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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots couldn't believe their eyes. The Green Bay Packers couldn't believe their eyes. The sellout crowd of 68,756 couldn't believe its eyes, either.
But there it was, for all to see Sunday night at Gillette Stadium, one of the most unexpected and electrifying kickoff returns in the history of the National Football League, a return that proved pivotal in New England's 31-27 victory.
And it was turned in by -- get this -- a 6-foot-4, 313-pound Patriots offensive lineman named Dan Connolly, who proved to be quicker than you would expect a 313-pounder to be in his shocking 71-yard kickoff runback that provided New England's sputtering offense with a huge lift late in the first half.
|Dan Connolly's 71-yard return helped set up a late TD in the first half.|
It was the longest kickoff return by an offensive lineman in the history of the NFL.
Connolly couldn't avoid catching Mason Crosby's low kickoff. It was right at him as the Packers elected not to kick the ball deep to Brandon Tate.
As Connolly cradled the football, he quickly morphed into a shifty return man who kept on chugging along until the stunned Packers finally found a way to get him on the ground at the Green Bay 4-yard line.
Two plays later Tom Brady tossed a 2-yard touchdown pass to Aaron Hernandez, cutting the Patriots' deficit to 17-14 with just over a minute to go before the half.
Unfortunately, Connolly, who has started every game this season, was not around after the game to discuss his remarkable play. A head injury knocked him out of the game, an injury that may have happened on his return. That wasn't made clear after the game.
If Connolly's memory of his long runback is blurred, he won't have any difficulty finding replays of his feat, which no doubt was given prime showings on highlights of the game around the country. If Connolly watches it, he'll see himself start up the field on the right side, galloping over the numbers. Then he made a nifty move cutting to his left and headed down the left sideline.
The Packers' special-teamers didn't seem too keen on trying to tackle the heaviest running back they likely have ever seen, and Connolly, holding the ball as if he was protecting an infant and seemingly expecting contact with every step, kept plunging ahead. Finally, he was pulled down from behind.
Not surprisingly, especially since they came out on top, the Patriots had a lot to say about Connolly's mad dash, joking about what everyone witnessed but also realizing the importance of Connolly's play at the time.
"It kind of looked like he was looking to go down but then they just couldn't really find anybody to tackle him. It was an alert play by Dan but also by the blocking to get in front of him and at least get him started," coach Bill Belichick said.
"I've never seen anything happen so slow in my life," Brady said with a smile.
"He was like Gale Sayers out there -- a much bigger version," Tully Banta-Cain cracked.
"I'll tell you what, Dan Connolly has the best average for a kickoff returned in the NFL," chimed in Matt Light, one of Connolly's offensive linemates. "I couldn't believe it when I was watching it. But you put the ball in the hands of an offensive lineman, and, well, naturally [what Connolly did] is not a real shocker."
Dan Koppen, another offensive lineman, also pitched in with a few comments.
"I don't know what happened. I don't think he knows what happened. I don't think anybody knows what happened. He made a bounce-out, beat everyone to the edge. To see No. 63 running down the field was pretty amazing," he said.
Tate, the Pats' top kickoff returner; BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who makes his living running with the football; and cornerback Kyle Arrington, who contributed a pick-six to the win, were suitably impressed.
"I'll have to check things out at practice and see if he's running back there," joked Tate of a challenge from Connolly for his kick-returner job.
"He had great ball security, good feet, he cut back and he was running with speed and power. He was doing it all," assessed Green-Ellis.
"That was by far the most impressive run I've seen from a 300-plus-pounder to be able to run away from guys my size," Arrington said. "That should be on 'SportsCenter's' Top 10, hands down."
Even the Packers were impressed.
"I tried to go for the ball thinking he was big man without ball skills," Packers safety Charlie Peprah said. "I should have just made the tackle. You just saw a big dude rumbling down the field."
"Usually when a lineman picks up the ball you get him down in a couple of yards," Crosby said. "But he made a great play and he had a little speed. It's frustrating, but you have to give him a little credit."
That credit should also include waking up the Patriots. While Connolly didn't score a touchdown, his play led to the late first-half score, and got New England back into the game.
"You could see the morale in the sideline pick up when he made that run," Pats linebacker Jerod Mayo said.
"To get a scoring chance like that late in the half was huge. We didn't have any [offensive] rhythm," Light said.
"It was a game-changer," the Packers' Crosby said.
Connolly, meanwhile, left the game shortly after his kickoff return, and everyone at the stadium, as well as a national television audience, was left to marvel at the big man's run in the wake of the Patriots' sixth win in a row.