And yet, as the 15th zany Sunday of this increasingly ludicrous NFL season drew to a close, somehow it was the winning team that was beating itself up, while the losing team puffed out its chest and gave minimum credit to its conquerors.
"They're decent," Packers receiver Donald Driver said of the Patriots, who came into this game playing far better than any other team in the league over the past month. "I don't think they're a great team, but they're decent. I mean, give them credit. They found a way to win. But we had opportunities to beat them and we didn't take advantage."
Watch: Patriots Guard Dan Connolly Returns Kick 71 Yards
Opportunities are one thing, but the fact is, the Packers dominated this game and truly should have won it. They outgained the Patriots 369 yards to 249. They dominated time of possession, holding the ball for 40:48 to New England's 19:12. They converted 11 third downs to the Patriots' four. They led at halftime. They led in the fourth quarter. They had the ball and a chance to win in the game's final seconds.
But the Packers didn't have a 71-yard kickoff return by a 313-pound offensive lineman. The Patriots did. After Green Bay scored to go up 17-7 with 2:20 left in the first half, they kicked short and watched in horror as the ball was scooped up by Dan Connolly and run all the way back to the Packers 4.
"Anytime you see a 300-pounder running a kickoff back, that's a great feeling," Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo said. "You could feel the vibe change on the sideline. You could feel the momentum swinging back our way."
Three plays later, Tom Brady hit rookie tight end Aaron Hernandez for the first of Hernandez's two touchdown catches of the day, and the Pats went to halftime down three points instead of 10.
The Packers also didn't have an interception return for a touchdown. But the Patriots did. Cornerback Kyle Arrington picked off Flynn's first pass of the second half, broke four tackles and ran the ball back 36 yards for a touchdown and a 21-17 New England lead. Arrington said the play thrilled him because it brought back memories of his days as a little league and high school running back.
"Like riding a bike," Arrington said. "Muscle memory, you know?"
And in the end, while the Packers had a chance to win the game, they didn't have a timeout left when they needed one or the presence of mind to run the one competent play that would have given them a chance at a game-winning touchdown. With 29 seconds left in the game, Flynn hit Driver for a 10-yard gain on third-and-11. Driver said he was sure he had the first down at the Patriots' 15-yard-line, and he had plenty of company on his own team. But as Patriots coach Bill Belichick pointed out, it didn't matter whether the next play was 4th-and-1 or 1st-and-10 from the 15. The Packers had only one play left. New England knew it. Flynn and the Packers offense didn't seem to. And as Flynn tried to scramble to make something -- anything -- out of the few fading seconds he had left, he was sacked by Tully Banta-Cain and the clock expired.
"Clearly, this wasn't one of our better games," Belichick said. "We couldn't handle a lot of the basic things they did, and that was disappointing. Obviously, we've got to play a lot better than that, or our season won't last much longer.
But even if Belichick and Driver agreed on their assessment of how the league's presumptive top team looked on this particular Sunday night, they're being too harsh in the big picture. The Patriots have won eight straight games against teams with records of .500 or better. They've now played six games in a row in which they've scored at least 30 points and not turned the ball over, and no other team in league history has ever had more than three such games in a row.
And on this day in this year's NFL -- a day on which the Giants lost a 21-point lead in the final eight minutes at home, the Steelers lost at home to the previously reeling Jets, the NFC West assured itself that none of its teams will emerge from the regular season with a winning record, and the playoff-contending Buccaneers became the first team in more than three years to lose at home to the Lions -- the fact that the win wasn't pretty doesn't matter one bit.
"I like the blowouts a lot better," Mayo said. "But it's a win and we'll take it."
The Patriots left Gillette Stadium feeling as if they'd gotten away with one, the Packers as if they'd let one slip away.
"They are beatable," Driver assured the world on his way out. "That was a proven fact (Sunday). The last two weeks, they've been blowing people out, but we came in here and played them tough."
In the end, though, just not tough enough to win.
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