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Comeback victory includes a warning

A bunch of nifty moves on his interception return let Kyle Arrington soar into the end zone. A bunch of nifty moves on his interception return let Kyle Arrington soar into the end zone. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / December 20, 2010

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FOXBOROUGH — For five weeks all the Patriots’ ills exposed in the Week 9 loss to the Browns were buried and forgotten.

We should have known better.

Without their Pro Bowl quarterback (Aaron Rodgers) and best pass rushing defensive lineman (Cullen Jenkins), the Packers came into Gillette Stadium last night and imposed their will on the Patriots.

Just like the Browns did.

It was Matt Flynn playing the role of Colt McCoy. Brandon Jackson and John Kuhn morphing into Peyton Hillis.

Patriots receiver Deion Branch was healthy for this game, but Packers cornerback Tramon Williams added to his Pro Bowl résumé by making Branch invisible for much of it.

Charles Woodson locked up Wes Welker and the Patriots’ offensive line couldn’t get matched up correctly against a defense that likes to do a lot of walking around at the line of scrimmage.

Just like the Browns.

But unlike that game, the Patriots woke up before it was too late. Sparked by an interception return for a touchdown by Kyle Arrington and a 71-yard kickoff return by offensive lineman Dan Connolly, the Patriots prevailed, 31-27.

But don’t breathe a sigh of relief. Don’t write this game off as a bad night at the office.

This was a warning.

If the Patriots don’t grab an early lead on an opponent, they’re going to have a lot of trouble.

If Matt Flynn, in his first career start, can look comfortable marching his team down the field, what do you think Matt Cassel or Matt Ryan is going to do?

The book on how to beat the Patriots is being written.

In wins over the Steelers, Colts, Jets, and Bears, the Patriots jumped to leads of 10-0, 14-0, 17-0, and 36-0.

The Packers, following the 10-0 lead the Browns grabbed, jumped ahead, 17-7.

When the opponent has a lead, it doesn’t feel what Bears quarterback Jay Cutler described as the pressure to keep pace with the Patriots and Tom Brady. The opponents feel they can play even with the Patriots. And they think they can win.

Up and down the Packers’ locker room there was a feeling that whatever invincibility the world viewed the Patriots as having, it didn’t show up on film.

“We knew we could come in and beat this team and we thought we matched up well against them,’’ said Packers defensive end Ryan Pickett.

The Packers’ game plan was fairly simple.

On offense, they felt the Patriots keep their safeties back enough — and with a defensive line thin because of the absences of Mike Wright and Myron Pryor — that opportunities are there in the running game. And if you can establish the run, passing lanes open up.

“The running game and the three wideouts, we thought there were some decent matchups,’’ said offensive coordinator Joe Philbin. “They’re hard to run on with the big guys in their 3-4, so we wanted to try to get them into sub defense and maybe a four-man line. We thought we might have a little bit more success if we at least mixed that in there.

“The way they play their coverage, a lot of times they give you the run. So we had some success doing that.’’

That only happens if the Patriots feel comfortable with a lead.

The Packers’ defense felt it could hang with Brady and the Patriots’ offense because it matched up well and could take Branch and Welker out of the game.

“We wanted to try to make him beat us with other guys,’’ said defensive coordinator Dom Capers.

It worked. Welker only caught three of his six targeted passes for 42 yards. Branch was thrown just two balls for 33 yards.

Williams shut down Branch with press coverage.

“You watch it on film and those guys get a lot of separation from guys playing off,’’ Williams said. “They’re so quick so you can’t give them that much space. So I just kind of pressed him up a little bit and stayed close to him. Made the throws hard sometimes.’’

As for Welker, the Packers matched up Woodson on him but often doubled him with either a safety or linebacker.

“I’ve been going against him for a lot of years,’’ Capers said. “He’s a guy that is hard to cover one on one.’’

Aside from limiting the access to his favorite weapons, the Packers tried to keep Brady in check by pressuring up the middle early with stunts, and then combining that with outside pressure as the game wore on.

“We were trying to do more movement and trying to mix the pressure in,’’ Capers said. “Brady’s a guy that once he gets in that rhythm, he’s tough to stop. They did that by hurrying up and that proved to be tough for us.’’

That was an adjustment the Patriots didn’t make in the loss to the Browns.

From this point forward New England is going to have to figure out more tweaks. There are still lessons to be learned for this team.

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @greg_a_bedard.

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