December 19, 2010 – Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Massachusettes
There were no flowery pre-game speeches for this one. Nothing Knute Rockne-esque or Vince Lombardi-like about what the Packers needed to do or what the future held.
This was backs-against-the-wall-time for the Green Bay Packers & they knew it better than anyone. They had to travel to Massachusettes and face the hottest team in football, the New England Patriots. It would be a tough assignment even with all their pieces in place.
The Packers would have to play without Aaron Rodgers, their leader and best offensive player. Rodgers suffered a concussion the week before against the Lions and had not passed the NFL-mandated tests required to go back on the field.
So that was that. The Packers wouold go to war with Matt Flynn, a capable backup with the heart of a lion but no meaningful experience. In public, the Packers spoke glowingly of Flynn, a smart guy who had the moxie to lead LSU to a national championship 3 seasons earlier. Privately no one really knew how he’d perform on a national stage.
He had done ok in relieft duty of Rodgers the week before, completing 15 of 26 passes for 177 yards. However, he threw a disastroud interception deep in Lions territory & could not generate any touchdowns when it mattered.
But that was all ancient history, Flynn would have to produce and he’d need help.
In the end, the Packers lost the game, but in defeat they may well have saved their season. Indeed they outplayed the red-hot Patriots, they shut down QB Tom Brady, they moved the ball on the Patriots defense and–one more time–they learned something new about themselves.
The Packers did not shrink from the 11-2 Patriots & proceeded to hit them in the mouth every chance they got. In fact, Green Bay hit them by opening the game with a successful, surprise onsides kick that led to a field goal and a quick 3-0 lead.
Flynn, looking as calm as if he’d been starting all season, threw second-quarter TD passes of 1 yard to Greg Jennings and 66 yards to James Jones & Green Bay took a 17-14 halftime lead to the locker room.
Unfortunately for the Packers, that lead would have been bigger if there hadn’t been a disastrous special teams breakdown.
After the TD pass to Jennings made itr 17-7 with 2:12 left in the half, Mason Crosby kicked the ball short to avoid the Patriots dangerous return men. Dan Connolly, a 313 pound lineman scooped up the ball & the Packers, instead of just tackling the big guy, tried to strip the ball. Connolly rumbled 71 yards to the Packer 4. 2 plays later, Brady connected with Aaron Hernandez for a touchdown.
“We did a poor job of tackling on that,” coach McCarthy said in the understatement of the season.
The Packers continued to hang around in the 2nd half. Another Flynn TD, this one of 6 yards to John Kuhn, in the 3rd quarter and a 19-yard Mason Crosby field-goal early in the 4th quarter staked the Packers to a 27-21 lead.
The Patriots battled back, though, and midway through the 4th quarter, took the lead for good on a Brady to Hernandez touchdown.
Flynn had one more drive in him & with 4:22 left, moved from his own 43 to the New England 15. But on 4th & 1, Flynn’s inexperience finally caught up with him. The play was late coming in and confusion abounded. Flynn tried to throw but was sacked ending the game.
Flynn acquitted himself well, completing 24 of 37 for 251 yards and 3 scores. The Packers out-gained the Patriots 369-249 and Brady, the odds-on favorite to win the season MVP, was held to just 163 passing yards.
“Our plan was just to go out there & cut it loose,” Flynn said. “The plan didn’t change because I was out there; we went out there and went after them. We just didn’t get it done.”
“We’re nobody’s underdog,” McCarthy would say at the post-game press conference. “We have all the confidence in our abilities. We’ve had challenges throughout the season. We’ve stepped up to those challenges. We felt the same way going into this game.”
With the loss, the Packers sat at 8-6 & were in serious danger of missing the playoffs. The division title was gone–secured that same day by the Bears–and now the Packers had to win their final 2 games to reach the post-season.
It was a daunting task but one of their own making. Now they’d really find out what they were made of. Little did anyone forsee what was about to happen is truly remarkable.