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.

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