Connolly’s KO return helps Pats beat Packers 31-27

New England Patriots offensive lineman Dan Connolly (63) straight arms Green Bay Packers safety Charlie Peprah, center, on his way to the end zone on his touchdown during the second half of an NFL football game in Foxborough, Mass., Sunday Dec. 19, 2010.  The Patriots won 31-27.  At right is Patriots safety Sergio Brown.(AP Photo/Tim Cook)
New England Patriots offensive lineman Dan Connolly (63) straight arms Green Bay Packers safety Charlie Peprah, center, on his way to the end zone on his touchdown during the second half of an NFL football game in Foxborough, Mass., Sunday Dec. 19, 2010. The Patriots won 31-27. At right is Patriots safety Sergio Brown.(AP Photo/Tim Cook)
Posted Dec. 20, 2010, at 12:30 a.m.
Last modified Dec. 20, 2010, at 3:43 p.m.
New England Patriots cornerback Kyle Arrington (27) takes a pick-six into the end zone as Green Bay Packers wide receiver Brett Swain (16) and offensive tackle Chad Clifton (76) chase during the third quarter of their NFL football game in Foxborough, Mass., Sunday night, Dec. 19, 2010. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
New England Patriots cornerback Kyle Arrington (27) takes a pick-six into the end zone as Green Bay Packers wide receiver Brett Swain (16) and offensive tackle Chad Clifton (76) chase during the third quarter of their NFL football game in Foxborough, Mass., Sunday night, Dec. 19, 2010. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Green Bay Packers wide receiver James Jones (89) is wrapped up New England Patriots safety James Sanders (36) during the first quarter of their NFL football game against the New England Patriots in Foxborough, Mass., Sunday night, Dec. 19, 2010. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)
Green Bay Packers wide receiver James Jones (89) is wrapped up New England Patriots safety James Sanders (36) during the first quarter of their NFL football game against the New England Patriots in Foxborough, Mass., Sunday night, Dec. 19, 2010. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — 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) trails Chicago (9-4) by 1½ games in the NFC North.

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.

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 Mason 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.

NFL notebook

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — For the second time in a week, a fine has been levied for sideline contact during a punt return.

Carolina defensive end Tyler Brayton was fined $15,000 by the NFL for hitting Atlanta’s Chris Owens out of bounds in last week’s game. The fine was levied Friday, but not made public.

Also last Sunday, New York Jets strength and conditioning coach Sal Alosi stuck out his knee and tripped Miami’s Nolan Carroll. Alosi was suspended indefinitely by the team and fined $25,000.

Brayton was not available to speak after Carolina’s 19-12 win over Arizona on Sunday.

“We looked at it and addressed it with the team,” coach John Fox said. “We don’t condone it. We don’t coach it. Anything other than that, you’ll have to ask Tyler. I was made aware that there was a fine involved. We don’t announce fines.”

Brayton hit Owens in the head after the Falcons player was forced off the field. Fox Sports showed a video of the incident from Week 14. The grainy coaches film shows Brayton walking up from the bench area toward the field as Owens is engaged with a Carolina defender. Brayton then drops Owens with what appears to be an elbow to the head.

“I was like ‘Wow, that’s kind of messed up.’ It kind of went unknown, unseen until we saw the film. I’ve moved on,” Owens said.

These incidents are unusual, yet both happened on the same day.

The Jets’ incident appears to have been somewhat orchestrated.

At first, Alosi was suspended for the rest of the season, but then acknowledged he told five inactive players to stand next to each other for the punt return during which he tripped Carroll.

That was information Alosi did not initially volunteer, according to Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum.

“Over the course of the next couple of days, more information came out that really doesn’t sit well with us,” Tannenbaum said.

Coach Rex Ryan and special teams coordinator Mike Westhoff both have denied they ordered anyone to do what Alosi told the players.

“It caught me off guard,” Ryan said.

Panthers tackle Jordan Gross didn’t see similarities in the plays.

“He was way deep on the sideline,” Gross said of Brayton. “You get fined and you pay your money and you move on. It hasn’t really been a big deal around here.

“Punts are a crazy play. Guys go flying into the sidelines and hit referees with the sticks, plow over coaches. It’s just messy. I’m sure that’s gone on more than it hasn’t. I think it was just coincidental it was on the same week as that tripping thing.”

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