- Jackie MacMullan, ESPNBoston.com columnist
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- So it turns out they are human; still bound for the Super Bowl, perhaps, but with blemishes and calluses and bruises and, well, weaknesses.
The New England Patriots probably should have lost to the Green Bay Packers on Sunday night in what unfolded as the most peculiar game of their season. The fact that they escaped with a 31-27 victory merely reinforces the notion that they are card-carrying members of the NFL's elite and that Tom Brady remains the quarterback against whom all others should be measured when a game is hanging in the balance. The truly good teams make big plays when it matters.
So what if some of those "big plays" were spawned from the theater of the football absurd? Bill Belichick has proved to be both innovative and daring during his tenure in New England, but even he couldn't have imagined drawing up a 71-yard kickoff return for 313-pound guard Dan Connolly.
When Green Bay's Mason Crosby delivered a "hook shot kick" in Connolly's direction, the offensive lineman deftly fielded the ball and lumbered down the field to the Green Bay 4-yard line protecting the football as if it was his firstborn infant. The pivotal play enabled his team to punch the ball into the end zone three plays later and shave a potential 10-point halftime deficit down to 3. Connolly, who later left the game with a head injury, was the talk of the Patriots' locker room afterward.
"He was like Gale Sayers -- only bigger," linebacker Tully Banta-Cain cracked.
"I've never seen anything happen so slow in my life," Brady said, grinning.
The Patriots will happily move on from this tenuous victory, but not before Belichick tortures them with a lowlight reel of their most egregious errors.
The guess here is there will be plenty to choose from. There were poor tackles, blown coverages, dropped balls, ill-timed throws and seven penalties for 52 yards, all of which was in direct contrast to the previous two weeks, when New England obliterated the New York Jets and the Chicago Bears with nearly mistake-free football. The Patriots have been playing at such an extraordinarily high level, there was no place to go but down. Consider this game a reality check.
The coach certainly did.
"I think we need to play better than this or our season won't last much longer," Belichick said.
Belichick maintained that his team was unable to handle some of the "basic things" the Packers presented. The first was a perfectly executed onside kick to open the game that totally caught New England napping and, a full 6 minutes and 15 seconds later, led to a field goal and a 3-0 Green Bay advantage.
The message wasn't difficult to decipher. Even without Aaron Rodgers, the superb quarterback who missed this game with a concussion, the visitors planned on fighting for their playoff lives.
"We just didn't believe the hype coming in about not having a chance," Packers defensive end Ryan Pickett said.
Rodgers' replacement was a bit of a mystery to New England. Matt Flynn was a seventh-round draft pick out of LSU who came from good football stock (his dad was a quarterback at Baylor), but had never started a professional football game.
The Patriots prepared as best they could with limited game film, but the kid threw a few wrinkles at them they weren't expecting. He proved to be elusive in the pocket, ran some nifty bootleg plays, and, for most of the night, exhibited considerable poise.
"It was an odd game," Patriots linebacker Dane Fletcher conceded. "Because of all the personnel changes, we practiced things we saw on film, but they ran some formations we hadn't seen before. There was a different look to some of the stuff they did."
Flynn and his offense did commit a couple of costly gaffes, including a third-quarter throw that Kyle Arrington picked off and ran back 36 yards for a score. In the Packers' locker room afterward, receiver James Jones took responsibility for the turnover because of an incorrect route.
The contrast in fortunes of the two teams was evident in the final minutes. While Brady calmly marched his offense down the field, culminated by an Aaron Hernandez touchdown catch, the Packers appeared confused on their final efforts to punch it in.
Fletcher was left untouched as he charged at Flynn and sacked him for an 8-yard loss with 0:51 to go. Then, with precious seconds ticking off the clock, Flynn appeared almost nonchalant as he stepped to the line to take one final shot at the end zone. He later explained that on the second-to-last play, it was unclear to him whether the Packers had gained a first down.
"If we had known, we would have gone up and clocked the ball and had an opportunity to call a better play," Flynn said. "But once they spotted it the way they did, it was fourth down and we just had to go."
The Packers leave knowing they let one slip away, and, as a result, may be on the outside looking in come playoff time. The Patriots wave goodbye knowing they survived a night to forget and will spend more time than they'd like in the days before Christmas replaying the miscues of a Sunday night at Gillette.
Still, the Patriots emerged unscathed, for the most part. Brady's streak of passes without a interception was extended to 292, even though there were at least three balls that Green Bay nearly picked off.
"Sometimes, you need games like this," linebacker Jerod Mayo surmised. "If you can learn something from it, then it's worth it."
To err is human -- even when you are the best team in football.
Jackie MacMullan, who has spent nearly 20 years as a beat writer and columnist in Boston, is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.
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