Patriots

Connolly’s Kickoff Return Helps Patriots Beat Packers

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Patriots offensive lineman Dan Connolly (63) straight arms Green Bay Packers safety Charlie Peprah, center, on his way to the end zone on his touchdown during the second half of an NFL football game in Foxborough, Mass., Sunday Dec. 19, 2010. The Patriots won 31-27. At right is Patriots safety Sergio Brown.(AP Photo/Tim Cook)

Patriots offensive lineman Dan Connolly (63) straight arms Green Bay Packers safety Charlie Peprah, center, on his way to the end zone on his touchdown during the second half of an NFL football game in Foxborough, Mass., Sunday Dec. 19, 2010. The Patriots won 31-27. At right is Patriots safety Sergio Brown.(AP Photo/Tim Cook)

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FOXBORO (AP) – Dan Connolly caught the squib kick and buried the ball in his gut, protecting it with both hands to prepare for a hit that never came.

Following his blockers, New England’s 313-pound offensive lineman lumbered toward the middle of the field, tucked the ball under his left arm and took off for the left sideline.

Packers safety Charlie Peprah, a mere 203 pounds, tried to swat the ball free near the Green Bay 40, but Connolly pushed him away without slowing down.

Kicker Mason Crosby was easily sidestepped, and so was safety Atari Bigby as Connolly cut back toward the middle of the field. He was eventually brought down at the 4 after rumbling 71 yards to set up the first of two straight touchdowns that helped the Patriots take the lead and beat the Packers 31-27 on Sunday night.

“I’ve never seen anything happen so slow in my life,” said Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who broke Don Meredith’s record with his seventh straight game with two touchdowns and no interceptions. “That really was a big, big play in the game. … They won’t be kicking to him any more, I’ll tell you that.”

The Patriots had won consecutive blowouts — a combined score of 81-10 vs. the New York Jets and Chicago Bears — and seemed poised to add another after Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was sidelined with his second concussion of the season. But backup Matt Flynn, in his first career start, threw three touchdown passes and had Green Bay driving at the end of the game.

Brady, Belichick Not Happy After Patriots Narrow Win

On fourth-and-1 from the Patriots 15, Flynn was strip-sacked by linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, and Vince Wilfork fell on the ball with no time left to help New England (12-2) clinch its sixth straight win and match Atlanta for the NFL’s best record.

“Do I want to blow people out every game? Yeah,” Wilfork said, “but it doesn’t happen like that every time.”

Flynn completed 24 of 37 passes for 251 yards and three touchdowns. He had one interception, which was returned for a 36-yard touchdown by Patriots cornerback Kyle Arrington.

“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,” said Flynn, a seventh-round draft pick in 2008 after he led LSU to the NCAA championship. “We did some good things. We moved the ball. But we lost, so we didn’t get it done.”

Green Bay (8-6) trails Chicago (9-4) by 1 1/2 games in the NFC North.

“They made big plays in the game that were probably the difference,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “When you kick the ball, you’d like to kick it to an offensive lineman. That should be a positive.”

Connolly’s 71-yard return, which set up Brady’s 2-yard touchdown pass to Aaron Hernandez, is believed to be the longest by an offensive lineman in NFL history. Records before 1976 are incomplete, according to STATS LLC, but the run by Connolly topped the 48-yard touchdown return by Atlanta’s Mal Snider in 1969 that was thought to have been the longest ever.

“He was like Gayle Sayers out there,” Banta-Cain said. “A much bigger version.”

Connolly, who left the game with a head injury, was not available for comment afterward.

Brady completed 15 of 24 passes for 163 yards. He has gone nine games and 292 pass attempts without an interception, the third-longest streak in NFL history.

The two-time Super Bowl MVP needed only six plays to lead the Patriots 63 yards for the game-winning score that made it 31-27 with 7:14 left. He reached second down just once, going 4-for-4 passing for four first downs before hitting Hernandez from 10 yards out for their second TD of the game.

BenJarvus Green-Ellis scored on a 33-yard run, and Shayne Graham kicked a 38-yard field goal for the Patriots.

Crosby had 31- and 19-yard field goals for Green Bay, and he also had an onside kick on the opening kickoff that helped set up the Packers’ opening score. After Green-Ellis gave New England a 7-3 lead, the Packers went ahead on James Jones’ 66-yard touchdown catch on the first play of the second quarter and made it 17-7 on a 1-yard pass to Greg Jennings

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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