FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — The New England Patriots’ string of routs is over. Their victory streak remains alive with help from a stunning kickoff return by 313-pound guard Dan Connolly.
Connolly rumbled 71 yards with what is believed to be the longest kickoff return by an offensive lineman in NFL history and Tom Brady threw two touchdown passes as New England edged the Green Bay Packers 31-27 for their sixth straight win Sunday night.
“I’ve never seen anything happen so slow in my life,” Brady said with a laugh. “They won’t be kicking to him anymore, I’ll tell you that.”
The Patriots, who outscored their previous two opponents 81-10, had their hands full even with Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers missing the game with a concussion. Matt Flynn threw his first three pro touchdown passes in his place.
The game went down to the final play when Flynn, with the ball at the Patriots 15-yard line, lost it when he was sacked by Tully Banta-Cain and Vince Wilfork recovered for New England (12-2).
Green Bay (8-6) suffered a serious blow to its playoff chances. It trails Chicago (9-4) in the NFC North with the Bears playing at Minnesota on Monday night.
The return by Connolly, who later left with a head injury, set up Brady’s 2-yard scoring pass to Aaron Hernandez, cutting Green Bay’s lead at halftime to 17-14.
According to STATS LLC, the run by Connolly topped the 48-yard touchdown return by Atlanta’s Mal Snider in 1969. Complete official records have been kept since 1976.
Mason Crosby kicked the ball short to avoid Brandon Tate, who has two kickoff returns for touchdowns this year.
“When you kick the ball, you’d like to kick it to an offensive lineman. That should be a positive,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “We did a very poor job there tackling.”
The Patriots had beaten the New York Jets 45-3 and Bears 36-7 in their previous two games.
“Do I want to blow people out every game? Yeah,” Wilfork said, “but it doesn’t happen like that every time.”
Trailing 27-21, the Patriots scored on Shayne Graham’s 38-yard field goal with 11:05 left in the game and went ahead 31-27 on Brady’s second touchdown pass to Hernandez, a 10-yarder with 7:14 to go.
Brady broke Don Meredith’s record with his seventh straight game with at least two scoring passes and no interceptions. He has now gone nine games without an interception.
But he threw for only 163 yards, his third fewest of the season.
“It certainly wasn’t one of our better games,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “We’ve got to play a lot better than this or our season won’t last much longer.”
Poor tackling by the Packers helped the Patriots score late in the second quarter and early in the third.
On the kickoff after Green Bay took a 17-7 lead with Flynn’s second touchdown pass, a 1-yarder to Greg Jennings, Connolly fielded the ball at the Patriots 25 on a squib kick by Crosby. Connolly cradled the ball in both arms before going down at the 4, setting up Hernandez’s catch.
The Patriots then went ahead 21-17 just under 3 minutes into the third quarter when Kyle Arrington returned an interception 36 yards for a touchdown, shaking off one would-be tackler after another.
On the next series, the Packers took advantage of one of several costly Patriots penalties to take a 24-21 lead on Flynn’s 6-yard touchdown pass to John Kuhn with 5:08 to go. A 10-yard facemask penalty against nose tackle Wilfork had given Green Bay a first down at the 11.
The Patriots’ mistakes began on the very first play of the game when Nick Collins recovered an onside kick by Crosby. The drive ended with Crosby’s 31-yard field goal.
But New England answered with a 33-yard scoring run by BenJarvus Green-Ellis on a seven-play, 73-yard drive.
The Packers regained the lead on Flynn’s 66-yard touchdown pass on the first play of the second quarter then capitalized on two penalties to go ahead 17-7 with 2:17 left in the half.
An offside penalty against Wilfork on a third-down incomplete pass kept the drive going. A penalty against cornerback Devin McCourty for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Andrew Quarless gave the Packers a first down at the 30, and a defensive pass interference call against James Sanders in the end zone produced another first down at the 1-yard line.
Notes: Brady stretched his streak to 292 passes without an interception. He trails only Bernie Kosar, who had 308 with Cleveland in 1990-91, and Bart Starr, who had 294 with Green Bay in 1964-65. … The Packers rushed for 143 yards, their second highest total of the season.