By Rich Levine
OK, so the Pats won't win every game by 35 points after all.
Can you believe it?
Yes, of course you can. Although, I'll admit . . .
For a while there, things started to get a little weird.
On one hand, we never wanted to let ourselves believe it would really be that easy, or that New England's path to Dallas would be as smooth and effortless as the polar opposite of a Dan Connolly kick return but still, it was getting hard to resist, wasn't it?
This team had just won back-to-back "major" tests by a combined 81-10. Plus, they were only getting better and now all that stood between them and another three ungodly regular-season blowouts were Matt Flynn, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Chad Henne not exactly Murderer's Row, unless you count all the gambling careers theyve terminated. And seeing that it really hasn't been that long since New England actually did have a football team capable of extended periods of consistent dominance, it was easy to slip out of reality and into 2007.
But this isn't 2007, and we already knew that, so what happened Sunday Night against Green Bay isn't a huge surprise.
Maybe we didn't think that it would happen. Did you know anyone who thought the Packers had a chance? I can't imagine the levels of money Las Vegas raked in on this game. They couldn't make that line high enough. It went from 10 to 14 points in one weekend; everyone thought the Pats would cruise. But now that they didn't, and it wasn't just another "sit back and laugh about how awesome Brady and Belichick are" Sunday are you that shocked?
Maybe. Obviously, you wish they'd played better especially at home against a kid who'd never started a game or thrown a touchdown pass and, even worse, lost to the Lions last week but it's not the end of the world. There's no reason to think the Patriots are less prepared to win a Super Bowl today than they were yesterday. Barely beating Matt Flynn's Packers wasn't a setback, it was a test, and while they didn't pass with flying colors, they most certainly passed. And when you've built the body of work that they have over the course of these last 16 weeks, sometimes passing is enough. (Unless theres less than two minutes left and Matt Flynn's your QB, but thats another story. Or is it?)
Anyway, the Packers were a bump in the road, but the wheels didn't come off; even though there were several very near breaking points. But at those moments, the Patriots showed that while they're unfortunately not flawless, they still know how to win. The same way the 2001 team did in Buffalo and in the Snow Bowl, or the 2003 team did in Denver, Houston and Indy, or the 2007 team did in Baltimore and in Week 17 at the Meadowlands. Every memorable year except for maybe the ridiculous 2005 season has awful, ugly wins. Sometimes they're a wakeup call; sometimes a necessary learning tool; other times just a series of crazy NFL circumstances that the Pats are crafty enough to survive. In this case it was probably all three.
You can talk about how poorly they played and how lucky they were to win, but in the end they also deserved to win. It was a pretty crazy game, and all they did was take and roll with the punches. Do you really think they should have been more prepared for that first onside kick? Was that really from a lack of focus or skill level? I don't think so. It was a wild, well-executed play by the Packers. It worked perfectly, turned the game upside down before it even began and the Pats had to scramble to restore order. In the meantime, a series of strange plays and Matt Flynn's temporary transformation into Chad Pennington created a time-of-possession gap that limited Tom Brady's rhythm and the offense stalled. Through all the struggles, whether it was stopping Flynn from moving the ball or allowing Brady to do the same, the Pats never fell behind by more than 10 points, and that was for all of 1:09. And even though Matt Flynn isn't Aaron Rodgers, let's not forget that neither plays on the NFL's No. 1 ranked defense; that unit was still intact, and isn't an easy crew to regain your balance against.
But when it came down to it, on both sides of the ball, the Pats made the plays. They didn't make every play, just all THE plays.
When the Packers had the ball first-and-goal from the 2 with a 24-21 lead, the Pats forced a field goal even with John Kuhns temporary transformation into Peyton Hillis.
When the Packers had no timeouts but all the momentum on a potential game-winning drive, the Pats made the key open-field tackles.
When they needed to score, they scored.
When the Packers went up 10 with two minutes left in the first half, were getting the ball back to start the third, and were on the verge of knocking the crowd out of the game, the Pats put the ball in the hands of their 300-pound right guard and let him loose for a "quick" 71-yard, game-saving scamper.
I know that last one is out of chronological order, but I had to save it for last. Because when we look back on Sunday night's win, that play is what we'll most likely remembered it for it's the Dan Connolly kick-return game. We'll mention it the same way we do David Patten falling unconscious on the ball against the Bills in 01, or Belichick's intentional safety in Denver '03, or all of Baltimore's bad timeouts in 2007. It will be that wacky situation, from a wacky game that the Pats somehow pulled out.
But on top of that, the play's also a strong microcosm for the game itself.
It wasn't pretty. It wasn't as smooth or effortless as you would have liked. But effective enough to get the job done.
And at 12-2, and with now only one win standing between the Pats and and home-field advantage, they'll take it.