Led by backup quarterback Matt Flynn, the Packers fought valiantly on the road in prime time Sunday night against a New England Patriots team thought by many to be on their way to a fourth Super Bowl title this decade. But a potential game-winning drive came up 15 yards short, ending in harried desperation as the Packers fell, 31-27, in front of 68,756 at Gillette Stadium.
Despite needing Flynn to make his first NFL start for Aaron Rodgers, who was out with a concussion, the Packers didn't act like underdogs all week, and they didn't play like it either. They grabbed the lead in the game three different times, held the ball for more than 40 minutes, and made the Patriots look nothing like the invincible outfit that had lambasted the Jets and Bears by a combined 81-10 the past two weeks.
But none of it, including a gutsy effort from Flynn, was enough. Instead the Packers lost their second straight to drop to 8-6, with all six losses this season coming by four points or less.
"I thought our team fought extremely hard," said Head Coach Mike McCarthy, who claimed during the week his team was "nobody's underdog," and reiterated that again Sunday after the game.
"They are definitely warriors, I'm proud of them for that, but we came up short tonight. And that's the bottom line."
The only silver lining is that because the Giants and Buccaneers both lost earlier Sunday, the Packers still control their own playoff fate. Two wins over the Giants and Bears to close out the season will get the Packers into the playoffs at 10-6. That will be the focus going forward, but this loss does serious damage to the Packers' chances of winning the NFC North over the Bears, who can clinch the division with a win Monday night at Minnesota.
The Packers came up short primarily because of three major lapses at critical moments.
First, leading 17-7 late in the second quarter after Flynn (24-of-37, 251 yards, 3 TDs, 1 INT, 100.2 rating) had thrown a 66-yard touchdown pass to James Jones and a 1-yarder to Greg Jennings, the Packers allowed New England lineman Dan Connolly to pick up a squibbed kickoff and ramble 71 yards down the far sideline, all the way to the Green Bay 4. It set up an easy scoring drive for New England quarterback Tom Brady, who hit tight end Aaron Hernandez with a 2-yard TD pass on third-and-goal to get within 17-14 at intermission.
Then, getting the ball to start the second half, Flynn's first throw of the third quarter turned into disaster. On third down, Jones got bumped off his slant route and Flynn's pass went right into the hands of cornerback Kyle Arrington, who broke several tackles in returning the interception 36 yards for a score.
Suddenly, the Patriots had wiped out the 10-point deficit to take a 21-17 lead, and the all-world Brady (15-of-24, 163 yards, 2 TD, 110.2 rating) had only passed for a handful of yards in the process.
"They made big plays in the game that were probably the difference," McCarthy said. "You can't make those kind of mistakes on the road."
You also can't fail to capitalize on golden opportunities, and that was the third lapse at the start of the fourth quarter.
Having taken a 24-21 lead on a 6-yard TD pass to fullback John Kuhn, the Packers got a three-and-out and then put together another solid drive to add to the lead. But with first-and-goal on the 2, Kuhn was stopped twice in a row at the 1 on a fullback dive, and when Flynn threw the ball away under pressure on third down, the Packers settled for a field goal to make it 27-21 and never pushed the lead back to two scores.
McCarthy said he didn't regret the decision not to go for it on fourth-and-goal at the 1 with nearly 14 minutes still on the clock, but unfortunately the Packers' defense started to spring leaks right after that.
On their next two drives, the Patriots (12-2) marched 53 yards for a field goal and 63 yards for a touchdown, a 10-yard pass to Hernandez for his second TD of the game. It gave the Patriots a 31-27 lead with 7:14 left, and the Packers had to ask their young, gritty quarterback for one more score.
They almost got it. Twice in the final seven minutes, the Packers drove into New England territory. The first time they ended up punting on fourth-and-7 from the 40. But after the defense got a three-and-out with New England backed up inside its own 20, Flynn got one more shot with 4:22 left.
With the help of a reprieve when Brandon Meriweather's interception was nullified by a hands-to-the-face penalty on pass rusher Tully Banta-Cain, Flynn picked up three first downs and had the Packers on the New England 24 with a minute left.
An 8-yard sack by unblocked linebacker Dane Fletcher forced the Packers to use their last timeout, though, and that would prove critical. Two plays later, Flynn hit Driver over the middle for 10 yards to the 15, but he was a yard short of the first down and the clock was ticking under 20 seconds.
There was some momentary confusion as to whether Driver had picked up the first down. If he had, Flynn was going to spike the ball to stop the clock. But when he hadn't, it was fourth down, and the offense was in scramble mode.
"I thought I got the first down," Driver said. "When I caught the ball, I went forward, and I didn't think it was a good spot on their part. I jumped up, and I thought it was already a first, and I was thinking Matt was going to clock it. I looked around and Matt was saying we have to run a play.
"You look at the clock with 15 seconds left, you've still got an opportunity to win. If you get the first down, you're able to clock it and you still have two chances at end zone."
Instead, by the time Flynn got everyone lined up to run a play, the clock had run down so far it was the last snap the Packers would get. Flynn tried to scramble to buy time, but he was sacked from behind by Banta-Cain to end the game and the Packers' hopes for what would have been a monumental win.
"You can see that they're only rushing three and they're dropping everyone into the end zone and that's one of those things that usually there isn't going to be anybody open, right off the bat," said Flynn, who added he never saw Banta-Cain closing from behind and ended up fumbling the ball, though that hardly mattered. "You just have to try to work people with your eyes, try to work the defenders with your eyes and try to get them going one way and get someone else out the backdoor, but it didn't happen."
What can still happen, fortunately, is a playoff berth, and the Packers will get two games at home now to try to earn that. If they can, perhaps they can truly move on from all these close losses, including Sunday night's.
"We're ready to play next week and get this one out of our mind," defensive end Ryan Pickett said. "This was a tough loss for us.
"We knew we could come in and beat this team. We felt we matched up with them. We didn't believe the hype coming into the game that we didn't have a chance. We knew we could beat them and we just fell short. If we play the rest of the season like that, things will fall our way. Just play with the energy and intensity we played with today."