By: Bob George/
December 20, 2010

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FOXBOROUGH -- First of all, you get the Jets ruining the Patriots' division-clinching party by winning at Pittsburgh.

Then you get a depleted Patriot team running up against a game Green Bay Packer team that turned in one of those Any Given Sunday efforts and nearly shocked the entire pro football world.

All this, and nothing has changed for the Patriots, and even if they had lost, things would have still been okay where the playoffs are concerned.

A wacky evening at Gillette Stadium concluded with the Patriots barely hanging on to defeat the Packers, 31-27 in a game where the Patriots were 14-point favorites and the Packers were without their starting quarterback, Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers suffered a concussion last week at Detroit, leaving Matt Flynn as the starting quarterback for Green Bay. Flynn was literally written off as dead by most every expert, and the Patriots figured to literally coast to an easy home win.

But as you all know, that's why they play the game. The mother of all reverse locks almost happened. The Patriots did manage to win, but the Packers should be lauded for a supreme effort in defeat.

Three issues provided the backdrop for how this game turned out. First of all, most all of Patriot Nation figured that this game would be a division coronation, as well as locking up a first round bye. But the Steelers ruined that idea by gagging at home against the Jets, 22-17. No one around these parts expected the Steelers to lose that game at home against the reeling Jets, but Gang Green righted their ship and took it to the Steelers. The Steelers still managed to clinch a playoff berth, so go figure. This turn of events may have caused the Patriots to come down a few notches in intensity.

The second issue was that the Patriot defense was hugely shorthanded Sunday night. In addition to Brandon Spikes and his suspension, the Patriots were also without linemen Ron Brace, Myron Pryor and Mike Wright. Because of this, the Packer running game was a major factor in them hanging around all night long.

And finally, the game began with Mike McCarthy borrowing a page from the Sean Payton book of coaching. The Packers won the toss, elected to defer to the second half, then shocked the Patriots with an onside kick to open the game. Nick Collins recovered the kick at the Packer 47, and that play set the tone for the entire evening.

Offensively, the Packers did a marvelous job of mixing up the run and pass. In the end, the Packers had 38 running plays and 37 pass plays. Flynn finished with 24 of 37 passing for 251 yards and three touchdowns. He finished with a passer rating of 100.2. Brandon Jackson missed the century mark in rushing by one yard, and averaged 4.5 yards per carry. Jackson made most of his hay between the tackles, the Patriots sometimes having to use Vince Wilfork at defensive end and therefore opening up a lot of inside running lanes.

The Packer defense did well also most all game long, sacking Tom Brady three times and not giving up any overly huge plays. The Patriots stayed away from Clay Matthews as much as they could. Charles Woodson did yeoman's work against Wes Welker all game long and he was held to only three catches. Brady was held to only 163 yards passing, perhaps the best indication of how well the Packers contained the Patriot offense for most of the game.

But the Patriots did prevail in the end, and it was simply the fact that they made more plays than the Packers did.

Flynn threw one interception all evening long, but Kyle Arrington was able to return it 36 yards for a touchdown. That was a key play considering the Patriots ran only four offensive plays in the entire third quarter. The Packers followed the pick with a 13-play touchdown drive, but the Arrington interception kept the Patriots in the game and allowed the comeback in the fourth quarter.

In the decisive fourth quarter, the Patriot rushing attack helped overcome the shackles the Packers put on Brady. Danny Woodhead and BenJarvus Green-Ellis both averaged over six yards per carry. Throw in a 16-yard reverse by Aaron Hernandez, and the Patriots as a team averaged just over seven yards per rush. Green-Ellis did rip off a 33-yard scoring run in the first quarter, but Woodhead saved the bacon in the fourth quarter.

Then there was Dan Connolly. Just after the Packers had taken a 10-point lead at 17-7 on a touchdown pass from Flynn to Greg Jennings, Connolly took the ensuing kickoff at the Patriot 25, lumbered up the middle, and then took off down the left sideline nearly to the house before he was corralled at the Packer 4. It was a 71-yard return, the longest kickoff return by a lineman in NFL history. Three plays later, Hernandez caught a two-yard touchdown pass to make it 17-14 Packers at the half.

And in the end, the Packers suffered horrid clock management issues which helped make the ending a happy one for the Patriots. With 29 seconds left and no timeouts, Flynn hit Donald Driver at the Patriot 15 on third down and 11. They needed the 14 for a first down. But Flynn brought the team up to the line slowly, and they snapped the ball on fourth down with only 5 seconds left. Flynn rolled right and was hit by Tully Banta-Cain, and the ball came out. Wilfork fell on the ball at the 15 as time expired.

The Patriots came away with a win to square their record on NBC to 5-5, the only wins coming in 2007 and 2010. They beat the Packers for the first time in Foxborough since 1995; it was the Packers who handed the Patriots their first loss in Gillette Stadium history in 2002. Despite the win, the Patriots still need one more win to clinch the division and home field throughout the playoffs, as the Jets could still mathematically win the division.

They will try and get that win next week at Buffalo, who knocked Miami out of playoff contention with a 17-14 win in south Florida. If that doesn't work out, they get Miami at home in the season finale. One more win means that the road to the Super Bowl goes through Foxborough.

The Patriots would prefer that they handle Buffalo like they usually do, not get another nailbiter against Green Bay. The Patriots did manage to prevail on a night when they had far less than their best. But the Patriots have to assume that the Bills will play them like the Colts do, and things will then be okay.

Maybe it's better this way. The tougher it is on the Patriots, the better.