Shutdown Corner - NFL

Dan Connolly(notes) is a 6-foot-4, 315-pound offensive lineman with the New England Patriots whose previous career highlight, according to the team's website, was throwing a key block on a 17-yard run by BenJarvus Ellis-Green earlier this year against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

On Sunday night, though, the fifth-year veteran became one of the unlikeliest members of the NFL record book when he fielded a short kickoff and somehow rumbled 71 yards down the field before getting tackled at the 4-yard line. It was the longest kick return by an offensive lineman in NFL history.

That was one of those plays that made you stand up in your family room and yell "GO!" even if you had no interest whatsoever in the game's outcome. (Not that I'm speaking from experience or anything). For a moment, it looked like Connolly was going to somehow score, and that, my friends, would have been even more improbable than DeSean Jackson's(notes) miracle punt return earlier in the day.

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As Cris Collinsworth pointed out, Connolly's ball-carrying style was as old school as it gets. The portly lineman was cradling the ball looking like he was a firefighter saving a baby from a burning building. Normally when a big guy unexpectedly picks up a bouncer, he holds it carelessly, more concerned with getting yards and glory rather than the fundamentals of handling. Connolly was the opposite.

Nearly as impressive as the cradling and the Heisman-style stiffarm was the fact that Connolly stayed in the game immediately after his return to block on the offensive line for the Pats' goal-to-go plays. New England even ran behind him on a second-down play. It's common to see speedsters like Jackson or Devin Hester(notes) suck down oxygen after long run kick returns, but Connolly, all 315 pounds of him, didn't need any. 

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And though the return was a fun novelty that NFL fans will remember for a long time, it also turned out to be a huge turning point in the game. New England was down 17-7 to a depleted Packers team before Connolly's return. The good field position brought on by the runback allowed the Patriots to score and go into halftime down 17-14.

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