Patriots escape with 31-27 win over Packers

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Patriots escape with 31-27 win over Packers

By Art Martone
CSNNE.com

FOXBORO -- Talk about a reality check.

The Patriots, who looked all but unstoppable over the last 10 quarters, came crashing back to Earth Sunday night against Green Bay and its second-string quarterback, Matt Flynn. The New England rout that was predicted far and wide over the Aaron Rodgers-less Packers not only never materialized, but never came close to materializing.

In the end, they survived; they came away with a 31-27 victory that increased their record to 12-2 and all but clinched both the AFC East title and No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs. But it literally went down to the last play, and wasn't settled until Tully Banta-Cain sacked Flynn -- who, in the last 20 seconds, finally showed the inexperience he'd hidden brilliantly for the first 59 12 minutes -- on a fourth-down play in the red zone, ending the game.

"It certainly wasn't one of our better games," said a somber Bill Belichick, "and obviously I have to do a lot better job preparing the team than what I did this week. We couldn't handle a lot of the basic things they did and, I don't know, it was disappointing.

"But we had a few big plays there; it was a game of big plays. Fortunately, we were able to make a few more than they did."

The first inclination that the pundits might have been wrong about this one came on the very first play: A surprise onsides kick that Nick Collins recovered for the Packers on the Green Bay 47. It led to a 31-yard field goal by Mason Crosby and a 3-0 Packers lead . . . the first time the Patriots found themselves trailing since Thanksgiving Day in Detroit.

Still, when the Pats went 73 yards in 7 plays on their first possession, capped with a 33-yard touchdown run by BenJarvus Green-Ellis -- sprung by a devastating Deion Branch block on Tramon Williams -- it seemed the game would settle into the same, dominating pattern New England had demonstrated over the last three weeks. Especially considering the untested quarterback on the other side of the ball.

But -- when added to what Cleveland's Colt McCoy did to them on Nov. 7 -- it appears the days of Bill Belichick defenses being too baffling a puzzle for inexperienced QBs are over. Consider:

The Packers went 69 yards in 3 plays, with a 66-yard touchdown pass from Flynn to James Jones early in the second quarter giving them a 10-7 lead. That one, though, could be considered a fluke; even though the third-down pass down the right sideline would have been good for a first down, Jones was sprung when Brandon Meriweather -- taking a bad angle to the ball and again looking to make a devastating hit instead of simply breaking up the play or making a tackle -- crashed into Devin McCourty instead of Jones, resulting in both of them falling to the ground and giving Jones a clear path to the end zone.

The Packers went 82 yards in 13 plays, eating up 6 minutes and 26 seconds, and moved ahead 17-7 on a one-yard scoring pass from Flynn to Greg Jennings. The Pats' defense helped the Pack's drive, as an offsides penalty on Vince Wilfork negated that rarest of occurances: An actual third-down stop by New England. The Pats didn't stop the Packers on four other third-down plays during the drive.

The Patriots scored the next two touchdowns -- more on them in a moment -- but Flynn rebounded by directing a clock-consuming 13-play, 69-yard drive that culminated with a six-yard TD pass to John Kuhn that put them back in front, 24-21.

Then, after the Packer defense forced a three-and-out and a short punt gave Green Bay good field position, Flynn ran off 11 more plays before the Pat defense finally stiffened and authored a goal-line stand that forced the Pack to settle for a 19-yard Crosby field goal and a 27-21 lead.

That the Patriots were still in the game at this point was the result of two plays: One good and one incredible.

The incredible play was a 71-yard return of a squibbed kickoff by offensive lineman Dan Connolly to the Green Bay 4-yard line, which you'll be seeing on highlight films forever. The sight of the 310-pound Connelly lumbering down the field, shedding would-be tacklers and nearly bringing it to the house, is something NFL Films will show for . . . well, for as long as there is an NFL Films.

Three players later, Tom Brady threw two yards to Aaron Hernandez for the touchdown that narrowed the Pats' deficit to 17-14.

Then, on the Packers' first possession of the third quarter, came the good play: A 36-yard interception return for a touchdown by Kyle Arrington, in which he broke four tackles en route to the end zone, that put New England in front, 21-17.

At this point, the same people who expected this to be a New England rout -- which is to say, virtually everyone -- now expected the Patriots to take command of the game. Instead, Flynn and the Packers gashed the New England defense with two straight scoring drives that not only put 10 points on the board but consumed the entire third quarter.

In the fourth quarter, though, the Patriots regained their footing at last.

"I think you have to give the players a lot of credit for playing 60 minutes, fighting through some adversity," said Belichick.

Brady took them 53 yards in 7 plays and, though the drive stalled in the red zone when Julian Edelman couldn't handle a Brady bullet inside the 15, a 38-yard Shayne Graham field goal cut the Packers' lead to 27-24.

Then he drove them 63 yards in 6 plays and fired a 10-yard TD pass to Hernandez to put them ahead, 31-27.

But he couldn't put together a clock-killing drive late in the fourth quarter and the Packers had one last chance. An illegal-hands-to-the-face penalty on Banta-Cain negated a potentially game-clinching interception by Meriweather ("That was bull," Banta-Cain said of the penalty, though replays indicated it was legitimate), but a sack by Dane Fletcher with 51 seconds left forced the Packers to use their final time out.

And in the end, Flynn and the Packers were (finally) betrayed by his lack of experience. He completed a third-and-11 pass to Donald Driver over the middle for 10 yards, setting up a fourth-and-one at the Patriots' 15. But -- unable to call the play himself and waiting for one to be signaled in -- he ate up 19 seconds barking instructions to his teammates, not taking the final snap until there were only four seconds left. The haphazard play never developed, and Banta-Cain sealed it with a sack as the clock struck zero.

The feeling at the end, though, was relief instead of jubilation. When you consider the final numbers -- 369 total yards for Green Bay to 249 for New England, 26 first downs to 14, 40:48 possession time to 19:12, not to mention the Packers' mind-bending 11-of-19 success rate on third down as the Patriot defense once again found itself unable to get off the field -- relief was about the best you could hope for.

And there's plenty of trepidation, as well.

"In the end it worked out, but we obviously have a lot of work to do," said Belichick. "I think we have to play better than this or our season won't last much longer."

Art Martone can be reached at amartone@comcastsportsnet.com.

BYU's Harvey Langi ready to prove why Patriots showed him the money

BYU's Harvey Langi ready to prove why Patriots showed him the money

FOXBORO -- Harvey Langi played multiple positions across multiple colleges. Bill Belichick made sure the undrafted linebacker’s next move was to New England. 

After the Patriots made just four draft picks, they gave the BYU product a contract that guaranteed $100,000 of his base salary along with a $15,000 signing bonus; by comparison, most of the Patriots’ undrafted free agent signings this offseason have gotten guarantees of around $20,000 or less. 

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Since the Patriots paid Langi like a draft pick -- basically like a fifth-rounder -- why didn’t they just draft him? They had the opportunity, as they entered the final two rounds with a sixth-round pick and a seventh remaining. They packaged both to move up in the sixth and take UCLA tackle Conor McDermott, ending their draft.

Seeing the Patriots finish picking early must have been disheartening for Langi, as New England had shown ample interest in him ahead of the draft. Then again, there’s more than one way to guarantee you get the player, and the Pats did that with Langi’s contract. 

“With all that, it’s in the past now,” Langi said this week. “They showed interest. I was, of course, interested in anyone and everyone, but when the Patriots were looking at me, I was super pumped because of the program that is run here. It was awesome.”

A native of South Jordan, Utah, Langi landed at BYU after beginning his college career as a running back for the University of Utah. While at Utah, Langi ran for 70 yards on 13 careers. Following his transfer to BYU, Langi moved around positionally, but was primarily a linebacker and defensive end. He continued to see reps as a running back, rushing for two touchdowns last season as a senior. 

As far as his candidacy for the NFL goes, the 6-foot-2, 251-pounder looks to be best cut-out for linebacker. Specifically, an NFC West scout said that BYU did him a “real disservice” by playing him on the edge and that he should be used at middle linebacker. As a senior, he had 57 tackles, five for a loss and two sacks.  

Langi will have company in the middle, but that’s where being an undrafted player comes in. There is no immediate pressure for him to be any sort of game-breaker, but if he can use his athleticism to make the 53-man roster as a special-teamer and one of Dont’a Hightower’s backups, he’ll have the opportunity to try to develop into someone worthy of defensive snaps. 

For now, it’s a new start for Langi, but one he feels could be the start of something promising. 

“Those first steps are just steps,” Langi said. “That’s what I’m trying to do, is just keep taking more steps. When I did take a step in the building, the feeling was just like, ‘Gosh.’ Ever since you’ve been a kid, this program and how coach runs his program and how everything is done here in New England, it was an amazing feeling walking through those doors, for sure. Surreal.” 
 

Belichick makes surprise address at NCAA lacrosse banquet

Belichick makes surprise address at NCAA lacrosse banquet

It's been well-established that Bill Belichick has a strong affinity for the sport of lacrosse. That the NCAA Division I men's and women's lacrosse Final Fours are taking place at Gillette Stadium this weekend means that the Patriots head coach has an opportunity to be around the highest level of college competition the sport has to offer. 

And he's taking full advantage. 

Not only did he meet with and speak to the Boston College women's team on Thursday, he's also met with the Ohio State men's team, and he took a few minutes to speak to all eight finalists at the Division I lacrosse banquet on Thursday night before the weekend of play got underway.

"I know that for us, fortunately, we've been to a lot of these games, and we've come out on the good side on some and not on the good side on others," Belichick said. "But just the experience, the competition of playing at this level and playing against this type of competition for what's at stake this weekend, it's just an awesome experience for you and your families."

Belichick explained that he had seen all eight teams play at one point or another this year, and he sounded like a fan of them all as he closed his remarks.

"It's really exciting to watch," he said. "You guys play with a lot of class, a lot of heart, a lot of toughness, and that's what I admire. Hopefully, we can play like that this coming year."