FOXBORO — For a team that had turned in standout performances over the better part of the last month, it was not the Patriots' finest hour.
On Sunday night, the Patriots slogged through their game against the Packers. They committed seven penalties, yielded 369 net yards to an offense led by a quarterback making his first NFL start, and couldn’t get the defense off the field on third down. At times, the New England offense was sloppy and inefficient, bogged down by lack of execution. Green Bay held a 41-19 edge in time of possession, and the Patriots offense, which looked world class over the last month against some of the best defenses the league had to offer, put up a rather ordinary 24 points — and seven of those were thanks to near-perfect field position given to them on a kick return from a 313-pound offensive lineman.
But the Patriots won. It wasn’t perfect, but they won. Despite the fact they were gashed by the Green Bay running game to the tune of 143 rushing yards and allowed a quarterback who was making his first pro start to throw for 251 yards, they found a way. It wasn’t easy, and took until the very last play from scrimmage when Tully Banta-Cain sacked Matt Flynn as time ran out. Then, and only then, were the Patriots allowed to celebrate a 31-27 win over the Packers (click here for the complete recap) that allowed them to take another step toward home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
This time, instead of the postgame celebrating that had been so commonplace over the previous month, it was more of a sense of palpable relief that the Pats had escaped with a win when they were less than their best.
“I think you have to give the players a lot of credit today for playing 60 minutes, fighting through some adversity and coming out with a win, and in the end, making enough plays to win,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “It certainly wasn’t one of our better games.”
The game was completely unique in the annals of the 2010 Patriots — they managed to win after playing poorly for most of the evening. But despite all the setbacks, New England overcame a 10-point second-quarter deficit and a 27-21 disadvantage in the fourth quarter because they did enough when it counted, particularly in the fourth quarter when the Patriots held the Packers to three points on a pair of Green Bay visits inside the New England 20.
And after seeing the field for just three plays in the third quarter, quarterback Tom Brady and the Patriots offense managed 10 fourth-quarter points, including a 10-yard touchdown pass from Brady to rookie tight end Aaron Hernandez that gave New England a lead it wouldn’t relinquish with 7:14 left in regulation.
In the end for the Patriots, their play down the stretch was enough to wipe away three mostly forgettable quarters.
“That’s what we said on the sideline: ‘We’ve played bad for three quarters, but champions find a way to pull it out at the end,’” veteran safety James Sanders said. “We just made enough plays at the end to win the game. We were fortunate to come away with the win.”
“This game wasn’t perfect [but], at the end of the day, W’s are what count,” defensive lineman Vince Wilfork said. “Good teams find a way to win, especially in December.”
Here are nine other things we learned Sunday night at Gillette Stadium:
KICKOFFS FROM MASON CROSBY CAN BE AWFULLY ENTERTAINING
The Packers opened the game with a surprise onsides kick, which allowed them to take possession and eventually get on the board first when Crosby delivered a 31-yard field goal to make it 3-0 midway with 8:45 left in the first quarter. Crosby was at the center of the action again at the end of the first half when he pooched it short to New England offensive lineman Dan Connolly … who proceeded to deliver the unlikeliest 71-yard return in franchise history, setting the Patriots up nicely for their second touchdown of the night, a 2-yard touchdown pass from Brady to Hernandez.
Sanders, who was one of the players closest to the ball when Crosby dribbled it short to start the game, said the Patriots “were alerted for the onsides,” but simply failed to make the play.
“We knew they had a good special teams unit who were known for doing certain things. We just didn’t execute,” Sanders said. “We didn’t make the play. It hurt the team early in the game. I have to learn from that and make sure I don’t make that same mistake again.”
As for Connolly’s return, the site of the offensive lineman chugging downfield with the ball put a charge into the Gillette Stadium crowd. He was hit a few times, but the big lineman refused to go down, eventually running out of gas at the Packers’ 4-yard line, taken down by Green Bay’s Robert Francois.
“Yeah, everybody was out their seats once we realized that he was about to score,” Banta-Cain said. “He was like Gale Sayers out there — a much bigger version.”
“I tell you what — Dan Connolly right now probably has the greatest return average in the National Football League,” left tackle Matt Light said of his fellow lineman, who suffered a head injury later in the game and did not return. “That was incredible. It was a heck of an effort. I couldn’t believe I was watching it, to be honest with you.”
To Belichick, it wasn’t a surprise to see Connolly come away with the ball — the Packers had been kicking short all night.
“It kind of looked like he was looking to go down, but then they just couldn’t really find anybody to tackle him,” Belichick said. “It was a good job by the kickoff team. They short-kicked us all day, really, with the pooch kicks and the squib kick there. We’ve been working on those, so it was an alert play by Dan, but also by the blocking to get in front of him there and at least get him started.”
EXPECT OTHER TEAMS TO TRY TO USE THE FORMULA THAT THE PACKERS USED ON SUNDAY NIGHT
The Packers clearly tried their best to keep the New England offense off the field, as Flynn put together two scoring drives of 11 plays and another two scoring drives of 13 plays, with three of those four scoring drives consuming more than six minutes each. Green Bay did it in no small part thanks to Flynn’s game-management skills, as well as their commitment to running the football.
It worked — at one point early in fourth quarter, the Patriots had just 30 offensive snaps (including penalties). As a result, Green Bay had complete command when it came to time of possession, coming away with a 41-19 edge. (According to the Patriots, no team in the NFL this year has had worse numbers when it’s come to time of possession and won.)
New England had just one offensive series in the second half by the time it got the ball with 13:44 left in the game. While New England’s offensive players acknowledged it was difficult to get into a rhythm because of a lack of playing time, many of them added that they did it to themselves, blaming a lack of execution.
“It’s hard to get into a rhythm. I wish we as an offense could have stayed out there to get in a rhythm. Part of us not being on the field was our lack of execution. We need to go out there and execute better,” Brady said. “I’m sure we lost the time of possession. I’m sure we lost field position. I don’t think we were great on third down by any stretch. It was really not a great offensive effort. The defense and special teams made some huge plays for us. That’s what we needed [tonight].”
“It’s difficult, but you have to try and do the best you can under the situation and circumstances,” said Green-Ellis. “We came out with the W, which is the most important thing. We wish we would have played a whole lot better tonight.”
TOM BRADY IS GOOD, BUT HE’S ALSO A LITTLE LUCKY
The quarterback somehow managed to keep his interception-free streak alive, despite the fact that he had at least two near-picks on the night, with Green Bay’s Charles Woodson and Sam Shields nearly coming away with interceptions that were simply dropped. Including the three that were almost picked off last week in Chicago against the Bears, that makes five near-misses he’s had over the last two weeks — all catchable passes that could have been picks if the defenders had simply kept their hands on the ball.
Instead, the quarterback was able to extend his interception-free streak to 292 pass attempts, setting an NFL record for the longest single-season stretch without an interception. (It still falls short of the all-time record of 308 pass attempts without an interception, a mark that Bernie Kosar set that he started at the end of the 1990 season and ended early in the 1991 season.)
Sunday also marked a new record for Brady, who became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw at least two touchdowns without an interception in seven consecutive games. Brady passed Don Meredith’s previous record of six straight games with two or more touchdowns and no interceptions (1965-66). In addition, his two-yard touchdown pass to Hernandez in the second quarter allowed him to reach 30 touchdowns for the second time in his career — he becomes one of just 12 NFL players since the 1970 merger to have at least two 30 touchdown seasons.
Brady ended up going 15-for-24 for 163 yards and two touchdowns and zero interceptions — statistically, one of his worst performances of the season. But with the game in the balance, he came through, finding Hernandez for his second touchdown of the night.
“We’ve got Tom Brady — he is going to find a way to get the offense going and we just need to follow his lead,” said Hernandez, who had a team-high four catches for 31 yards and a pair of touchdowns, the second two-TD game of his career. “We have to make plays when the chances are there and the opportunities come. We finished this game — it was a tough one. There were bumps in the road and we have got to overcome the bumps like we did today and just keep fighting.”
THREE BIG STANDS TOLD THE STORY FOR THE NEW ENGLAND DEFENSE
The prevailing thought before the game was that the Patriots had caught a break by avoiding Aaron Rodgers — one of the best young quarterbacks in the game was sidelined with the aftereffects of concussion he suffered last week in a loss to the Lions in Detroit. In his place, it was Flynn, a youngster out of LSU making his first professional start.
The only problem was that Flynn wasn’t cowed by the prospect of facing an improving New England defense on a big stage. He was poised and deliberate, and managed to make more than his share of plays throughout the evening. He helped put together five scoring drives, and ended up going 24-for-37 for 251 yards, three touchdowns and one interception.
“He was being really smart tonight. He didn’t force anything,” Sanders said. “When things were covered and nothing was open downfield he used his check downs. He made us works for 60 minutes – running the boots, couple scrambles here and there. Like I said, he had us scrambling in the first half.”
However, the Patriots defense came up big with three important red-zone stops. The first key sequence came on Green Bay’s first series of the night when the Packers were able to get down to the New England 8-yard line, but New England managed to hold them to a field goal. The second came at the start of the fourth, when the Packers had a second-and-goal from the Patriots’ one, but New England again held them to three. And with time running out and Green Bay perched at the Patriots’ 15-yard line with a fourth-and-1, the sack from Banta-Cain (which forced a fumble that was recovered by Wilfork) allowed New England to close out the game.
“This is what we’re paid to do — you’ve got to dig deep in these type of games,” Banta-Cain said. “When it comes down to it, somebody has to make a play and I just happened to be that guy today.”
In the end, it was three important red-zone trips for the Packers (for a touchdown conversion rate of just 40 percent on the day) and only six points to show for it.
“I think we showed mental toughness on both sides of the ball today,” said linebacker Jerod Mayo. “Green Bay came out and played a tough game. With our backs against the wall, we came out and made plays.”
IN A MEMORABLE SEASON, THE UNLIKELIEST STORYLINE CONTINUES TO BE THE GROWTH OF THE RUNNING GAME
When training camp opened, it was believed that the bulk of the work in the New England running game would go to either veteran Fred Taylor or Laurence Maroney, with an occasion contribution from the likes of Kevin Faulk and Sammy Morris. BenJarvus Green-Ellis was seen as little more than a complementary back, a luxury item that could provide some depth. Danny Woodhead? He was a spare part about to be cast off by the Jets.
But Taylor has battled injury most of the season, Maroney is wasting away on the bench in Denver, Faulk is on the shelf with a knee injury and Morris has evolved into a fullback. Meanwhile, the combination of Woodhead and BenJarvus Green-Ellis — two backs who could have been picked up by anyone — have been the heart of the New England running game, and both had another strong outing Sunday night against Green Bay.
Woodhead sparked the offense in the second half with a solid effort down the stretch, and ended up running for 59 yards on nine carries and adding a catch for 12 yards. Despite the fact that the Patriots offense was sluggish and inefficient at times, the Chadron State product said the important thing at the end of the day is victory.
“We ended up picking up the win and that’s the most important thing. Things didn’t go the way we would have liked them, to but we got the win and we are happy with a win,” said Woodhead. “Anytime you work during the week and show up on Sunday you want to make sure you get the win. That is the ultimate goal. Obviously, it wasn’t the prettiest game, but we ended up getting it done.”
In addition, Green-Ellis had six carries for 38 yards and another touchdown, a career-best 33-yarder where he picked up some absolutely crushing blocks from Logan Mankins and Deion Branch on the way to the end zone. For Green-Ellis, it was his 12th rushing touchdown of the season, which ties him for the third-highest rushing touchdown total by a Patriots player. The first undrafted rookie to score 10 or more rushing touchdowns in a season for the Patriots, Green-Ellis is the eighth player in team history to record double digit rushing touchdowns in a season.
In addition, he edged closer to the 1,000-yard mark — with two games left, he has 824 rushing yards, and still remains a viable threat to become the first New England running back since Corey Dillon hit 1,635 yards in 2004.
“Our offensive line did a good job blocking and also the receivers did a good job of blocking downfield, and it helps put points on the board,” Green-Ellis said, who adds that he’s not thinking about the possibility of becoming a 1,000-yard back.
“The only thing I think about is going out and preparing myself the best I can to help my team win.”
DOM CAPERS KNOWS SOMETHING ABOUT BEATING THE PATRIOTS
The Green Bay defensive coordinator, who spent a year in New England as a special assistant/secondary coach, clearly picked up a few things about beating the Patriots while he was in Foxboro for the 2008 season. The Packers were able to generate good heat on Brady and the rest of the New England offense — the Patriots quarterback was sacked three times, tied for the second-most sacks he’d taken all year long. As a result, it was a rough game for the New England offensive line.
Brady was sacked twice by former Boston College defensive tackle B.J. Raji (which sparked the Green Bay owners’ box to break out into a spontaneous rendition of the Boston College fight song) and once on a savage hit from Desmond Bishop. In the end, the Packers were able to do something the Steelers, Jets and Bears were unable to do — hold the New England offense under 35 points.
“They made it tough on us,” Brady said. “It’s a damn good defense, real good secondary, [a] good defensive front. They gave us all we could handle tonight, so you give them a lot of credit. They’re very well coached. They play from the opening kickoff to the last play of the game. It took all 60 minutes. When we needed it, we made the plays. I’m glad we won.”
For his part, Bishop shrugged after the game when he was asked what he thought of the New England offense.
“Nobody’s invincible. They’re good. They’re one of the best, if not the best. But nobody is invincible,” said Bishop, who led Green Bay with seven tackles on the night. “I was watching on film and I thought, ‘Maybe they’re superhuman’ But they’re regular. They do what they do very efficiently. They do what they do the best. That’s who they are. But they’re not super-human, that’s for sure.”
THREE YOUNG DEFENSIVE PLAYERS DESERVE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT
A) Linebacker Dane Fletcher picked up a key late sack just before Banta-Cain’s game-ender, drilling Flynn for an 8-yard loss with just over a minute to go. A rookie free agent who signed this past spring, Fletcher has started to see more and more playing time as of late, especially in the wake of the recent four-game suspension of inside linebacker Brandon Spikes.
“The tackle went down on our end and the guard came out to get me. I got a good jump on their count and made a play, I guess,” he said when asked about his sack, one of five the Patriots had on Flynn. “I understand how big of a play that was, but I don’t let it go to my head and come back to work this coming week. On to the next one I guess. It’s sad to say that already, but I guess that’s how you’ve got to think.”
B) Kyle Arrington had a 36-yard interception return for a touchdown in the third quarter, a bruising sequence where he bounced off four would-be tacklers and busted into the end zone with just over 12 minutes left in the third quarter, a play that gave the Patriots their first lead of the evening.
“[My] first career pick and that close to the end zone, so I just said I’m going to let my feet do the rest,” said Arrington, who ended up with four tackles and two passes defensed on the night. “I just tried to keep them alive and keep them moving and fortunately I got in there.”
C) Devin McCourty didn’t come away with an interception — the first game since Nov. 14 when he didn’t force some sort of turnover — but he did get his first career sack in the fourth quarter when he dropped Flynn for a 4-yard loss. He also had a couple of key tackles, including a stop of Green Bay running back John Kuhn in the fourth quarter on the New England goal line that forced a Green Bay field goal. In the end, he had 10 tackles, including two for a loss, as well as a pass defensed. But he didn’t sound all that enthused about the numbers after the game.
“We had some ups and some downs,” said McCourty, who is still tied for second in the NFL with six interceptions. “I think the key is like always [with] two minutes to go in the game, you’re on that field and you’ve got to find a way to get the win, and that’s what we did today. So I think that’s big as a defense, making sure we get that win and finish.”
BILL BELICHICK AND ED HOCHULI PROBABLY WON’T BE EXCHANGING CHRISTMAS CARDS
For a New England team that prides itself on playing smart, disciplined football, Sunday night’s game was out of character. The Patriots entered the game as the fourth-least penalized team in the league (when it came to accepted penalties) and had committed just 11 penalties in the four games prior to Sunday night. The fact that they had started to cut way down on penalties was a big reason they were having the level of success that they did.
But against the Packers, they finished with seven penalties for 52 yards, including several bad flags. (In contrast, Green Bay was assessed just two penalties for 15 yards.) There was a hands to the face call late in the game against Banta-Cain that kept a Green Bay drive alive, a defensive offside call on Wilfork that was the first flag of the year on the veteran defensive lineman, as well as an unnecessary roughness call on McCourty which was the right call at the time — but the flag came a long time after the play was blown dead.
After the game, Belichick took a small swipe at Hochuli, saying his crew has a reputation for letting its freak flag fly.
“We had a lot of penalties,” Belichick acknowledged. “Look, these guys call the most penalties of any crew in the league and they called them. We knew it was going to be a tight game and it was. We’ve just got to do a better job of that. I’ve got to do a better job preparing the team.”
THE PATRIOTS ARE ONE WIN AWAY FROM CLINCHING HOME FIELD THROUGHOUT THE AFC PLAYOFFS
It was not a hat and T-shirt game — the Jets took care of that with a big defensive stand late in their win over the Steelers — but New York may have simply delayed the inevitable. The Patriots need just one win in their final two games to secure home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs, and with games against Buffalo and Miami, New England has to feel pretty good about its chances of spending the entire month of January at home.
That doesn’t mean the Patriots feel especially overconfident as they get set to shuffle off to Buffalo next weekend.
“Buffalo has been playing some tough games all year. All year they have been playing pretty good ball,” Wilfork said. “They have put up some good points and they are very explosive on offense. [Ryan] Fitzpatrick, he has been throwing the heck out of the ball. The running game, [Fred] Jackson is probably one of the most underrated [running] backs in the league. He’s a hell of a back.
“We are going to have to play some ball. Especially in a division game you can’t look at a record and say, ‘This is a win.’ You can’t do that, especially in the NFL and this being a division game. We have to come to play in Buffalo.”