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.

Curran’s 100 plays that shaped a dynasty: The Top 2

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Curran’s 100 plays that shaped a dynasty: The Top 2

We're down to the Top 2. 

These are the plays of the Bill Belichick Era you best never forget. And probably can't. They're the ones that led directly to championships -- most for New England, a couple for the other guys. Or they're plays that signified a sea change in the way the New England Patriots under Belichick would be behaving from there on out.

I did my best to stack them in order of importance. You got a problem with that? Good. Let us know what's too high, too low or just plain wrong. And thanks for keeping up!

PLAY NUMBER: 2

THE YEAR: 2014

THE GAME: Patriots 28, Seahawks 24

THE PLAY: Malcolm Butler picks off Russell Wilson at goal line to save Super Bowl

WHY IT’S HERE: Is it the biggest defensive play in NFL history? You’d have a tough time making a case for any play to be ranked ahead of it. The play itself – Malcolm Butler sniffing out a quick slant to Ricardo Lockette on second-and-goal from the 1 with 26 seconds left – was a singularly great football play. The historical importance of it to the Patriots franchise in delivering a fourth Super Bowl title and preventing a third straight Super Bowl loss is even more far-reaching. It’s a play that symbolized a lot of things the Patriots under Bill Belichick have been about. It symbolized that it doesn’t matter how you got to the Patriots, it mattered what you did when you got there. Butler, an undrafted rookie who made the team in a tryout the previous spring, was on the field because another undrafted player, Kyle Arrington was getting lit up. A bold move but one that had to be made. It symbolized preparation and attention to detail. During the week of practice leading up to the game, Butler arrived late when the Patriots scout team offense ran the play and Jimmy Garoppolo beat Butler with a throw to Josh Boyce. The play needed to be sniffed out – it was by Butler and Brandon Browner – then executed with a great jam by Browner and an unhesitating break by Butler. It symbolized maintaining poise, which the Patriots had to do after the ridiculous juggling catch by Jermaine Kearse put Seattle on the brink of victory. It symbolized a measure of risk-taking and coaching by feel, as Bill Belichick eschewed a timeout and let the Seahawks run the play. That the coaches locking brains at the point – Belichick and his predecessor in New England, Pete Carroll – added another chapter to the backstory. You could write a book about this play.  

PLAY NUMBER: 1

THE YEAR: 2001

THE GAME: Jets, Patriots

THE PLAY: Mo Lewis changes course of NFL history with sideline hit on Drew Bledsoe

WHY IT’S HERE: While the Butler interception at No. 2 cemented legacies and places in history, the play at the top of this list was the one that started it all. If you paid attention to what Tom Brady was doing in training camp practices and preseason games (30-for-51 for 390 yards) and contrasted it with Bledsoe’s performances (so underwhelming he played the bulk of the fourth preseason game and went 14-for-22), you could see the gap between $100 million franchise quarterback and sixth-round afterthought was closing. But even with the Patriots losing at Cincy to open the season and Bledsoe playing  poorly against the Jets, it was still going to be very difficult for Bill Belichick to press the eject button on Bledsoe. The team was building a new stadium and Bledsoe was the hood ornament for the franchise. With ownership trying to sell luxury suites and sponsorships, benching the only marketable player for the worst team in the league might not be prudent. Then Mo Lewis intervened. With 5:19 remaining and the Patriots trailing 10-3, Bledsoe was flushed to the right on a third-and-10 from the Patriots 19. As he neared the sticks, Bledsoe saw Lewis coming and slowed to go out of bounds, then seemed to remember it was third down and he needed to push forward. Lewis had all the momentum and his devastating hit sheared an artery in Bledsoe’s chest and gave him a concussion. It was a terrible injury that caused internal bleeding and put Bledsoe in some touchy moments in the hospital. And that’s what sucked. Here was a solid person of good character with a young family who’d given a lot for the franchise (albeit for a handsome paycheck) and now he was seriously hurt. But what happened in Bledsoe’s absence only confirmed what many suspected. He was an impediment to winning. It was that simple. I don’t doubt for a moment Brady would have eventually taken Bledsoe’s job even if the injury hadn’t occurred. It might have been that week anyway Bledsoe was so ineffective against the Jets. But the course of the 2001 season wouldn’t have been the same and almost certainly wouldn’t have ended with Bledsoe hoisting a Lombardi in the Superdome on Feb. 3, 2002.

 

NFL: 'No credible evidence' Manning used PEDs

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NFL: 'No credible evidence' Manning used PEDs

The NFL released a statement on Monday saying that after a seven-month investigation into allegations made in a documentary produced by Al-Jazeera America, it found "no credible evidence" that Peyton Manning used HGH or any other performance-enhancing drugs. 

In its documentary, released in December, Al-Jazeera used former British sprinter Liam Collins to go undercover to try to expose PED use by athletes. Collins spoke at length with a supplement salesman named Charlie Sly, who claimed he worked with Manning at the Guyer Institute, an anti-aging clinic in Indianapolis following Manning's 2011 neck surgery, and that the Guyer Institute sent HGH to Manning's wife, Ashley.

Manning, who retired about a month after his Denver Broncos beat the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50,  vehemently denied the allegations. Meanwhile, Sly -- who was recorded by Collins without consent -- later recanted his claims.

The NFL did not release all the details of its investigation, but it explained in its statement that both Mannings were "fully cooperative" with the investigation. They agreed to interviews and provided access "to all records sought by investigators," the NFL said.

The league did say that its investigation was led by the NFL's security and legal teams with "support from expert consultants and other professionals." 

"The investigation involved witness interviews," the NFL said, "a review of relevant records and other materials, online research, and laboratory analysis and review."

Al-Jazeera's documentary implicated several other NFL players, including Steelers linebacker James Harrison, Packers linebackers Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers. The league said that its separate investigations into those claims are ongoing.

The NFL Players Association released the following statement regarding Manning:

As a former player, Peyton Manning is free to do whatever he believes is in his best interest. The Union knows that he understands the rights of players under the Collective Bargaining Agreement and would never do anything to hurt or undermine active players in support of those rights.