It wasn't easy, but the Patriots managed to move on to 12-2 on the season with a thrilling 31-27 victory over the Green Bay Packers, a victory marred by a lot of inconsistencies in all three phases of the game for the Patriots.
Things didn't start out pretty: the Packers opened up the game with a successful onside kick attempt, putting the Patriots on their heels early. The Packers then moved down the field, with the Patriots holding them to a field goal.
Down 3-0, the Patriots would answer quickly. In a third and five, Tom Brady found Rob Gronkowski in man coverage streaking over the middle for a 25 yard gain. Following a B.J. Raji sack, the Patriots found themselves in a 3rd and 17. That didn't stop Tom Brady, who threw a rope to Deion Branch on the left sideline for the first down. The next play, BenJarvus Green-Ellis was off, rumbling his way to a big 33 yard touchdown.
After forcing a three and out, then failing to sustain a decent drive, the Packers got the ball back near the end of the 1st quarter. On a third and seven on the first play of the second quarter, Packers' quarterback Matt Flynn took advantage of a three man rush, threw it deep down the sideline to James Jones who caught the ball for a 66 yard touchdown. The catch was greatly aided due to a poor angle taken by Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather, who came up and got tangled with Devin McCourty, allowing Jones to go free for the score and a 10-7 Packers lead.
The teams then traded a couple of 3 and outs and short possessions, and the Packers took back the ball with just under nine minutes to go in the quarter. What ensued was a 14 play, 82 yard touchdown drive that included four Green Bay Packers 1st downs, all of which were 3rd and four or greater. The drive was backbreaking, and there's no question it winded the Patriots defense.
Down 17-7 with just over two minutes to go in the half, we had the play of the day. The Packers squibbed the ball to keep it away from Brandon Tate, and it bounced into the hands of guard Dan Connolly. Connolly ended up taking the ball 71 yards down to the Green Bay four yard line, due to some excellent blocks, and a little razzle dazzle on the big man's part. It was a play that likely had every household watching the game in laughter, and I know it's a play that I'll remember for a long time to come. Of course, the best part about the play was the field position it set the Patriots up with. On a third and goal, with time running down in the half, Tom Brady was able to find rookie tight end Aaron Hernandez for the touchdown. Suddenly, the Patriots were down just 17-14 entering the second half.
Full recap and analysis of the 2nd half after the jump!
Things only got better as the second half began. Just over two minutes into the second quarter, a solid pass rush from defensive end/outside linebacker Eric Moore forced a quick Matt Flynn throw, which landed of the hands of Kyle Arrington, who broke off the outside after reading the pass. Arrington made a magnificent return, breaking four tackles and somehow getting his way into the end zone, giving the Patriots a 21-17 lead.
But just when you thought the wheels might come off for the Packers, Matt Flynn led the Packers straight down the field again. It was a great balance of run and pass, a balance which the Packers sustained throughout the night. With all of the injuries along the defensive line, and especially the suspension of Brandon Spikes, the Patriots struggled to stop the run. There's no question, in my opinion, that having Spikes back come playoff time will help the Patriots' run defense tremendously. Gary Guyton has played well in Spikes' absence, but he simply isn't the same player against the run.
After the 13 yard drive gave the Packers back the lead at 24-21, Tom Brady and the Patriots offense took with just over five minutes to go in the third, for their first possession of the second half. It didn't last long, as the group went three and out, giving possession back to the Packers offense.
With the ball back in his hands, Matt Flynn picked up where he left off at the end of the Packers' previous touchdown drive. He led the Packers down to the New England one and a half yard line, before the Patriots defense turned the tide of the game with a critical goal line stand. While a touchdown would have given Green Bay a two score lead with under a quarter to play, the Patriots' defense stiffened with a defensive stop that was boosted by a stop by Rob Ninkovich on 1st down, then a beautiful tackle for a loss by Devin McCourty, who came off the edge, on second down. On third and goal, Green Bay went to the play-action, but it failed, forcing them to settle for a Mason Crosby field goal and just a six point lead at 27-21.
So the Patriots, who had executed just three offensive plays in the half, took back over with just under 14 minutes to play. Tom Brady moved the offense quickly down the field, thanks in large part to a 35 yard completion on the first play of the possession, a play that was made possible due to a beautiful blitz pickup by BenJarvus Green-Ellis on a blitzing Green Bay linebacker. Ultimately, the drive stalled, and the Patriots were forced to settle for a field goal which made the score 27-24.
The Patriots defense then finally came up with a key three and out. They forced the Packers to a third and fourteen in part due to a Devin McCourty sack on first down.
With the stop, the Patriots got the ball back with under ten minutes to play at their own 37. Although the drive was short(six plays), the Patriots finally showed a balanced mix of run and pass on the drive. Danny Woodhead had runs of 7, 5, and 13, as well as a first down catch. The drive was capped off by a Brady touchdown to Aaron Hernandez, who found single coverage on the outside with space to work with following a Tom Brady audible. Hernandez ran a simple out and got the separation he needed, going in for the 10 yard score. The score was 31-27.
After trading a couple of possessions, the Packers took back over with a short field and just over four minutes to play in the game. For a moment, it seemed that the game had been won by the Patriots by a Brandon Meriweather interception. However, the play was called back due to an illegal hands to the face by Tully Banta-Cain near the line of scrimmage. It was a costly mistake, and it seemed, for a little while, that the Packers might take advantage.
However, when the Patriots defense needed it most, they stepped up. On a first and ten from the Patriots' 24, Dane Fletcher got free on a blitz and sacked quarterback Matt Flynn for an eight yard loss, forcing the Packers to take their final timeout with 53 seconds to go. On second down, Flynn found James Jones for seven yards, in bounds. Tick, tick, tick. On third down, Flynn looked to the middle and found veteran Donald Driver, who appeared he would get the first down. However, a great open field tackle by Pat Chung forced a fourth and one which eliminated the possibility of a spike to stop the ball. With the clock at 20 seconds and dwindling, Matt Flynn struggled getting his play set. Flynn got the snap off with five seconds to go, tried to step up but was mauled by Tully Banta-Cain for the sack, ending the game and sealing a 31-27 Patriots victory.
While the win wasn't pretty, I'll take it. The victory showed that the team can win while not playing it's best football. Tom Brady didn't see the field much, as the defense struggled to defend the run, which opened up a lot of things for Packers quarterback Matt Flynn. The Patriots lost their balance offensive as well. The blocking was suspect, especially up the middle. The Packers played a lot of tight man coverage on Patriots receivers and it really seemed to disrupt things and timing for Tom Brady and the offense. And the defense made Matt Flynn look like an all-pro much of the night. Still, they came up with five sacks and were effective when they brought extra men on the blitz. They also made the plays when it counted: the Arrington pick-six, the goal line stand, the final defensive stop to seal the win. Again, it wasn't the way you would like to win as a football team, but ultimately, the Pats got the win and are now just one victory away from clinching home field advantage throughout the playoffs.