It was a night of surprises in Foxboro this past Sunday as the Green Bay Packers(8-6) were led into their matchup with the New England Patriots(12-2) by first time starter Matt Flynn.
Flynn was starting in place of the injured Aaron Rodgers on a team that is severely depleted through injury. The Packers had dealt with missing many starters throughout the season but the drop off from Rodgers to Flynn was expected to be too severe for the offense to deal with.
The Packers stuck with the Patriots until the final minutes but couldn't pull off the shock of the season when Flynn was sacked and stripped of the ball by Tully Banta Cain at the Patriots' 18 yard line as time expired. However, that didn't stop the Patriots from shocking us all repeatedly throughout the game.
From the very first second of the game the Packers showed no fear in the eyes of their celebrated opponents. Head Coach Mike McCarthy called for Mason Crosby to kick a surprise onside kick that was recovered by Nick Collins on the opening kickoff.
There was no surprise to the Packers strategy on the opening possession as they ran their trio of running backs, Brandon Jackson, John Kuhn and Dimitri Nance, on 5 of the first 7 offensive plays from scrimmage. The opening drive was a textbook performance from Packers coordinator Joe Philbin who called short high percentage throws for his young quarterback to build his confidence while keeping the defense honest by committing to the running game. The Packers moved the ball effectively but the Patriots held them to a field goal as they turned up the heat on the young quarterback. Blitzing Flynn was to be a staple of this game for the Patriots' defense.
It wasn't a major surprise to see the Patriots run the ball more in this game than they had throughout the season. The Packers defense was ranked 3rd against the pass coming into the game and 19th against the run. The Patriots exposed the defense's frailty early on when Ben-Jarvus GreenEllis burst through the defensive line and outran the secondary to score from 33 yards. Charles Woodson had dropped the chance to pick off a Tom Brady pass on the play before GreenEllis' touchdown run.
The secondary of the Packers was enigmatic throughout the game as they played brilliant coverage against the Patriots talented receivers but couldn't take advantage of the turnover opportunities that came their way. They had three clear cut chances to end Brady's record streak of not throwing an interception. The coverage on the back end of the defense allowed the Packers front seven to get pressure on Brady. Brady was sacked on the first drive of the game after GreenEllis missed his blocking assignment, it was the first of three sacks against the Patriots(2 from BJ Raji, 1 from Bishop) on the day that highlighted the constant pressure the Packers were able to put on Brady in the pocket.
The Patriots should have taken notice of the Packers blitz packages as their own pressure package was the only thing that was flustering Flynn. The Patriots got pressure on Flynn every time they blitzed him but the young quarterback showed off his best Aaron Rodgers' impression when he dropped back and zipped the ball down the right sideline to James Jones for a 66 yard touchdown in the second quarter. Flynn fit the ball between Devin McCourty and Brandon Merriweather to allow Jones to stroll into the end-zone.
The Patriots offensive line struggles continued on the next series as a quick three and out ensued. The Packers took over once more and Flynn continued to spread the ball around while also benefiting from the Patriots own lack of discipline. Three crucial penalties by Vince Wilfork, James Sanders and Devin McCourty led to an eventual 1 yard touchdown from Flynn to Greg Jennings. Jennings ran a great route to gain position on Kyle Arrington before using his body to shield the ball into his chest. That gave the Packers a 17-7 lead approaching the end of the second quarter.
In what was a weekend of kickoff returns the Patriots benefitted from an unlikely hero just before the half. Right Guard Dan Connolly returned the kickoff after the Jennings' touchdown for 71 yards, a record for an offensive lineman, to the Packers 4 that led to a Patriots' touchdown. The Packers' defense stood firm on the first two plays before Brady found Aaron Hernandez over the middle of the end-zone. It was Brady's 255th career touchdown that tied him for 11th on the all time list with Sonny Jurgenson.
Cracks began to form in the Packers' offense when the Patriots blitzed Flynn repeatedly in the second half. Flynn threw an interception on the first drive of the third quarter that was returned for a touchdown by Kyle Arrington. While Flynn wasn't to blame for the interception, James Jones did not finish his route, he would not have thrown the ball had it not bee for the pressure applied by Tully Banta Cain. It was the first interception of Arrington's career and the 4th interception returned for a touchdown by the Patriots this season. The Patriots have 8 non offensive touchdowns this season, one off their all time record of 9.