Green Bay Packers Greg Jennings, left, and quarterback Matt Flynn celebrate a touchdown against the New England Patriots on Sunday night at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass. / Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Say this much about Matt Flynn, the stage wasn’t too big for him.
Sunday-night, prime-time football.
The New England Patriots.
The best quarterback in the game, Tom Brady, on the other sideline.
The Green Bay Packers’ backup quarterback handled just about all of it.
Except in the end, he couldn’t pull off one more drive that would have won the game.
With starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers on the bench — not yet cleared to return from the concussion he sustained a week earlier in a loss at Detroit, the Packers went down again in familiar fashion. Another close loss, this one a 31-27 defeat at Gillette Stadium in a game that, because Flynn was making his first NFL start, few gave the Packers a chance of being competitive in, let alone having the ball and driving for a game-winning score in the final minutes.
“I don’t care what you guys think, we came here to win,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “We’re nobody’s underdog.”
There was Flynn, the seventh-round draft pick who completed 24-of-37 passes for 251 yards and three touchdowns (with one interception), eyeing the kind of fourth-quarter close victory that has, at times, evaded Rodgers and McCarthy. But it all crumbled in a dizzying sequence of plays in the final minute that ended with a last-second, fourth-and-1 play from the Patriots’ 15-yard line. Flynn was sacked by linebacker Tully Banta-Cain on a three-man rush and fumbled to end the game.
The Packers had no timeouts left and had to cobble together a final play quickly because on the previous play, a pass to Donald Driver on third-and-10 from the 24, came up a yard short of the first down.
Maybe a more experienced quarterback would have handled the final play differently.
Or maybe not.
“I don’t think it was (inexperience) at all,” Flynn said. “That third-down play, we couldn’t really tell if he got the first down or not. We would have went up and clocked the ball and had an opportunity to call a better play. Once they spotted it late, that was fourth down, we had to go. I don’t feel it was experience.”
Flynn forged the Packers to a 17-7 second-quarter lead and had them ahead 27-21 early in the fourth quarter. He threw touchdown passes of 66 yards to James Jones), 1 yard to Greg Jennings and 6 yards to John Kuhn. But after the Patriots rallied with a field goal and then go-ahead touchdown with 7:14 to play, Flynn had two possessions to get the lead back. The first one ended after gaining just one first down but when the Packers got the ball back after forcing a three and out with 4:22, Flynn moved the team.
He survived an interception on the second play that was called back because of an illegal hands to the face penalty on Banta-Cain, who was trying to beat right tackle Bryan Bulaga. Flynn converted a third-and-1 from the Patriots’ 38 with a sneak and a third-and-4 from the 29 with a 5-yard crossing route to Driver. But he was sacked on the next play, when linebacker Dane Fletcher came unblocked around the outside of Bulaga.
“We had a mental mistake in the protection, and we were playing up hill at that point,” McCarthy said. “We had to waste a timeout after that play.”
And that was a timeout that would have come in handy before the final play, which was supposed to resemble the last-second scrambling touchdown pass Rodgers threw to Jordy Nelson at the end of regulation at Atlanta last month.
“They dropped eight into coverage and rushed three,” Flynn said. “We have four vertical (routes), and you have to move around and let the receivers work in the end zone a little bit. I stepped up trying to do that and never saw (Banta-Cain) behind me.”
Flynn’s lone interception was a killer. Leading 17-14 and with the ball to start the second half, Flynn wanted Jones on a slant on third-and-3 from his own 30. Problem was, Jones had to stop briefly to avoid running into a safety that was covering Jordy Nelson. At that instant, Flynn threw the ball and because Jones stopped, it allowed cornerback Kyle Arrington to jump the route. He picked it off and returned it 36 yards for a touchdown.
“If I would have run into him, it would probably would have been a (pass interference),” Jones said. “But I dodged him and was turned out of position. One of those plays.”
Flynn, who came in relief of Rodgers the previous week against the Lions and played the final two-plus quarters of a 7-3 loss, had all week to prepare for his start. And he may have to play this Sunday against the New York Giants. McCarthy said he wouldn’t have an update on Rodgers’ condition until Wednesday.
“I was a little nervous a couple of hours before the game but once you get out there on the field and start running around a little bit, the emotions go away, and you just starting playing football,” Flynn said. “The competitive juices start flowing, and you go out there trying to make plays.”