Green Bay Packers quarterback Matt Flynn watches the ball bounce toward New England Patriots linebacker Tully Banta-Cain on the final play in the fourth quarter at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., on Sunday, Dec. 19, 2010. Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Matt Flynn went toe-to-toe with the NFL’s best player and maybe its best team, and took the Green Bay Packers to the brink of a major upset on Sunday night.
But in the end, New England quarterback Tom Brady, the top candidate for this year’s NFL most valuable player award, got the touchdown he needed in the fourth quarter.
Flynn, the Packers’ plucky backup quarterback starting in place of the concussed Aaron Rodgers, couldn’t get the ball in the end zone in a chaotic final 30 seconds, taking a sack at the Patriots’ 15-yard line on the final play of a 31-27 loss at Gillette Stadium.
“I thought Matt did a lot of positive things tonight, I thought it was definitely something Matt Flynn can grow from,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “We came here to win, I want to make that clear. I thought he put us in position to win the football game. There’s a decision or two he wishes he had back, but I thought for his first start on a big stage against an excellent team he played very well and gave us a chance to win tonight.”
Even with the loss, the 8-6 Packers came away with their playoff destiny in their control because of a fortuitous day in other games.
With the New York Giants and Tampa Bay Buccaneers losing, the Packers are virtually assured of qualifying for the playoffs by winning their last two games, which are de facto playoff games, against the Giants and Chicago Bears. Both games are at Lambeau Field.
The Packers also remain in the race for the NFC North Division, though if Chicago wins at Minnesota on Monday night, the Bears wrap up the division title.
“We love it,” defensive end Ryan Pickett said. “We control out own destiny, last two games at home. We’re working and getting better. We like that.”
Flynn, a third-year pro with minimal meaningful playing time in the NFL, performed admirably in his first start. Statistically, he nearly matched Brady in passer rating (Brady’s was 110.2 points, Flynn 100.2), threw for 251 yards to Brady’s 163, and threw three touchdown’s to Brady’s two.
Flynn also had one costly play, an interception that Patriots safety Kyle Arrington returned 36 yards for a touchdown that put New England ahead 21-17 with 12:04 left in the third quarter. However, it’s unclear how much of the responsibility Flynn should bear for the interception, because receiver James Jones stopped his out route, possibly bumped off by another defender before the throw.
Flynn recovered to put 10 more points on the board and give the Packers a 27-21 lead early in the fourth quarter.
In the final 4:22, Flynn got the ball back at the Packers’ 43 and trailing by four points. He moved the Packers deep into New England territory, but with no timeouts remaining he couldn’t get them into the end zone in a final two-play sequence.
On a third-and-11 from the Patriots’ 25 with 29 seconds left, Flynn hit Donald Driver for a 10-yard gain. But the Packers lost at least 10 seconds waiting to see if they had the first down, so by the time they got lined up and the ball was snapped from the 15, there were only about 5 seconds left, which meant it was the game’s last play.
With the Patriots rushing only three men and playing eight in a zone, Flynn tried to step up in the pocket to buy some extra time for a receiver to work free in the end zone. But New England outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain sacked him, forcing a fumble that New England recovered after time ran out.
“We were right at the point if it was a first down we would have (spiked) the play (to stop the clock) and had a set play on second down,” McCarthy said. “But it takes the referee time to make the decision, it was a clear fourth-and-1, so you have to get up on the ball and take a shot at the end zone. I think Matt operated properly. They had a three-man rush and they sacked us. The mechanics of it, I thought, was very well done by Matt Flynn.”
The Patriots, who are tied with Atlanta for the NFL’s best record at 12-2, didn’t come close to dominating this game as they had in other recent wins but showed the resourcefulness that makes them perhaps the best team in the league.
Though Brady never got into a great rhythm against defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ mix of blitzes and coverage-oriented calls, he nevertheless extended his streak of passes without an interception to 292.
Brady led a quick and efficient game-winning drive in the middle of the fourth quarter. He completed all three of his passes while taking the Patriots 63 yards in little more than a minute, and ended the drive with a no-huddle play in which he directed traffic, then hit tight end Aaron Hernandez for a 10-yard touchdown on quick out that gave New England a 31-17 lead.
The Patriots also had the key turnover play on Arrington’s 36-yard interception return.
Late in the first half, they got an unexpectedly huge play when offensive lineman Dan Connolly fielded a squib kick and rumbled through the Packers’ coverage unit for 71 yards, to the Packers’ 4. That included picking up the final 15 or 20 yards after Charlie Peprah tried to strip the ball and missed the tackle. That set up Brady’s other touchdown pass to Hernandez, a one-yarder that pulled New England to within 17-14 with 1:08 left in the half.
The Packers also were able only to get a field goal on an early fourth-quarter drive in which they had a first-and-goal at the Patriots’ 2.
“Very good football team,” McCarthy said of the Patriots. “They made big plays, the kickoff cover, poor tackling by us on Connolly’s return, a huge play in the game. Their goal-line stand was a big one for them, and the interception returned for the touchdown. They made big plays in the game that were probably the difference. but we did a lot of positive things tonight. You can’t make those kind of mistakes on the road.”