By Art Martone
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.