But offensive lineman Dan Connolly simply would not go down, and his stunning 71-yard return of a squibbed kickoff late in the first half proved to be a huge play in the Packers’ 31-27 loss at New England on Sunday night.
The Packers had just scored a touchdown on a 1-yard pass to Greg Jennings to take a 17-7 lead with 2:17 left in the first half. Mason Crosby then bounced a low, hard kickoff that bounded up into Connolly’s hands at the New England 25-yard line, seemingly just what the Packers wanted.
Only Connolly, a 6-foot-4, 313-pound guard, had other ideas. He broke through a couple of tackles early, bounced to the outside and suddenly had all kinds of running room. He wasn’t brought down until he got all the way to the Green Bay 4-yard line, setting up an easy scoring drive for the Patriots right before halftime.
“Usually when a lineman picks the ball up, you’re like, “All right, cool, we’ll get him down in a couple yards,’” Crosby said. “But he made a great play. Kind of bounced around, … and he had a little speed on the side. That was a game-changer.”
It certainly was, allowing the Patriots to get back within 17-14 at halftime.
After Connolly broke through the initial wave of tacklers, Packers safety Charlie Peprah had the best chance to bring him down along the far sideline. But he made a regrettable error in judgment.
“I didn’t see him at first, and when I caught back up to him I tried to slap the ball out,” Peprah said, thinking he could take advantage of a lineman’s lack of ball skills. “Big mistake. I should have just chopped him down. It’s one of those plays I wish I could take back, but you have to move on.”
Connolly stiff-armed Peprah out of the way on the strip attempt and just kept rumbling. He got some blocks, cut back inside a couple other tacklers and almost scored on his own.
“He did a hell of a job,” said Head Coach Mike McCarthy, who also lamented the poor tackling by his coverage unit. “Best run I’ve seen an offensive lineman make…and I’ll take my hat off to him.”
The play was a huge black mark for the special teams that got the Packers off to a great start with a successful surprise onside kick to begin the game. Safety Nick Collins recovered it and the Packers drove for a field goal to open the scoring.
That was the first onside kick of their own that the Packers recovered in a regular-season game since Tramon Williams got one in Week 2 of 2009 vs. Cincinnati at Lambeau Field. The Packers also recovered one in the NFC Wild Card playoff game at Arizona last season. Brandon Underwood made the recovery then.
Leaps & Bounds
Fullback John Kuhn has leaped over tacklers before, but never this much in one game. Kuhn left his feet to evade potential tacklers four times against the Patriots, and with good results each time.
In the first quarter on a third-and-3 run, Kuhn went airborne at the point of attack and picked up 5 yards. Then late in the first half on third-and-10 from the New England 15, he took a short pass, got up a head of steam and jumped over a tackler for 12 yards and a first-and-goal. The Packers scored a touchdown two plays later.
Then on the Packers’ third-quarter TD drive, Kuhn took to the air twice more. First, he went around right end on third-and-1 and jumped past the first-down marker for a 3-yard gain. Finally, he finished the drive on third-and-5 from the New England 6 with a short catch and another leap over a tackler and the goal line for a touchdown.
“When you’re a bigger guy, a lot of guys try and take you low, and it’s better to just get up over top of them when it’s close to the first-down marker than to try to take them on,” Kuhn said.
Kuhn finished with six carries for 21 yards and three receptions for 27 yards. He made another admirable play to convert a third down from the New England 11 in the fourth quarter, throwing a chip block on pass rusher Tully Banta-Cain and knocking him to the ground before turning and catching Matt Flynn’s dump-off pass. He took it for a 9-yard gain down to the 2 to make it first-and-goal.
Unfortunately, Kuhn couldn’t finish off that drive. He got the call on back-to-back fullback belly runs, and on the first one he got inside the 1 but was stopped. Then a New England defender got penetration and wrecked the second one. After Flynn threw incomplete on third down, the Packers had to settle for a field goal, a frustrating end to a great drive and a missed opportunity on goal-to-go.
“It hurts,” Kuhn said. “You never like getting stopped on the 1-yard line, especially twice. Unfortunately I won’t know exactly what happened until we go back and watch the film. But that’s tough.”
Hard to explain
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has thrown only four interceptions all season, but he should have had one on New England’s first possession of the game.
Packers cornerback Charles Woodson was in perfect position to pick off a pass intended for tight end Rob Gronkowski, but it bounced right off his hands. Woodson has some of the best ball skills of any defender in the game, so it was shocking to see him fail to haul one in that seemed so easy.
Linebacker Desmond Bishop – who nearly got a turnover as well when he stripped Brady on a sack, only to see Brady barely recover it in time – tried to keep his sense of humor about the misfortune.
“I’m going to be honest, (tell you) what I really think,” Bishop said. “Somebody has like some kind of device in the ball when Tom Brady throws interceptions, and they press it upstairs and it bounces off the defenders’ hands. We’ve been watching on film, and everybody has it right in their hands and they all drop it. It’s a conspiracy. It’s gotta be. I’m convinced.”
All kidding aside, there were a lot of ifs and buts in this game, but the Packers’ failure to generate a turnover certainly played a factor in the outcome. The Patriots scored their first touchdown just two plays after Woodson dropped the potential interception, and had Bishop come up with the fumble, the offense would have taken over at the New England 20.
“Each play, if a play was different – if somebody blocked a certain way or got an interception – it changes the whole outcome of the game,” Bishop said. “You never know what could have been.”
Odds & Ends
B.J. Raji recorded two sacks in a game for the first time in his career. Raji now has three sacks in his last three games, pushing his season total to 5½, which moves him into third place on the team behind Clay Matthews (12½) and Cullen Jenkins (7).
The Packers held the ball for 40 minutes, 48 seconds in the game. That’s the most time of possession any opponent has recorded against New England since Pittsburgh held the ball for 42:58 at Pittsburgh on Oct. 31, 2004.
McCarthy reported three injuries after the game.
Collins left the game for X-rays on his ribs, which were negative, but he did not return. Linebacker Diyral Briggs re-injured the same ankle he hurt in practice this past week and did not return. Also, tight end Tom Crabtree bruised his knee but did return to the game.