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.
The Patriots were better against the run in the second half when Vince Wilfork was lined up over center. They forced the Packers' to put the ball in Flynn's hands who continued to have success with short and intermediate passes. The drive culminated in a great play by John Kuhn who turned a swing pass to the flat into a 6 yard touchdown when Rob Ninkovich slipped. Vince Wilfork's facemask penalty was a further indication of the Patriots' hurting themselves on defense that had led to the Kuhn touchdown.
The Patriots' offense took over again after being on the sidelines for a long time. The offense was lacking momentum and received no pity from the Packers who turned up the heat by blitzing on repeated downs. The Packers forced another quick three and out before Flynn drove his team down the field to score another field goal.
The Patriots responded with a field goal drive of their own before Brady reminded everyone of why he is the favorite for the MVP this season by throwing another touchdown pass to Aaron Hernandez. It was one of the few drives in the game when the Patriots got good protection from their offensive line. The Packers could not get to Brady as he waited in the pocket for a long time allowing Hernandez to free himself from the attention of Sam Shields at the goal-line.
The Patriots were leading by 31-27 going into the final minutes of the game. It was a grandstand finish set up for the quarterback who was given no chance against the red hot favorites in their own stadium.
Flynn, who had tied a Packer rookie record by throwing 3 touchdowns in the game, led his team to the Patriots red-zone benefiting from another costly penalty by the Patriots that negated a Brandon Merriweather interception. Flynn couldn't calm himself before the final play of the game as time ran out. With 5 seconds left in the game, the ball was snapped at the Patriots 15 and before he could even let the ball go from his hand into the end-zone, Tully Banta Cain got the Patriots' 5th sack of the game and caused the second turnover to win the game for the playoff bound Patriots.
A scintillating game ended with the Home team continuing their streak of victories under Tom Brady while the Packers can only dream of what might have been had their team remained healthy throughout the season.
The Patriots(12-2) go into the final two games of the season with their playoff spot wrapped up while the Green Bay Packers(8-6) need the Chicago Bears to slip up if their season is to continue past the next two weeks.
The Atlanta Falcons and Pittsburgh Steelers joined the Patriots by confirming their spots in the playoffs this week.
Larry Fitzgerald became the youngest player in NFL History to reach 600 receptions in his career.
DeSean Jackson scored the only game-winning punt-return Touchdown as time expired in NFL History.
The Philadelphia Eagles scored 3 touchdowns in the final 8:17 to overcome an early 21 point deficit.
The Detroit Lions 23-20 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers ended the longest road losing streak in NFL history at 26 games.
Tim Tebow accounted for 226 yards and 2 touchdowns in his first ever start for the Denver Broncos but could not prevent his team from being blown out by the Raiders.
Ray Rice had 233 yards and 2 touchdowns to lead the Ravens in a very close home victory against the New Orleans Saints.
Dan Connolly had the longest kickoff return by an offensive lineman in NFL history for the Patriots against the Packers.
Peyton Manning and Tom Brady now share the exact same QB rating for their respective careers at 94.9.
Sam Bradford became the 3rd rookie in NFL history(Peyton Manning and Matt Ryan) to pass for 3'000 yards but could not prevent his team from losing at home to the Chiefs.
Tyjuan Hagler of the Colts became 1st linebacker with a kick return for a touchdown since 1975.