FOXBOROUGH - Tully Banta-Cain redeemed himself in a major way last night, strip-sacking Green Bay quarterback Matt Flynn on the final play of the game to preserve a 31-27 win for the Patriots over the Packers.
Earlier in the same drive, Banta-Cain was called for illegal hands to the face, the flag negating a potential game-sealing interception by Brandon Meriweather.
It was yet another case of the Patriots’ young defense coming up big when it mattered most.
After the interception came off the board and the defense realized it would be on the field longer, the unit huddled up and had one thought:
"Let’s finish the game," Meriweather said.
It took a bit longer for that to happen - the Packers picked up yardage in small chunks, but enough to keep moving the sticks. But with just under a minute to play, rookie Dane Fletcher shot off the line and dropped Flynn for an 8-yard loss. Completions of 7 and 10 yards, however, and Green Bay was facing fourth and 1 from the Patriots 15.
Yet the Pack allowed nearly all of the time left on the clock to tick away, and snapped the ball with just five seconds remaining.
Banta-Cain got free and stripped Flynn; Vince Wilfork fell on the loose ball, and the game was over, the Patriots having improved to 12-2.
"I’d have to see the replay [for the flag for hands to the face]," Banta-Cain said. "I didn’t really understand the penalty, but to just get the win off the sack was definitely a great feeling for me."
Playing behind third-year player Flynn, who got the call to make his first NFL start when Green Bay’s medical staff did not clear starter Aaron Rodgers (concussion), the Packers hung in with New England for much of the game and took a 3-point lead into the fourth quarter.
But Tom Brady was Tom Brady, leading the Patriots to the end zone in the fourth quarter on a 10-yard pass to Aaron Hernandez to make it 31-27, and New England claimed its sixth straight win - in the process extending its NFL-record streak of games with 30-plus points and no turnovers to six.
It was also the 27th consecutive regular-season home win for Brady.
"You’ve got to give the players a lot of credit. They played 60 minutes, fought through adversity," coach Bill Belichick said. "It certainly wasn’t one of our better games."
Defensive players said fundamentals, such as tackling and communication, were a problem in the first three quarters.
"We were playing too aggressive at times, just guys doing too much and not doing their job," safety James Sanders said. "We had effort, though."
After seeing his first extended regular-season action last week in Detroit after Rodgers was knocked out of the game, Flynn finished 24 of 37 for 251 yards, three touchdowns, an interception, and lost fumble on the Banta-Cain sack.
The Packers had a quarterback making his first start, on the road, against a Patriots team that rarely loses at home in the regular season, in a game that was airing in prime time.
The Packers also had nothing to lose, and playing behind Flynn, Green Bay (8-6) took a 17-14 lead into the locker room at halftime.
Flynn, a late-round draft pick out of Louisiana State in 2008, was 11 for 18 for 143 yards and two touchdowns through the first 30 minutes, including a 66-yard catch-and-run to receiver James Jones at the start of the second quarter.
Flynn showed few nerves in the early going.
To open the game, the Packers chose to go with an onside kick, which was recovered by Nick Collins. The Packers moved the ball, but their drive stalled in the red zone after Flynn was dropped for a 6-yard loss by Eric Moore.
It was Moore’s second sack in as many games; just a couple of weeks ago, he was wrapping up the season in the United Football League.
Unable to convert a third and 12, Green Bay settled for a 31-yard field goal from Mason Crosby to take a 3-0 lead.
A 25-yard pass to tight end Rob Gronkowski on third down jump-started the Patriots’ offense on its first possession, and BenJarvus Green-Ellis used great blocks from Logan Mankins and Deion Branch to rumble for a 33-yard touchdown to make it 7-3. It was his 12th score of the season, and the longest run of his career.
After the Packers got the ball and gained 3 yards on two plays, Flynn looked deep to Jones, who was being covered by Devin McCourty. McCourty was taken out of the play when he and Meriweather collided, and Jones got a clear path to the end zone to make it 10-7, Green Bay.
It was the first touchdown pass of Flynn’s career.
He got his second a couple of minutes later as he led the Packers on a 13-play, 82-yard drive. Along the way, Green Bay got help from three New England penalties, the most egregious of which was an unnecessary roughness flag on McCourty for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Andrew Quarless.
Sanders was also called for pass interference in the end zone, giving the Packers a fresh set of downs at the 1. Flynn hit Greg Jennings, whom Patriots fans always will remember as the receiver the team could have drafted in 2006 instead of Chad Jackson, in the end zone for the score, making it 17-7.
But New England got help from a most unlikely source and went into halftime with some momentum.
Crosby’s kickoff was short, and fielded by Dan Connolly. The left guard/right guard/fullback apparently can add kick returner to the list: After tucking the ball high on his chest with both arms, Connolly saw some open field and turned on the jets, recording a 71-yard return before being taken down at the 4.
It was the longest kick return by a lineman in NFL history, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
"He was like Gale Sayers out there," Banta-Cain said. "A much bigger version."
Connolly’s effort drew smiles and celebrations from Patriots all over the field and led to a 2-yard touchdown pass from Brady to Hernandez to pull New England within 17-14.
The TD was the 30th of the season for Brady. It was also the 255th TD of his career, which tied Sonny Jurgensen for 11th place all time.
The Patriots’ momentum carried over into the third quarter.
Green Bay got the ball to start the half, and on the fifth play, a third-and-3 pass attempt for Jones, Flynn instead found the Patriots’ Kyle Arrington. Not satisfied to simply record his first career interception, Arrington broke four tackles on his way to a 36-yard touchdown, making it 21-17, New England.
It was his second score of the season, following his return of Patrick Chung’s blocked field goal in Miami.
"I’m glad I caught it," Arrington said. "The guys have been getting on me - I’ve been dropping ‘em in practice. It felt great. It’s indescribable."
But that was all the offense the Patriots would get in the quarter, while Green Bay added another touchdown, on a 13-play drive that ended with fullback John Kuhn bulling his way over the goal line after catching a pass. The 6-yard score put the Pack back in the lead, 24-21.
At the end of the third quarter, Green Bay was dominating in time of possession, holding the ball for 31:26 of the first 45 minutes.
After the teams traded field goals in the fourth, New England took the lead for good on an efficient, six-play drive that ended featured a heavy dose of Danny Woodhead, a 16-yard catch by Branch, and the 10-yard touchdown by Hernandez.
Then, although it got scary, the defense came through.