Patriots keep winning even when they struggle

Posted Dec. 20, 2010, at 6:55 p.m.
Last modified Dec. 21, 2010, at 12:17 a.m.

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Even when they look beatable, the New England Patriots manage to win.

They were outgained by 120 yards, held the ball for fewer than 20 minutes and watched the key to their success, Tom Brady, absorb his third straight three-sack game.

The Patriots still held off the Green Bay Packers 31-27 on Sunday night for their sixth straight victory. But for a coach who keeps saying the statistic that overrides all those negative numbers is a higher point total than the opponent, Bill Belichick was very concerned.

“We couldn’t handle a lot of the basic things that they did and that was disappointing,” he said, “but we had a few big plays there.”

Offensive lineman Dan Connolly’s 71-yard kickoff return set up a touchdown with 1:08 left in the second quarter and the Patriots went into the locker room trailing by only 17-14. Kyle Arrington’s 36-yard interception return for another touchdown 2:56 into the third pushed them into a 21-17 lead.

Imagine where they would have been without those.

“There was definitely urgency there in the second half,” Brady said. “We didn’t do too much to help ourselves throughout the entire game. There were so many long-yardage situations.”

On the first play of the game, the Packers recovered their onside kick. Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo said the special teams weren’t prepared for that.

The defense had plenty of problems, too. It allowed the Packers to keep the ball for the final 4:22. But when it had to make a decisive stand it did, sacking Matt Flynn twice on the last four plays as time ran out.

The Patriots (12-2) walked off the field still tied with Atlanta for the best record in the NFL. They scored 31 points or more for the sixth straight game and ninth time this season. But they won by fewer than 21 points for the first time in four games.

“Good teams find a way to win, especially in December,” said nose tackle Vince Wilfork, who committed two penalties on touchdown drives but then recovered Flynn’s fumble on the final play. “I’m not sad at a victory. I’m not worried about how we won. … The fact of the matter is we won.”

Brady did throw for two touchdowns, the seventh consecutive game he’s had at least that many. His streak without an interception reached nine games and 292 passes, 16 fewer than the NFL record set by Bernie Kosar with Cleveland in 1990-91.

But Brady threw for only 163 yards, his third-lowest total of the season. That stood out even more because Flynn threw for 251 yards in the first start of his three NFL seasons while Aaron Rodgers sat out with his second concussion of the year.

Flynn even threw a 66-yard touchdown pass to James Jones on the first play of the second quarter.

“There were a couple of things that came up on that and we’ve just got to do a better job,” Belichick said Monday. “We can’t have those kinds of plays, a third-and-long play, and end up giving up a long touchdown.”

The Patriots already have clinched a playoff berth and would earn the top seed in the AFC with a win at Buffalo next Sunday. But they want to be rolling, not reeling, into the postseason.

“We had a lot of missed tackles. That extended drives,” Mayo said. “Then we had the penalties, which kept the drives going as well. We have to eliminate those. We can’t play like this next week.”

The Patriots beat Buffalo 38-30 in the third week of the season. But the Bills are 4-2 in their last six games after starting 0-8.

In Buffalo’s 17-14 win over the Miami Dolphins on Sunday, Ryan Fitzpatrick threw two touchdown passes.

New England is coming off a game in which it committed seven penalties, its most in five games, and gained 249 yards, its fewest in eight games. The defense allowed Green Bay to convert 58 percent of its third-down plays, the most against the Patriots in four games.

“That’s aggravating,” cornerback Devin McCourty said. “When you’ve got a chance to get off the field and you don’t, sometimes that equals points.”

But the Patriots still won.

They clinched the victory by stopping Green Bay’s final drive, just as they did in the second game of their winning streak when James Sanders secured a 31-28 win over Indianapolis by intercepting Peyton Manning’s pass at the Patriots 6-yard line with 31 seconds left.

“We had mental toughness and that pulled it out for us,” Mayo said after the latest close call. “We want to be dominant all game, but at least we dominated the second half.”

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