INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - Dan Connolly barely gets noticed when he does his best work, a 313-pound center surrounded by wide bodies trying to control the line of scrimmage.
It took just one play, though, lasting perhaps 10 seconds, to put him in a spotlight players his size almost never enter. And that led to his tongue-in-cheek comment about what he would do if he weren't an offensive lineman.
Connolly fielded it on two bounces at the 25-yard line and clutched it to his stomach with two hands. He made it all the way to the Packers 4, swerving, stiff-arming and speeding downfield. His 71-yard kickoff return was the longest by a lineman in NFL history. It set up Tom Brady's 2-yard touchdown pass to Aaron Hernandez that cut the Patriots deficit to 17-14. They won 31-27.
Now he's filling in again, although at a position he's more familiar with. When nine-year starter Dan Koppen suffered a season-ending injury to his left knee in the season opener, Connolly stepped in at center and the line was just as solid.
He credited Dante Scarnecchia, a Patriots assistant since 1991 and offensive line coach since 1999, with easing his transition from guard, his primary position the past two seasons.
"It was probably something he's been working on for years," said Connolly, who will face the Giants aggressive pass rush. "When I was needed I was able to just step in and do it and not even think about it. I think he just prepared me a long time ago to be ready."
"Nick, when he was in there, did a great job," left guard Logan Mankins said. "He stepped up those two weeks and did a fine job for us. He made a majority of the calls. We couldn't have asked anything more of him."
The Patriots have had three players starting with them for the first time on the offensive line most of the season.
Brian Waters was signed after 11 years with Kansas City to replace the retired Stephen Neal at right guard. Rookie first-round pick Nate Solder started 11 regular-season and two playoff games at right tackle, while Sebastian Vollmer sat out with back and foot injuries. Then there are the changes at center.
"I think it goes back to practice," Connolly said. "We don't just play five guys in there all the time and don't rotate. We put everybody in, different combinations of people, and I think over the years and through 110 practices through the season it pays off when we get comfortable playing with any combination of who's in there."
"There is definitely a possibility," coach Bill Belichick said. "I don't know if we will know about that until we put him through the full week of practice. He is definitely making progress, so he is getting there."
No matter who plays the offensive line on Sunday, Connolly expects them to perform well, just as he's done.
"I've played with anybody they could put in there," he said, "so I know they're going to do the job."