Five observations from the New England Patriots' 31-27 victory over the Green Bay Packers on Sunday night:
1. Getting into the mind of Dan Connolly on the unforgettable 71-yard kickoff return. Connolly plays on the back row of the kickoff return unit. I was a member of that unit for the majority of my career. You're back there because you can block, but the coaches also have enough trust in your abilities to know if a ball is squibbed your way you can field it and get some kind of positive yardage. I have had my share of returns, but nothing even close to that of Connolly's 71-yarder. Because Connolly sustained a head injury, he didn't speak with reporters after the game, so here is my attempt to get into his mind for that once-in-a-lifetime experience:
"OK, here we go, I've got the L5 to block, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Got it. Get ready, here comes the kick. It's a squib! It's coming right at me! I've got this. Wait for the bounce … time the bounce … there it is, it's up in the air. I've just got to get under it. Got it! Now don't fumble!
Get both arms around this bad boy and just run straight ahead. They'll tackle me soon. I see a lot of Packers in front of me, why don't I try to go left. Yeah, good idea. I should be tackled soon anyway.
Wait, where is everybody? I'm still running? They're gonna tackle me soon, right? I'm in the clear! Run faster! I can't believe they haven't tackled me yet! I'm still running! Why am I carrying the ball like a little girl carries her teddy bear? Just keep running! Oh man, so this is what it feels like. I'm pretty good at this!
Here comes somebody. Let me try this stiff-arm. I've seen Benny [BenJarvus Green-Ellis] do this a lot. It worked! I'm still running! I can score! Oooh blockers, sweet! Block the kicker! Good job! Cutback time, baby! I've never run this far in my life! I see it! I can score!
How will I celebrate? Should I dance? Why am I falling? I can't believe they tackled me. Is it over? How close was I? Four-yard line? I should've scored!"
And THAT is a dream come true for any offensive lineman or linebacker who has ever played the infamous "back row."
2. Packers had the right formula -- for the most part. The Packers did a nice job establishing the run game, attacking the Patriots' decimated defensive line. They took a lot of time off the clock, which kept the ball out of Tom Brady's hands. When you play the Patriots you have to steal possessions, and that's why that onside kick to open the game was big. It's like a turnover. So the Packers had the right formula, but they were hurt by missed opportunities. Charles Woodson had the chance for an interception of Tom Brady in the first quarter but didn't catch the ball, and two plays later BenJarvus Green-Ellis had a 33-yard touchdown run. There was another tipped pass to receiver Julian Edelman that linebacker Erik Walden couldn't corral, and the Patriots got three points out of it. So that's 10 points right there. Last week, we talked about MOBPs -- missed opportunities for a big play -- and how you just can't have them against the Patriots. The other part that hurt the Packers was tackling, but not on defense. Their tackling on special teams and offense hurt them -- on Connolly's 71-yard return and cornerback Kyle Arrington's 36-yard interception return for a touchdown. On the Arrington play, you just want to give your defense -- with those good cover corners -- a chance to stop the Patriots, maybe hold them to 3 points. But you miss four tackles and you give the Patriots points on a day when their offense isn't firing on all cylinders.
3. Defending onside kicks is a challenge. A surprise onside kick can be difficult to defend, especially when it is so well executed like the Packers did to open the game. It is easy to say that James Sanders should not have backed up until he saw the ball leave the tee, but until you've been in that position, it's easier said than done. The job of a front-row player is to run 30 to 40 yards down the field, knowing that the guy you have to block already has 10 yards of momentum on you, building up to full speed. Not only that, you have to turn your back to the full-speed attacker, get to your drop point, then flip your hips and re-find him. So he is at top speed and you're trying to execute the block flat-footed. Sometimes those players coming down the field can twist with another guy and that will change your responsibility. When you factor in all of that, one can understand why a front-row player sometimes tries to get a head start. Sanders took a half-step back and the onside kick was executed perfectly -- the right speed on the ball, perfect angle, and it hit someone on the Packers and allowed safety Nick Collins to recover. Sometimes there is no defense for a perfectly executed play. Props to the Packers and especially head coach Mike McCarthy for a gutsy call that was perfectly executed.
4. Didn't seem right on McCourty penalty. When cornerback Devin McCourty got penalized for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Packers tight end Andrew Quarless in the second quarter, there was a long delay before referee Ed Hochuli's crew threw a flag. Hochuli gathered his crew after the play, and as those in the stadium saw a replay on the video screen, it presented an opportunity for Hochuli to get a second look at the hit. After the replay was played on the video screen, the penalty flag was thrown. Did Hochuli get a look at the play on the screen? And if he did, are officials now allowed to use stadium video screens to help them make calls on plays that have already occurred? Aren't they supposed to call penalties as they see them LIVE? You either see the infraction and throw the flag or move on to the next down. This play was over. Hochuli and his crew might have set a new precedent if in fact they did get a look at the replay. Can officials look at replays of past plays and call penalties that they missed? "Hey Ref! You missed that holding call. Look at the replay. You see it now? Throw the flag." I think Hochuli did that.
5. OK to do some scoreboard watching. You often hear players say that they don't watch the scoreboard, and that's the right approach. But if you're a Patriot and thinking about the best long-term interests of the franchise, there is some scoreboard-watching that is allowed over the last two weeks. The first thing to do is take care of business, beat the Bills, and get that first-round bye and home-field advantage. But on top of that, the Raiders, Panthers and Vikings are teams that should be watched on the scoreboard because the more they lose, the better draft picks the Patriots will receive. The Patriots have the Raiders' first-round pick, the Panthers' second-round pick and the Vikings' third-round pick in the 2011 draft. So if you're a Patriots fan, you want to see the Raiders -- right now at 7-7 and looking at a middle-of-the-pack pick -- lose to the Colts at home and the Chiefs on the road. The Panthers, with two wins, have the top pick right now, so their second-rounder will be a very good spot. The rooting can start tonight, as the Vikings face the Bears on "Monday Night Football."