Patriots Escape with 12th Win; Top Packers 31-27

The past couple of weeks the Patriots have won games blowing out teams and pounding them into the ground with their offense and a defense that has been as stingy as any.

Sunday night at home against a short-handed Green Bay Packers squad, it was the Pats that were playing the role of the comeback kids, but in the end, they were still able to find a way to win their 12th game of the 2010 season.

Despite being outgained 369 to 249 and only having the ball for 19:12 on offense, the Pats pulled off a 31-27 win, putting them in prime position to be the AFC’s #1 seed entering the playoffs.

Quarterback Tom Brady passed for 163 yards and two touchdowns, including the go-ahead score to Aaron Hernandez in the fourth quarter, to help the Pats pick up their sixth consecutive victory.

It wasn’t easy against Green Bay backup quarterback Matt Flynn, who was playing for Aaron Rodgers and threw for three touchdowns in his first career start. He had the Packers in position for last season heroics, but a hectic final minute allowed New England to escape with the win.

Flynn completed 24-of-37 throws for 251 yards and had the Packers deep in Patriots territory inside the final 60 seconds. An apparent failure to get organized with time winding down left Flynn with one last shot, and Tully Banta-Cain sacked him from behind to force a fumble and end the game. Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said he thought Flynn operated the final play properly.

“The mechanics of it I thought was very well done by Matt Flynn,” McCarthy said.

The Packers (8-6) suffered a second straight defeat and are now in danger of missing the playoffs altogether. Their loss means Chicago can clinch the NFC North by winning Monday night’s game against Minnesota, and Green Bay is also currently trailing New Orleans and the New York Giants in the wild card race.

But for Green Bay to have changed that meant it would have had to overcome long odds. The Packers were facing a Patriots team that had won 15 consecutive regular-season home games and 21 of its last 22 contests against NFC clubs. They were facing Brady, who had won his last 26 regular-season starts at Gillette Stadium. On top of that, they were led by a third-year quarterback who had never before started an NFL game.

Yet only 71 seconds into the fourth quarter, Mason Crosby kicked a 19-yard field goal to give Green Bay a 27-21 lead. The Patriots, though, got the points back on Shayne Graham’s 38-yard try with 11:05 to play, then got the ball back after forcing a Packers three-and-out.

Brady led New England 63 yards in six plays, completing first-down passes to Danny Woodhead and Deion Branch before Woodhead ran for 13 yards to bring the Patriots to the Green Bay 10-yard line. On the next play, Brady threw a short pass to Hernandez on the left side of the field, and the tight end broke a tackle before strutting into the end zone with 7:14 on the clock.

After the teams traded punts, Green Bay started a drive at its own 43 with 4:22 to play and two timeouts.

The Packers looked like they were doomed on the second play, when safety Brandon Meriweather intercepted Flynn’s deep pass for Greg Jennings. However, Banta-Cain was flagged for illegal use of his hands, giving Green Bay a first down at the New England 47.

Three consecutive running plays resulted in a first down at the two-minute warning, and Flynn kept the chains moving with his passing. Faced with a 3rd- and-4 at the New England 29, Flynn connected with Donald Driver for five yards, and Green Bay called its second timeout with 1:05 left.

But rookie linebacker Dane Fletcher likely saved the game for the Patriots on the next play, sacking Flynn for an eight-yard loss. Not only did the play move Green Bay backward, it forced the Packers to use their final timeout with 53 seconds left.

When Flynn got back under center, Green Bay faced a 2nd-and-18 and needed to pick up yardage quickly. He passed to James Jones for seven yards before completing a pass to Driver cutting across the middle.

Pat Chung’s ankle tackle left Driver a yard short of the first down, though, meaning Green Bay wasn’t able to spike the ball. Flynn and the Packers struggled to get a play called, and by the time he took the snap, there were only five seconds left. Flynn searched for a receiver until Banta-Cain snuck up from behind for the sack and fumble. Vince Wilfork recovered to secure the Patriots’ win.

“They gave us all we could handle tonight, so you give them a lot of credit,” Brady said. “They played from the opening kickoff to the last play of the game. It took all 60 minutes.”

Green Bay posed a challenge from the start, beginning the game with a successful onside kick. Crosby kicked a 31-yarder to open the scoring, and the Patriots followed with a 33-yard touchdown run by BenJarvus Green-Ellis.

Flynn put the Packers back in front on the first play of the second quarter, when he connected with Jones for a 66-yard touchdown.

Green Bay made it a 17-7 game later in the half thanks to a long drive. The Packers went 82 yards in 13 plays while taking nearly 6 1/2 minutes off the clock. Flynn capped the march with a one-yard pass to Jennings with 2:17 left.

However, Patriots lineman Dan Connolly returned the kickoff 71 yards to set New England up at the Green Bay four. Three plays later, Brady hit Hernandez for a two-yard touchdown to get the Patriots within 17-14 at the break.

“It was an unbelievable play,” Brady said of Connolly’s return. “I can never imagine anything like that is going to happen, and that really was a big play in the game. So if it happens, we’ve got to take advantage of it … They won’t be kicking to him anymore, I’ll tell you that.”

New England took the lead three minutes into the third quarter, when Kyle Arrington picked off Flynn and returned the ball 36 yards for a score.

Green Bay responded with another long drive, a 13-play progression that Flynn ended with a six-yard pass to fullback John Kuhn, giving Green Bay a 24-21 lead.

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