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.

Kraft OK with the idea of a Raiders move to Las Vegas

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Kraft OK with the idea of a Raiders move to Las Vegas

Robert Kraft doesn't seem all that concerned about the potential pitfalls of having an NFL franchise in Las Vegas.

The temptations found in that city, he says, can now be found around any dark corner of the Internet. That's part of the reason why he would be supportive of the Raiders if owner Mark Davis chose to move the team to Vegas from Oakland. 

He explained his reasoning to NFL Media's Judy Battista at the league's annual spring meetings on Tuesday. 

"I think we can put the discipline and controls in [for] whatever anyone might be worried about," Kraft said. "With the Internet and the age of the Internet and what's going on in today's world, it's so much different than when I came in 20 odd years ago. If you'd like to move there and they're supportive and Oakland doesn't do what they should do, I'm behind them."

The comments echoed what Kraft told USA Today earlier this week.

"I came into the league in ’94," Kraft said. "Back then, any exploration of that market was dismissed out of hand. I’m looking where we are today and thinking of the last 10 to 15 years, and the emergence of new media, with Google and Facebook and the like. We’re just living in a different world, technology-wise. The [sports gambling] risks in Vegas are no longer exclusive to Vegas. Whatever the risks, they are no greater [in Las Vegas] than playing a game in New Jersey."

Davis' hope to move the Raiders stems from an inability to get a deal done for a new stadium in Oakland.

"I have given my commitment to Las Vegas," Davis said this week, "and if they can get done what they're talking about doing, then we will go to Las Vegas."

Curran: Roger The Dodger continues his evasive maneuvers

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Curran: Roger The Dodger continues his evasive maneuvers

Roger Goodell is doing that damn thing again down in North Carolina this afternoon.

The NFL commissioner -- who once could carry off a press conference with a breezy, in-command air -- came off like a carrot-topped armadillo talking to reporters at the end of the May owner’s meetings in Charlotte.

Defensive, clipped and disingenuous, a monotone-speaking Goodell was asked about Deflategate and Monday’s Congressional report that alleged the NFL had lobbyists trying to pressure concussion researchers into using NFL-approved doctors.

Asked about the appeal for a rehearing of Tom Brady’s case on Monday, Goodell said, “I respect the NFLPA’s ability to appeal if they choose to do that . . . I’m not really focused on that at all.”

Goodell did not answer the second part of the question, whether or not he’d keep Tom Brady off the field if the court case was unresolved.

The answer, one can only presume would be, “Abso-friggin-lutely.”

As for the Congressional report, Goodell had the gall to answer that he “didn’t see the report.”

He then went on to disagree with what was in the report -- meaning his initial response was less than candid.

A few more minutes of short answers and the show was over with nobody much the wiser than when he began. 

Kraft on Deflategate: 'The whole thing has been mishandled'

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Kraft on Deflategate: 'The whole thing has been mishandled'

At the NFL's brief annual spring meeting, which typically lasts about 24 hours, Patriots chairman and CEO Robert Kraft provided some equally brief remarks about his quarterback. 

Asked for some comment on Tom Brady's legal situation, Kraft told NFL Media's Judy Battista a version of what he has been saying for the last few months as it relates to Deflategate.

"We've been behind him," Kraft said, "and the whole thing has been mishandled, in my opinion. It's unfortunate, and we hope he prevails."

The NFLPA and Brady's legal team filed a petition to the Second Circuit on Monday requesting that he be granted a rehearing. The Second Circuit reinstated Brady's four-game suspension upon appeal earlier this offseason.