Considering that the New England Patriots and Green Bay Packers play in different conferences, seeing them meet is a special occasion worthy of prime time consideration: tonight’s game will be played in front of a national audience. The same was the case eight years ago, the last time the Packers made the trip to Gillette Stadium. And even though quarterback Aaron Rodgers missed the game, it turned into a memorable one.
The 11-2 Patriots entered their week 15 game against the 8-5 Packers as clear favorites not just because of Rodgers’ injury-related absence but also because New England dominated its opponents leading up to the game. Green Bay, meanwhile, was inconsistent even with Rodgers in the lineup and coming off an uninspiring 3-7 loss in Detroit. Early on, however, the two teams did not play the roles that have been expected before kickoff.
After going up 7-3 on their first possession, Tom Brady and the New England offense had a hard time getting into a rhythm against a well-organized Packers defense. This allowed Green Bay backup quarterback Matt Flynn to lead his team to a 17-7 advantage just outside of the two-minute warning. However, the 10-point lead was short-lived as the Packers’ third score of the day was immediately followed by the game’s signature play.
With dangerous returner Brandon Tate lining up deep, Green Bay decided to squib kick to limit the impact of a potential return. The plan backfired, as the football landed in the waiting arms of another able runner: starting right guard Dan Connolly. Serving as the Patriots’ up-man on the return team, the veteran fielded short kickoffs before. None of his first three was as spectacular as the fourth and final runback of his career, though:
Connolly cleanly caught the football and was able to get to the perimeter thanks to some good blocking up front and some terrible execution by the Packers’ coverage team. Once through the first line of defense, the then 28-year old was able to show off his speed and technique of holding onto the football. When all was said and done — 13 seconds after he caught the pass — Connolly was tackled at the Green Bay 4-yard line.
His 71-yard runback is not only the longest ever by an offensive lineman in NFL history, it also earned him AFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors. Most importantly, it set the Patriots up with some very good field position: three plays after his return, the team was able to get to the end zone and cut the deficit to three points. Furthermore, the runback shifted momentum to a Patriots team that was outmatched up to this point.
Coming out of halftime down 17-14, New England was able to register a pick-six and take a 21-17 lead. While the Packers fought back and went up 27-21 early in the fourth period, the Patriots prevailed to win the game 31-27 — a victory that may not have been possible without Dan Connolly’s epic kickoff return. But while the win helped the team secure the number one playoff seed, Green Bay had the last laugh.
New England was bounced from the playoffs in the divisional round, while the Packers with Rodgers back in the lineup won three straight postseason road games to reach and ultimately win Super Bowl XLV. Four years later, the Patriots and Connolly — by then the team’s starting left guard — found themselves on the top of the NFL mountaintop again. The most memorable moment of his career, however, remains his 71-yard return in 2010.