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Patriots' defense bends, doesn't break

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff  December 20, 2010 12:31 AM

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FOXBOROUGH -- The Patriots' defense got the big play when it needed it, claiming two sacks in the final stretch to hold off the Green Bay Packers 31-27 at Gillette Stadium.

But New England's defense also gave up numerous big plays, forcing the team's offense to move into a hurry-up in the fourth quarter -- a rarity for the now 12-2 Patriots.

At the top of the second quarter, Packers quarterback Matt Flynn connected with receiver James Jones on a 66-yard touchdown streak. Safety Brandon Meriweather ran into defensive back Devin McCourty on the play after misjudging the ball in the air.

One bad play? No problem. Patriots DB Kyle Arrington picked off Flynn and bounced off four Packers (Flynn included) for a defensive touchdown. It was another momentum-shifting play in the game, giving the Patriots a 21-17 lead in the third quarter.

Fast forward seven minutes. Flynn connects with Packers running back John Kuhn for a 6-yard touchdown pass. On the play, Kuhn freezes Arrington while LB Rob Ninkovich falls down while in pursuit, allowing the backup running back to dive into the end zone. The Packers regained the lead on the play, 24-21.

"We got a couple of good plays at the end from the defense," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "That's the way it was for all four quarters. We had some good plays, had some bad plays and had some good plays. That's the way it was all game."

It wasn't until the fourth quarter the defense (ranked 28th overall) buckled down and started making stops. The Patriots held the Packers to a field goal at the top of the quarter and followed up with a three-and-out, courtesy of a McCourty's first career sack.
After forcing one more punt (on only four plays from the Packers), LB Dane Fletcher logged the Patriots' fourth sack of the game before Tully Banta-Cain sacked Flynn for the game's final play.

"This is what we're paid to do," said Banta-Cain. "You've got to dig deep in these type of games. When it comes down to it, somebody has to make a play and I just happened to be that guy today."

The Packers dominated the time of possession, holding the ball for 40:48 to the Patriots' 19:12. Flynn, who was playing in the place of injured Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, was solid in his first career start, throwing 24 of 37 for 251 yards and three scores.

"[Flynn] was being really smart tonight," safety James Sanders said. "He didn't force anything. When things were covered and nothing was open downfield he used his check downs. He made us work for 60 minutes -- running the boots, couple scrambles here and there."

But just as Flynn was dominant through the first three quarters -- 223 yards passing and three touchdowns -- passing and running lanes closed in on him in the fourth quarter. He went 4 of 8 in the final stanza, throwing an interception that was called back and was sacked twice.

"Like I said, he had us scrambling in the first half," Sanders said. "But we found a way in the fourth quarter to pull it out."

News, analysis and commentary from Boston.com's staff writers and contributors, including Zuri Berry and Erik Frenz.

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