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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots' defense had already been on the field too long and looked exhausted, but lineman Vince Wilfork still came sprinting off the sideline, zig-zagging his way into the huddle as if he was having some kind of party. Who was he trying to fool?
This was the fourth quarter, and things weren't looking good.
The defense had been back on its heels for most of the first three quarters, the Green Bay Packers controlling the ball 31:26 to the Patriots' 13:34. It was a bad flashback to two of the unit's worst performances of the season, losses to the Jets and Browns in which defenders got jittery and out of position and failed to execute simple fundamentals such as tackling and Bill Belichick's bottom-line mantra of "do your job."
|Vince Wilfork and the Patriots defense was strong to the finish despite the Packers' lopsided advantage in time of possession.|
Third down, in particular, was a trouble spot, as it's been for most of the year. Penalties were piling up.
But there came Wilfork, buzzing onto the field with the confidence of a been-here-before captain, almost as if to say, "Come on, fellas, there is still gas left in this tank and still time to turn things around, and we will do just that."
They did just that. The defense improbably closed the door in a closer-than-expected, 31-27 victory at Gillette Stadium. On a night in which defenders admitted things looked ugly for long stretches and those on offense lamented their inability to put the game away, the defense delivered its best work when it was most tired.
In the decisive fourth quarter, the D came up with a goal-line stand to force a field goal, two big third-down stops to force punts and a final stop on fourth-and-1 to spark a game-ending celebration. Most echoed the same thoughts afterward: Not our best body of work, but it's nice to rise up when it counts.
"As a defender, I love being in situations like that," Wilfork said of being on the field while the Packers had a shot to win on their final drive. "It gives you a chance to win the ballgame. I think we came up big. This game wasn't perfect, but at the end of the day W's are what count."
It was almost fitting that the defense was on the field when it counted because that's where it spent most of the night. The Packers had the overall time of possession edge 40:48-19:12, making the Patriots the first team in the NFL this season to win when possessing the ball for such a short period of time.
Early in the fourth quarter, the defense looked spent, especially the big guys up front who were short on numbers. But they fought through to write the latest chapter of what has become an improbable season of success in New England.
"We were on the field for a long time, but we just had to dig deep," linebacker Jerod Mayo said before turning humorous and adding that the defense's motivation came from "thinking about how that film session would be on Monday if we lost this game."
The turnaround started early in the final quarter after the Packers -- already leading 24-21 -- advanced to the New England 2-yard line. Calling on a heavy package with four defensive linemen, four linebackers and three defensive backs, the Patriots stopped running back John Kuhn on back-to-back rushing attempts before an incomplete pass. With 13:52 remaining in the game and facing fourth-and-1 from the 1, the Packers settled for a 19-yard field goal to go up 27-21.
Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy was questioned on that decision.
"Just based on where we were in the game. I mean, you have to take the points there," he said. "I don't have any regrets on not going for it on fourth down, that particular time in the game. There was a lot of time still left on the clock."
The Patriots forced punts on the Packers' next two drives -- a sack by Devin McCourty and a 3-yard tackle for a loss by safety Patrick Chung on running back Brandon Jackson were big plays -- before the defense was called upon one last time on the Packers' final drive.
For a defense that had been carved up for most of the first three quarters by backup-turned-starter Matt Flynn, its final surge came out of nowhere.
"They had us scrambling a lot early in the game, a lot of guys trying to do too much, and they made us pay for it," safety James Sanders said. "But I've been in this game long enough to realize that every game is not going to be easy. You have to find a way to pull it out at the end, and that's what we did."
On the Packers' final drive, there was a brief celebration when safety Brandon Meriweather intercepted a pass on the second play, but it was nullified by a hands-to-the-face penalty on outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain.
"I'd have to see the replay; I really didn't understand the penalty," said Banta-Cain, who atoned by sacking Flynn on the final play, a fourth-and-1 from the New England 15-yard line.
The final sack was set up by an easy-to-overlook but crucial tackle by Chung on third-and-11, in which he wrapped up receiver Donald Driver just short of the first-down marker. If the Packers had gained the first down, they could have spiked the ball and had more time to draw up a final play. As it was, the Packers had no timeouts, and Flynn looked frazzled for one of the only times of the night.
"Our defense has really made those plays all year at the end of the game," quarterback Tom Brady said, pointing to wins over the Indianapolis Colts and Baltimore Ravens.
Indeed it was a performance in which the defense stepped to the fore. Or perhaps, more fittingly, the four.
"We dug ourselves a hole that we had to get ourselves out of," Sanders said. "And we did that in the fourth quarter."
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.