Packer by cdw9, on Flickr
I'm sure the first thing most Patriots fans will think of when they look back on this game will be offensive lineman Dan Connolly's 71-yard kickoff return toward the end of the second quarter. Much was made of the big man running, and the "loaf of bread carry" and so on.
"I don't think I've seen anyone carry a ball like that since I was about six," chuckled Cris Collinsworth during one of numerous replays of the anomaly from NBC's broadcast booth.
But from that moment until about halfway through the fourth quarter, whether Connolly steaming for the end zone was to be New England fans' consolation prize tonight, or the highlight of a win, was still in doubt.
Keeping Tom Brady pacing like a caged animal on the sidelines was the most successful part of the Packers' game plan tonight, and it came very close to earning them a win. The Packers accomplished this by abusing the Patriots defense, which both bent and broke on numerous occasions, especially in the first half. If not for Connolly's miraculous return, the Patriots would've gone into halftime down 17-7 instead of 17-14.
After that, who knows what might have been -- because the Packers would remain effective at keeping the Patriots' offensive opportunities limited. The Patriots offense finished the first half with 12 minutes and 20 seconds of possession, 7 points, and 138 net yards. Incredibly, they would finish this game with less than 20 minutes of overall possession, despite being the winning team.
As with Connolly's special-teams play in the second quarter, it was once again another unit -- the defense, on a pick-6 by Kyle Arrington -- that would score the points for New England in the third quarter.
But while the defense gaveth, it also tooketh away -- back out on the field again after their touchdown, they slowly and torturously were forced to hand back the points, on a 13-play, 69-yard drive for the Packers consisting mainly of sledgehammering running plays. This included the play that made the score 24-21, Green Bay, in which fullback John Kuhn burned a stumbling Rob Ninkovich on his way into the end zone.
By the time the Patriots offense touched the ball for the first time in the second half, there were just five minutes left in the third quarter.
And they went three and out.
Back went the defense onto the field, and this time it was Gary Guyton who was juked by Kuhn, on his way down to the Patriots' two yard line.
Had Green Bay scored another touchdown at this juncture, I believe I'd probably be sitting here distracting myself by writing florid prose to describe Dan Connolly's kickoff return, rather than sitting here attempting to reverse-engineer just how the Patriots managed to win this game.
But just as the fourth quarter began, on a first and goal, the Packers went back to Kuhn twice, without success; on second down Kuhn was stuffed utterly by a tandem of the Patriots secondary's best -- McCourty and Chung. A passing play on third down was unsuccessful, and the Packers were held to a field goal.
The Patriots offense would then get its hands on the ball for just the second time in the half with 13:44 to play in the game, down by one score instead of by two. While the Pack would mostly continue to keep the New England running game contained, here a long pass to Welker and one of the game's best runs by BenJarvus Green-Ellis -- as well as a quickening of the offensive tempo -- set up a field goal to make it 27-24.
Again, the bell sounded for the defense. And here, worn down to a nub, they would deliver a humungous, enormous, gargantuan, mammoth and otherwise big and huge and large three-and-out. First, they finally succeeded in sacking Flynn, using a corner blitz by Devin McCourty. That set up a second and 14, and a dropped pass made it third and 14. With the fans at frigid Gillette stadium howling, Flynn was flushed from the pocket, scrambled, and came down at the 27 yard line, short of the first. New England got the ball back with 9:38 left to play.
Maybe there'd been another come-to-Jesus meeting with Brady on the sideline while the defense had been making that stop -- they followed it up with a textbook two-minute offense, rocking a no-huddle throughout, and shoving their way forward with a combination of runs by Danny Wooodhead and passes to Deion Branch and Hernandez. That drive would make the score 31-27, but there were still more than seven minutes of football left to play.
Once again, the defense dug deeper, particularly Wilfork, who'd been out on the field for what seemed like nearly every down. Chung earned a sack on second down. Kyle Arrington was miraculously not called for PI on third down. With roughly five minutes and 30 seconds to go, the Packers were punting on fourth down.
With roughly four minutes and 30 seconds to go, so were the Patriots.
I don't deny that Flynn's inexperience / clock mismanagement in the final seconds played a huge role in the outcome of this game. The defense deserved most of the invective hurled at it from couches around New England tonight, too. But I still feel compelled to point out that they also would've benefitted hugely from more rest, courtesy of the offense, on several occasions where the offense had a chance to chew up some time, or score some more points.
And as the final seconds of this game played out, as that go-ahead score from earlier in the quarter finally became the winning score, the ball was in Green Bay's hands, the defense were the ones on the field backed up to their own 32, and the final play was a strip-sack by Tully-Banta Cain, which was recovered by Vince Wilfork.
You could argue that the defense had put the Patriots in the hole to begin with, sure. But you could also argue that in the end, it was the defense that managed to pull them back out.