THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Bob Ryan

They again find a way to get it done

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / December 20, 2010

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FOXBOROUGH — Having seen what we just saw, the simple question is this: What does it take for the Patriots to lose a game?

On a night when Matt Flynn quite often out-Bradyed Tom Brady, when the Green Bay Packers began the game by recovering an onside kick, when the guys in green and gold ran off four prolonged scoring drives, and when the Patriots made mistakes they never make — e.g. an illegal Tully Banta-Cain hand in the face wiping out what would have been a game-clinching interception by Brandon Meriweather — the game ended and the magic-dusted New Eng land Patriots still had found a way to score more points than the other guys.

It’s just that kind of year.

The good fortune began about an hour and 15 minutes or so before kickoff when the New York Jets, of all people, gave them a huge bonus by defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers, a development that meant this essentially was a “free’’ game. Win or lose, the Patriots still would end the day with fewer losses than any other team in the AFC. And now, with this wacky 31-27 victory, and with a victory next Sunday in Buffalo, the Patriots can clinch the best record in the conference and receive all the delightful benefits attached thereto.

As to the central question, a partial answer has very little to do with final stats and a lot to do with the ability to make big, game-changing plays. As so many of us have been saying all along, you never can count the Patriots out of a game as long as they have playmakers such as Kyle Arrington and Dan Connolly?

Connolly made what may very well have been the biggest play of the game. The Packers had just gone 82 yards in 13 plays (abetted by three penalties) to take a 17-7 lead late in the second quarter when Connolly, a 6-foot-4-inch, 300-something or other offensive guard, picked up a short kickoff and decided he was going to do his Devin Hester imitation.

Gripping the ball tightly with two hands, he rumbled and rambled down the left sideline. Advancing the ball 10 yards would have been nice. But Big Dan had other ideas. He was thinking 6, and when he got a thunderous block from Sergio Brown, that became a very real possibility. He even executed a deft cutback at around the 10 before he finally was hauled down at the Green Bay 4 by ex-Boston College star Robert Francois.

At 71 yards, it was the longest kickoff return by an offensive lineman in NFL history, and that means we’re talking early Harding Administration.

Dan Connolly!

Brady completed the job with a 2-yard touchdown pass to Aaron Hernandez.

“I’ve never seen anything that slow in my life,’’ joked Brady. “Unbelievable play. It happened. We had to take advantage of it. That was a heads-up play by Dan. They won’t be kicking to him anymore.’’

Arrington’s big moment came with the Patriots down, 17-14, in the third quarter. Flynn had been playing well, but the thing about the 2010 Patriots is that if you make a mistake they will make you pay. He finally threw a bad pass, and Arrington picked it off. The play very well could have ended right there, but Arrington, like Connolly, was smelling 6. He broke four tackles en route to the end zone, arriving there at the tail end of a spin-o-rama for a highlight pick-6.

Those plays were of enormous significance on a night when the Patriots were outplayed by just about every conceivable measure. The Packers had a ridiculous time of possession edge (40:48-19:12), a major first down advantage (26-14), and a 369-249 total offense count (311-129 after three quarters).

But the Patriots still know what it takes to win. The same cannot be said of Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy, whose lack of guts opened the door for New England to come out on top.

Leading, 24-21, early in the fourth, and facing fourth and goal at the 1, McCarthy chickened out, calling upon Mason Crosby to kick the glorified extra point field goal. Did McCarthy really think the Patriots weren’t going to make him pay?

Brady immediately came to life, taking the team down the field to set up a 38-yard Shayne Graham field goal. A Patriot defense that had great difficulty all evening getting Green Bay off the field now absolutely, positively had to get Green Bay off the field, and so it got Green Bay off the field with a three-and out.

I’m sure you can guess the name of the tune that followed. Bing, bang, boom, a six-play, 63-yard go-ahead drive culminating in 10-yard pass from Brady to Hernandez, who broke a tackle attempt by Sam Shields and then sashayed into the end zone, a showboat move that surely will draw the ire of Coach Bill (there will be KP duty, or something).

You’ve got to give young Mr. Flynn credit. Now he does have a pedigree, coming from noted football hotbed Tyler, Texas. He was the Offensive MVP when Louisiana State won the national championship, you know. But this was a big showcase and replacing Aaron Rodgers is a big responsibility. He battled all night, and he managed to get the Packers to the Patriots’ 24 with 1:05 remaining.

The only problem was they needed a touchdown, thanks to his coach’s foolish caution in that aforementioned goal-line situation.

It did not end well. Time management was nil, and it was almost a guarantee the game would end in a sack. On fourth and 1 at the 15, Banta-Cain made amends for his big transgression a few minutes before by sacking Flynn from the rear, dislodging the ball. Vince Wilfork fell on it, and the game was over.

They just can’t help winning, no matter what they do. They are 12-2 and their fate is in their own hands. The coach isn’t happy about the way his team played, and I kind of like that. Wouldn’t want Coach Bill to lose his edge before the playoffs.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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