(WSCR) – With the Packers’ loss last night to the New England Patriots, the Bears can now clinch the NFC North title, and a spot in the playoffs.
The suddenly sluggish New England Patriots needed a lift.
They got a huge one from 313-pound Dan Connolly.
Showing the shiftiness of a receiver and the power of an offensive lineman — which he is — Connolly rumbled 71 yards for what is believed to be the longest kickoff return by an offensive lineman in NFL history, sparking the Patriots to a 31-27 victory against the Green Bay Packers on Sunday night.
“I’ve never seen anything happen so slow in my life,” Tom Brady said with a laugh. “They won’t be kicking to him anymore, I’ll tell you that.”
The return by Connolly, who later left with a head injury, set up Brady’s 2-yard scoring pass to Aaron Hernandez, cutting Green Bay’s lead at halftime to 17-14.
“When Dan made that play, you could see the vibe pick up and see the momentum swing in our favor,” Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo said.
The Patriots, who outscored their previous two opponents 81-10, had their hands full even with Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers missing the game with a concussion. Matt Flynn, in the first start of his three pro seasons, threw his first three touchdown passes in Rodgers’ place.
The game went down to the final play when Flynn, with the ball at the New England 15-yard line, lost it when he was sacked by Tully Banta-Cain. Vince Wilfork recovered for the Patriots (12-2), securing their sixth straight victory one week after they clinched a playoff berth.
Green Bay (8-6) suffered a serious blow to its playoff chances. The Packers trail Chicago (9-4) in the NFC North with the Bears playing at Minnesota on Monday night.
“We’ve got two games left,” Flynn said. “We’ve still got things in front of us.”
According to STATS LLC, the run by Connolly topped the 48-yard touchdown return by Atlanta’s Mal Snider in 1969. Complete official records have been kept since 1976.
Mason Crosby had kicked the ball short to avoid Brandon Tate, who has two kickoff returns for touchdowns this year.
“When you kick the ball, you’d like to kick it to an offensive lineman. That should be a positive,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “We did a very poor job there tackling.”
Safety Charlie Peprah had the first shot at the lumbering lineman.
“I tried to go for the ball thinking he was a big man without ball skills,” Peprah said. “I should have just made the tackle.”
The Patriots had beaten the New York Jets 45-3 and Bears 36-7 in their previous two games.
“Do I want to blow people out every game? Yeah,” Wilfork said, “but it doesn’t happen like that every time.”
Trailing 27-21, the Patriots scored on Shayne Graham’s 38-yard field goal with 11:05 left in the game and went ahead 31-27 on Brady’s second touchdown pass to Hernandez, a 10-yarder with 7:14 to go.
Brady broke Don Meredith’s record with his seventh straight game with at least two scoring passes and no interceptions. He has now gone nine games without an interception.
But he threw for only 163 yards, his third-fewest of the season.
“It certainly wasn’t one of our better games,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “We’ve got to play a lot better than this or our season won’t last much longer.”
Poor tackling by the Packers helped the Patriots score late in the second quarter and early in the third.
On the kickoff after Green Bay took a 17-7 lead with Flynn’s second touchdown pass, a 1-yarder to Greg Jennings, Connolly fielded the ball at the Patriots 25 on a squib kick by Crosby. Connolly cradled the ball in both arms before going down at the 4 and getting up with a huge smile visible inside his helmet. That set up Hernandez’s catch.
The Patriots then went ahead 21-17 just under 3 minutes into the third quarter when Kyle Arrington returned an interception 36 yards for a touchdown, shaking off one would-be tackler after another.
On the next series, the Packers took advantage of one of several costly Patriots penalties to take a 24-21 lead on Flynn’s 6-yard touchdown pass to John Kuhn with 5:08 to go. A 10-yard facemask penalty against nose tackle Wilfork had given Green Bay a first down at the 11.
“The plan was to get out there and cut it loose. The plan didn’t change because I was in; we went out and went after them,” Flynn said. “We did some good things. We moved the ball. But we lost, so we didn’t get it done.”
Rodgers was ruled out of the game Saturday after suffering his second concussion of the season Dec. 12 in a 7-3 loss at the Detroit Lions. McCarthy had no update on him after the game.
The Patriots’ mistakes began on the very first play of the game when Nick Collins recovered an onside kick by Crosby. The drive ended with Crosby’s 31-yard field goal.
But New England answered with a 33-yard scoring run by BenJarvus Green-Ellis on a seven-play, 73-yard drive.
The Packers regained the lead on Flynn’s 66-yard touchdown pass to James Jones on the first play of the second quarter then capitalized on two penalties to go ahead 17-7 with 2:17 left in the half.
An offside penalty against Wilfork on a third-down incomplete pass kept the drive going. A penalty against cornerback Devin McCourty for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Andrew Quarless gave the Packers a first down at the 30, and a defensive pass interference call against James Sanders in the end zone produced another first down at the 1-yard line.
* Brady stretched his streak to 292 passes without an interception. He trails only Bernie Kosar, who had 308 with Cleveland in 1990-91, and Bart Starr, who had 294 with Green Bay in 1964-65.
* The Packers rushed for 143 yards, their second highest total of the season.
* Belichick moved into sole possession of 10th place with his 175th victory as a head coach in regular-season and playoff games. He had been tied with Mike Holmgren.
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