierce missed his next shot, an 18-foot jumper, but as it bounced around, Shaquille O’Neal got good positioning under the basket, went up and tipped it in, keeping the Philadelphia lead to just 50-49.

The Celtics later went up 54-50 on a Nate Robinson three-pointer (one of three) and two free-throws, but the 76ers came back to tie it 54-54. Then it was time for more O’Neal, with some help from Marquis Daniels. Daniels started the play by dribbling underneath the basket, before turning and find O’Neal, who took the pass and slammed it home with authority, giving the Celtics a 56-55 lead. The 76ers reclaimed the lead on their next possession, but the Celtics answered right back with the same two players. This time, Daniels threw an alley-oop to O’Neal, who slammed it down with one hand, giving the Celtics a 1-point lead again and re-energizing the TD Garden crowd.

The Celtics closed the third quarter with another Daniels assist (five total, to go along with four points and four rebounds), this time to Von Wafer, who hit a three-pointer to put the Celtics up 64-59. The quarter ended with the Celtics up 64-61.

Late Fourth-Quarter Push Seals the Win

The 76ers went on an 11-4 run through just under the first seven minutes of the fourth quarter, going up 72-68. But on their next possession, Pierce stole the ball and beat his man to the basket, slamming it home to cut the lead to 72-70. After the dunk, Pierce was loud and emotional, imploring teammate and fan alike to rally behind him. The Celtics responded with a far more aggressive offense that finally broke the 76ers defense and started drawing fouls. Although three Celtics players finished the game with four or more fouls, only a 76er- power forward Elton Brand– actually fouled out.

The Celtics out-shot the 76ers from the foul line 14-2 in the fourth quarter. Two O’Neal free throws (13 total points, nine rebounds) kept Philadelphia’s lead to two points (74-72). After Kevin Garnett (12 points, seven rebounds for the game) tied the game with his signature 19-foot jump shot, two Pierce free throws put the Celtics up 78-76. The 76ers tied it again, but Allen gave the Celtics an 80-78 lead with two more free throws. Pierce pushed the lead to 82-78 with a 19-footer with 1:36 left.

Philadelphia scored on their next possession, cutting Boston’s lead to 82-80, then fouled O’Neal with a minute left in the game. O’Neal missed his two free throws (the only two missed free throws by the Celtics in the fourth quarter), but good defense (a Robinson steal and a Garnett block) on the 76ers next two possessions gave the Celtics the ball with the lead, and the 76ers had to foul Allen and put him on the line. Allen was perfect (as usual), the 76ers missed their last shot, and the game ended.

The Size Advantage

The Celtics used their size to bully the 76ers and control the inside game. The Celtics out-shot the 76ers 34-18 in the paint. They also out-rebounded the 76ers 43-40, only allowing Philadelphia six offensive rebounds (Boston had 12). The Celtics rotated successfully on defense and kept the 76ers to mainly two-point jump shots, not allowing them to go inside for easy scores. Keeping Philadelphia outside of the paint created bottlenecks for the 76ers, which led to 13 turnovers (Celtics only committed 10) and 14 fast break points (76ers only had seven).

A Balanced Approach

Melinda Matyas stands along the raised edge of the Competition Pool at Boston University. More specifically, she handstands. Her body is a perfect line, perpendicular to the turquoise water. She holds it for 10 seconds. No movement, no sound. As still as a graveyard at night.

Then her 130 pound, 5’6” body springs to life, spinning through the air. She completes a full front flip and still has time to straighten up again before her legs break the water’s surface, less than 18 inches below where she started. There is barely a splash. She doesn’t dive into the water so much as melt into it, merging seamlessly.

The stillness and the concentration, giving way to the motion and the energy. The duality of the diver. The balance of skills. All in a day’s practice for the Hungarian diver with the Australian accent.

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Not many can claim to have grown up on two different continents, but Matyas can. She was born in Hungary in 1989, but her family moved when she was one to Australia. It was only supposed to be for about three years, Matyas says, but it turned out to be such a good fit that they stayed for four more years before moving back to Hungary. They moved in time for her eighth birthday.

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Let’s get one thing clear: Melinda Matyas is a really, really good diver. During her junior high and high school days in Budapest, she won the national championship on either the springboard or platform every year from 2002-2008. Sometimes she won only in her age group; sometimes she won the open events. But she always won. She’s competed internationally as well, coming just two places short of representing Hungary in diving at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

The winning has continued at BU. As a freshman, she was named to the America East All-Conference team. Winning both springboard diving events at last February’s America East Conference Championship, she was named the Women’s Most Outstanding Diver of 2010, helping the Terriers win their second-straight America East title. She then went on to the Zone A Diving Championships, qualifying for the NCAA national tournament. All this after being named America East female Diver of the Week nine times.

Now a sophomore, Matyas has been just as dominant. In six meets this fall, she has swept the 1-meter and 3-meter springboard events five times. The only meet where she didn’t sweep, against Colgate in November, she came in first and second. She’s been named female Diver of the Week four times.

“You know she’s going to bring it all on the diving board,” says swimming teammate Sarah Doersam. “And she will win.”

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Matyas always strives for balance when she dives. When she’s on the board, her mind focuses on two things: a phrase to give her a positive attitude, and a technical element she wants to be sure she hits.

The objective is always “calming me down to the right level, or pumping me up to the right level,” Matyas says. “It’s all about phrasing it in the right way.” Matyas’ success on the diving board depends on her toeing that line between disinterest and over-awareness. But the search for the ideal level is itself balanced against that fire so common to competitive athletes.

“I always wanted to do the best at everything as much as I could,” Matyas says.

“I think you can’t really be a competitive athlete if you don’t have that in you.”

Diving in itself is an example of the balance Matyas strives for. As a 10-year-old gymnast in Hungary, Matyas was named second overall in the Hungarian National Junior Championships. However, as she got older she realized that continuing gymnastics training would become an all-consuming activity. “You have to put a lot of time into gymnastics and sacrifice basically everything,” Matyas says. “In diving, you don’t have to sacrifice that much. You do have to sacrifice a lot, but in gymnastics, you basically have to sacrifice your whole life. And I wasn’t going to sacrifice my academics.”

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Matyas’ commitment to academics comes from her parents. Her father is a university econometrics professor, her mother a business communications professor. They moved to Australia because that’s where the jobs were. When they moved back to Hungary, it was again for professional reasons. Matyas came to the United States only when it was time to check out colleges. Enrolled in BU’s College of Arts and Sciences, Matyas is majoring in economics, and says she wants to apply for a financial consulting internship this summer.

Matyas’ very enrollment at BU is a testament to her academic interests. She says she contacted other schools, including the University of Texas, with its 19-combined men’s and women’s swimming and diving national championships, plus their Olympic-caliber coach, but liked BU for the overall academic strength of the school. She also says she “fell in love” with Boston, and that those two factors were the main reason she chose BU.

Since coming to BU, Matyas has been a committed student. This semester, Matyas is taking a slightly overloaded schedule at 18 credits. Usually, she takes the regular 16-credit schedule. She also says she spends anywhere from one to five hours a day on schoolwork. Her GPA is solid, around 3.2, according to her.

But BU presented a new challenge to Matyas: it has no platform diving board, which was her specialty in Europe. Matyas trains separately with diving coach Agnes Miller on the platform at Harvard University’s Blodgett Pool, and sometimes competes in separate platform diving meets as well, such as the Texas Invitational that started Dec 1. Matyas enjoys each type of diving for different reasons – – the platform for its power, the springboard for its patience.

A desire to balance athletics with school, combined with recurring wrist injuries from the uneven bars, led Matyas to diving when she was 11. “I went down to the pool one day and tried diving, and the coach there said I have to stay,” Matyas says with a quiet laugh. “He didn’t really give me an option.” Her gymnastics injuries still plague her. When she dives, Matyas wraps her wrists in tape and sometimes even wrist-guards- a bright white holdover from a more encompassing sport.

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When Matyas practices, she’s very deliberate. She starts with comprehensive stretching; every muscle group is stretched out. Then she moves to the trampoline, and each jump is controlled and designed to work a different set of muscles. Then it’s on to standing dives. Each dive builds on the last, moving from simple straight jumps into the pool to pike jumps, then flips. She finishes on the springboard, bending it so much with each jump that when it snaps back it nearly jumps out of its joint.

“From watching her, there’s definitely, you can tell, a high level of professionalism,” says swimming captain Nate Everett (the swimming and diving teams practice together, trying to be one team, men and women). “She’s very thorough in her dives, and you can tell there’s a high level of focus.”

But Matyas never seems to let her focus overshadow her enjoyment of diving. At practice, Matyas has no problem chatting with her teammates. When one nails a dive, she cheers. When she goes up on the boards, she slaps five emphatically with the other divers.

“When she’s diving, she’s super, super focused and in the zone,” says swimming teammate and captain Kyle Ernst. “When she comes back she’s laughing and smiling with her teammates, getting them going.” It’s all about finding the golden mean.

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At the Competition Pool, the air is humid and reeks of chlorine. Senior teammate Sarah Colton is on the lower, 1-meter springboard, which extends over the left end of the diving well. Another teammate, freshman Chelsea Glincman, is on the higher, 3-meter springboard, which covers the center of the well. Matyas is on the raised, tiled wall at the right edge.

Colton performs an impressive dive, flipping through the air and landing cleanly in the water. When she surfaces, Glincman and Matyas both clap and cheer. Glincman bends over at the waist and pumps her fist. Matyas likes the move and tries to pantomime it. It’s the first time Matyas has looked awkward all practice. She looks up at Glincman for help, and Glincman is happy to provide it. “You have to rev the lawnmower,” Glincman yells. All three women smile and laugh, as does their diving coach.

It’s a change of position for Matyas, whom the other divers often come to for advice. “I’m trying to share these techniques with the girls, how to calm themselves down, how to imagine dives,” she says. “I feel like it’s helping them sometimes, but it’s a long process. I’m trying to give back a little bit of my knowledge in this way to them.”

Her teammates agree that it’s working. “I go to Melinda a lot when I have trouble with my mental game, at practice and at competition,” says Glincman. “She has a lot of good techniques, and I use that same exact thing after she told me about it and after I asked her about it. Since I’ve been here, my mental game has improved tremendously especially because of the things she’s told me.”

Sometimes the student, sometimes the teacher. Dive as well as you can, but have fun doing it. Always managing between two roles. Like balancing on the edge of the diving board.

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The 2012 Summer Olympics in London are nearly two years away. Matyas has yet to make a decision as to whether she will try for them or not. There are several deterrents, she says. The Hungarian diving program is not well funded, in her opinion. The number of qualifiers to the Beijing Olympics shrunk after the 2004 Games in Athens, and “they keep on making cuts on how many people can make it, and it’s getting harder and harder to qualify.” And most importantly, Matyas says, it will depend on “how academics is going and how much I can sacrifice.”

But no matter what choices she makes, Matyas will continue trying to balance her love for diving with her other interests and priorities, just as she’s done so successfully up until now. “I always want diving to be a part of my life, but not the only thing in my life.” Somehow, it seems like she’ll manage this just fine.

Patriots-Packers: An Abbreviated Report Card and an Extended Criticism

Grading the New England Patriots’ weekly performance has become standard fare for Boston media outlets. As Sports of Boston is no exception, below are my grades for the Patriots’ 31-27 Week 15 victory over the Green Bay Packers. The explanations are slightly shortened, in order to devote the second half of the article to a most troubling phenomenon I witnessed last night at Gillette Stadium. So let’s get to it:

Quarterback: B+. Tom Brady threw for just 163 yards, fourth-lowest of the season, and was captain of an often punchless offense that was on the field half as often as the Packers’. Give the Green Bay defense credit, but New England never really got into an offensive rhythm until the last drive, where Brady engineered a game winning 63-yard drive that ended with a 10-yard touchdown pass to Aaron Hernandez. The home win streak is still alive.

Running Backs: B. BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead combined for just 121 all-purpose yards and one touchdown. To their credit, they both averaged over 6 yards per carry. And Green-Ellis complemented his above-average speed with surprising ability on his 33-yard touchdown run, eluding safety Nick Collins by going straight at him before cutting laterally across the hash-marks before heading up-field. But the tandem’s running game was not good enough to sell the play-action pass, which rarely fooled the Packers defense.

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: B-. Hernandez saved the receiving corps Sunday, catching two touchdowns to go with his 31 receiving yards. He also picked up 16 yards on the ground via a successful end-around route. But Wes Welker and Deion Branch were completely contained by the Packers’ talented cornerbacks, combining for just 75 yards, well behind each of their season averages.

Offensive Line: C+. The offensive line allowed three sacks and could only spring the running backs for 97 combined rushing yards. The Packers have some beast pass-rushers, but they were also heavily depleted by injury. There’s no reason the Packers should have had such an easy time penetrating the line of scrimmage. The Patriots got lucky that Brady’s strip-sack at the start of the second quarter did not result in a turnover.

Special Teams: B-. The Patriots were completely surprised by Green Bay’s game-opening onside kick. They were lucky the Packers only came away with a field goal. Meanwhile, Zoltan Mesko under-performed, averaging 40.4 yards per punt into the cold night air. His season average is 43.2 yards per punt. The Patriots also struggled on kickoff coverage, allowing 21.3 yards per return. Green Bay started about 8 yards further up the field on every drive, discounting Dan Connolly’s 71-yard return. But the Patriots played better in the second half, likely inspired by the big man’s thunderous return, which set up a touchdown pass that cut the Green Bay lead to 17-14 going into halftime.

Defensive Line: C. The defensive line was consistently beat by the Packers offensive line, which allowed Green Bay to rush for 126 yards between its three primary backs. The defensive line only managed one sack and three quarterback hits. Vince Wilfork was also penalized twice for 15 yards, and both penalties extended drives that ended in Green Bay touchdowns. The Packers used a power “i” formation that the Patriots could not stop. The Packers only gave it up for the last drive, switching to the spread to move down the field faster.

Linebackers: A-. Three sacks and four quarterback hits. Jerod Mayo led both teams with 16 tackles. No big plays over the middle. Just 12 yards by a Packers tight end. Solid work from the linebackers, but Tully Banta-Cain’s hands to the face penalty cost the team what could have been a game-clinching interception. I can’t give them full marks with that mental error.

Defensive Backs: B-. Kyle Arrington’s pick-six kept this crew out of the “C” range. It gave the Patriots the lead and changed the nature of the second half. But otherwise, the Patriots secondary was chewed up by Matt Flynn, who threw for 251 yards, three touchdowns and the interception. They missed tackles, they took each other out, they committed pass interference twice. This was the least competent the cornerbacks and secondaries have looked in at least a month. Hopefully they rally next week.

Coaching: B. This was not the mind-crushing coaching we’ve seen from Bill Belichick over the last few weeks. The plays were a little vanilla, the defense rarely stopped Flynn, and the timeouts were barely used. This game felt less like a chess match and more like a boxing match. There wasn’t much strategy, just a case of who was left standing at the end. Green Bay’s Mike McCarthy mis-managed the final moments of the game, and a lucky sack forced them to burn their last timeout. With it, they would have had a better plan for the last play of the game. Belichick might have been disadvantaged by the lack of game film for Flynn, but it was surprising how un-dominating the Patriots were after their treatment of the far-superior New York Jets and Chicago Bears.

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Fans: D. I’m not sure if there is something about Gillette’s topology that does this, but I was amazed at the quietness of the crowd in Foxborough Sunday night. They were silent through most of the first half, waking up only to cheer for Green-Ellis’ touchdown and Connolly’s return. They became more animated in the second half following Arrington’s interception, but they really only got into the game in the closing minutes of the final quarter. The rest of the time? Muffled cheers that sounded hampered as much by disinterest as by the cold. Surprising for such an exciting, back-and-forth game.

But it wasn’t the quietness that really bothered me. It was the negativity. I had no idea that Patriots fans were so mean. I’ve been to games at Fenway Park and at the TD Garden. I’ve been to losses there. Blowout losses, even. And I’ve never seen a crowd as overwhelmingly nasty as I did at Gillette last night. It wasn’t just the booing. It wasn’t just the profanity. It was the raw anger of it all that I had never experienced before, and hopefully never will again. For God’s sake, this is football we’re talking about! Where’s the fun? Where’s the joy? Every mistake by a Patriots player drew the crowd’s ire, some calling for that player’s blood, or at least his job. What’s the point of getting so angry about everything all the time? Does that make the victory sweeter? It didn’t seem to, as even as I left the stadium after a win I witnessed a shouting match between Patriots fans that almost devolved into a fist fight.

Beyond the anger itself, what astonished me was that these were Patriots fans who were so angry. Did they truly fear they would lose this game? From the moment Flynn was named the starter to the moment the game ended, I never doubted  for a moment that the Patriots would win. Not when Green Bay opened the game with an onside kick, not when they were at the New England 25-yard line with a minute to go, and not even when they were at the New England 15-yard line for the last play. I knew the Patriots would win. They’re the Patriots! The best team in the NFL! A legitimate Super Bowl threat! C’mon everyone, where’s the confidence? Red Sox and Celtics (and Yankees) fans don’t show this negativity, because they believe their teams will win everyday, and when they don’t then at least they’ll win tomorrow (they can be infuriating to opposing fans for other reasons, however). But the Patriots are a team that rarely loses today or tomorrow. If you can’t enjoy a team that will at worst finish 12-4 and go to the playoffs, who can you enjoy?

This negativity really concerns me, because it’s happening at the height of the Patriots franchise. Belichick and Brady will eventually leave this team, and their replacements probably won’t be as good. What happens to the franchise then? Do we start seeing brawls in the stands? Is this Belichick’s legacy to the Patriots fanbase? Is his single-minded pursuit of perfection so permeating that it’s infected the fans? Is nothing less than a 45-3 win acceptable anymore? This is a team that was written off before the season as a rebuilding team that would be lucky to get to the playoffs. Now they’re 12-2 and will likely play every playoff game but the Super Bowl at home, where Brady is almost godlike.

Last night’s game should have been really fun, with the Patriots taking a legitimate challenge and rising to the occasion. But it wasn’t. The crowd made me so uncomfortable that it was difficult to enjoy the game. I never turn down tickets to Fenway or the Garden, but given the atmosphere and the price, it might be a long time before I accept tickets to Gillette again. Bob Kraft may have renovated Gillette Stadium to maximize profit, but it’s the fans who are spending the money. And if the atmosphere at the actual games doesn’t improve, eventually those fans are going to stop spending money or coming at all. And that should scare everyone more than any team in the NFL ever could.

Last Man Standing: Patriots Hang on at Gillette

The Green Bay Packers hit the New England Patriots as hard as they possibly could. But in the end, it was the Packers who found themselves on the ground. The Patriots sacked backup Packers quarterback Matt Flynn five times, including twice in the last four downs of the game, and the Patriots held on to beat the Packers 31-27 Sunday night in Foxborough. Tom Brady set a new record with his seventh consecutive game in which he threw at least two touchdown passes without an interception.

The Patriots defense looked listless through much of the first half, getting beat at the line by hungrier Packers guards, then missing tackles once Packers entered the secondary. The offense was equally lackluster, punting away three of their first four drives. But after a 1-yard Flynn touchdown pass put the Packers up 17-7 with just over two minutes left in the half, the Patriots were roused by the thunderous rumble of a most unlikely kickoff return. Dan Connolly caught the kickoff near the center of the New England 25-yard line and took off down-field. Keeping the ball well-secured and showing surprising speed, Connolly used his size to break tackle after tackle, stiff-arming a final packer before finally getting dragged down at the Green Bay 4-yard line. Three plays later, Brady hit Aaron Hernandez over the middle for a 2-yard touchdown pass, cutting the Packers lead to 17-14. Though kickoff-return statistics were only kept starting in 1976, it is believed that Connolly’s return was the longest by an offensive lineman in NFL history.

Hernandez’s touchdown reception cut the Packers lead to just three going into halftime, and the Patriots regained the lead on the first possession of the second half. Facing third-and-3 from his 30-yard line, Flynn was flushed from the pocket and scrambled to his left, lofting a pass that drifted into the hands of Kyle Arrington at the 36-yard line. Arrington then broke four tackles as he returned the interception 36 yards, leaping into the end zone and putting the Patriots up 21-14. From then on, the Packers had to play catch-up, and it forced them to get away from a power “i” formation that allowed Packers running back Brandon Jackson to chew up 4.5 yards per carry on straight up-the-middle running. By the Packers’ final drive, they were relying almost exclusively on the spread formation, which helped Flynn complete 24 of 37 passes for 251 yards, three touchdowns and an interception.

But the Packers’ reliance on the spread left them vulnerable to pressure, especially on their last drive. Down 31-27 and facing first-and-10 from the New England 24-yard line, Flynn was sacked by Dan Fletcher for an 8-yard loss, forcing Green Bay to burn its last timeout with 53 seconds left in the game. Flynn could not make up the sack on the next two downs, and the lack of timeouts forced him to hurry his fourth-and-1 play. He dropped back to pass, but Tully Banta-Cain strip-sacked him before anyone could get open in the end zone. Vince Wilfork fell on the fumble, and the game was over.

Despite the victory, Brady was out-dueled by Flynn. Brady completed 15 of 24 passes for only 163 yards (his third-fewest yards this season) and two touchdowns (both to Hernandez). The Patriots offense sputtered most of the night, converting just four third-down opportunities. This inability to extend drives led to a 2-1 time of possession advantage for the Packers, who converted 11 of 19 third downs. But late in the game, the Patriots defense made just enough plays to give the offense a chance. After the Packers and Patriots traded fourth-quarter field goals, the Patriots forced a three-and-out to give Brady the ball at his 37-yard line. Brady then went 3/3 for 38 yards, and Danny Woodhead (71 all-purpose yards) rushed for 25 more. The Patriots went up 31-27 on a sideline pass to Hernandez, who broke a tackle at the line (a problem for both teams all night) to run it in 10 yards for his second touchdown.

The Packers struck first Sunday night, surprising the Patriots with an onside kick to open the game. They then drove all the way to the New England 13 before settling for a field goal to go up 3-0. But the Patriots then responded with a scoring drive of their own, moving from their own 27-yard line to the Packers’ 33 in six plays (including converting a third-and-17 after Brady was sacked for the first of three times). Then, on first-and-10 from the 33-yard line, BenJarvus Green-Ellis cut through a hole in the right side of the line. He ran straight at safety Nick Collins, then at the last second cut laterally across the hash-marks before turning and sprinting towards the front-left pylon of the end zone. He beat all pursuing Packers and put the Patriots up 7-3. Green-Ellis finished game with 50 all-purpose yards and a touchdown.

Besides Flynn, the best Packer performance came from wide receiver James Jones who caught five passes for 95 yards. He scored on a 66-yard touchdown strike from Flynn, a play in which Brandon Meriweather ran into Devin McCourty, clearing the way for Jones’ touchdown. McCourty made up for the play in the fourth quarter, however, sacking Flynn for a 4-yard loss from the Green Bay 21-yard line. That sack paved the way for the three-and-out that led to Hernandez’s game-winning touchdown reception.