FOXBOROUGH – Let's be honest ... New England should've lost this one.
From the opening kickoff – which Green Bay brazenly on-side kicked and recovered – the Packers outplayed the Patriots.
Backup quarterback Matt Flynn, understudy for the concussed starter Aaron Rodgers, lit up the Patriots defense with three touchdowns and some clutch throws on the run. The so-called anemic Green Bay rushing attack actually attacked New England's underbelly, softened due to a rash of injuries along the defensive line. The Pack accrued 143 yards on the ground, 99 of which came from Brandon Jacksonalone.
On defense, Green Bay stifled the highest-scoring offense in the league for the better part of three quarters. Packers defenders brought heat on Tom Bradyall night, getting him to the ground three times and putting the Patriots in numerous third-and-long predicaments.
Oh, but let's not give all the credit to Packers head coach Mike McCarthy'steam. The Patriots did a bang-up job beating themselves as well. Seven penalties, a few of which were the 15-yard variety, helped Green Bay possess the ball for exactly two-thirds of the game. That's right: 40 minutes, 48 seconds.
New England's defense also let Flynn shake loose of their clutches too many times, only to complete tough passes downfield for big gains.
"I don't know what it was. Our overall awareness just wasn't where it was supposed to be today," linebacker Tully Banta-Cainlamented in the post-game Patriots locker room.
"We tackled poorly today. And we had a lot of penalties, which extended those drives," noted linebacker and co-captain Jerod Mayo.
"It certainly wasn't one of our better games and obviously I've got to do a lot better job preparing the team than what I did this week. We couldn't handle a lot of the basic things that they did and that was disappointing," a clearly disgusted Bill Belichicktold reporters.
"We need to play better than this or our season won't last much longer."
OK, we get it. The Patriots didn't play well Sunday night.
But they did win the football game.
New England's Brady-led offense did score points when they needed to, in the clutch. And once again, unheralded players made big plays in crucial moments.
Rookie cornerback Devin McCourty, battling a battered rib from last week's win over Chicago, toughed it out and made a key sack of Flynn in the fourth quarter. His partner on the other side, Kyle Arrington, opened the second half by registering his first NFL interception, which he took to the house after breaking four tackles (including a brave attempt by Flynn himself).
Rob Ninkovichand rookie Dane Fletcheralso got in the backfield to bring Flynn down – Fletcher's coming with little more than a minute left in the game.
"Just the overall maturity," Mayo marveled, when asked to explain how this seemingly rag-tag defense is keeping it together when the game is on the line.
"These young guys are really stepping up and making plays. Devin had a great play, Kyle made a great play on the interception. We need those, especially going into the playoffs."
"That's what we're paid to do. You have to dig deep in these games. When it comes down to it, somebody's got to make a play."
Somebody … like Dan Connolly.
The guy who filled in admirably for Logan Mankinsat left guard during his holdout, and who's been stepping in for the injured Stephen Nealon the right lately, is also a wedge blocker on the kickoff return team. After Flynn put the Pack up 17-7 with 2:20 left in the first half, Green Bay kicker Mason Crosbybooted a squib kickoff in Connolly's direction.
The o-lineman calmly fielded the ball and, displaying some nifty moves for a 300-pounder, rumbled 71 yards. Four more and he would've scored a touchdown, but what he gained was good enough for an NFL record – longest kickoff return by an offensive lineman. By far.
Connolly's career highlight helped the Patriots trim Green Bay's halftime lead to just three, providing a momentum shift that carried over into the second half.
"I am not sad [with] a victory," insisted nose tackle and co-captain Vince Wilfork. "I am not worried about how we won, but there are things that we can clean up and get better at. We won, we will look at corrections and move on because we are going to have to win more ball games than this if we want to get where we want to be."
"We're definitely capable of playing a lot better than we showed," added Arrington.
It wasn't a great effort by the Patriots. Not the kind that'll win you many games in this league. But this time, at least, it was just good enough.