As a friend of mine often says on Friday’s: It is the day before the day before. The Green Bay Packers prepare to welcome the New England Patriots to Lambeau Field this Sunday afternoon in one of this season’s most anticipated match up’s. This is CBS’s game of the week and every market except for the Atlanta area will be televising it.
While much has been made of two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks being on the field at the same time, this game will come down to so much more. Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady will suit up and start opposite each other for the first time ever. Rodgers did appear in relief of Brett Favre in a 2006 game against New England after Favre was knocked out of action. In 2010 and in the last match up, Rodgers sat out after suffering a concussion the week prior. Tom Brady, on the other hand, continues to play and play and play. Who knows when he will finally hang up the cleats. It’s inspiring to watch Brady continue to play at the high level that he has and it seems as though Rodgers has taken note. Since turning 30 late last season, Aaron has taken to some additional habits to try and prolong his career and keep himself in shape. Rodgers turns 31 on Tuesday.
Rodgers is having an incredible season, conjuring up some memories of 2011, when he was the league MVP and led the Packers to 14 of their 15 wins in the regular season. His accuracy has been other-worldly at times and Patriots head coach Bill Belichick missed no opportunity to gush over A-Rod’s performance and abilities. While Belichick was very complimentary of Green Bay’s number 12, when asked what is similar between Rodgers and Brady, he simply responded with “both wear #12”.
While Rodgers is getting the lion’s share of the attention, Brady is quietly leading the Patriots to one of the league’s best records at 9-2. 3,000 passing yards, a 101 passer rating, 26 touchdowns and just six interceptions on the season. If ever we have wanted to see an opposing quarterback who is close to Rodgers in terms of stats, we have it in this game. Brady has been as steady as can be over the last eight games, all of which the Patriots have won since starting 1-2. One little jab at Brady, however, is that he has at least one interception in the last three games. I haven’t gone back to see if any were tipped or more on the receiver than Tawmy (as the New Englanders call him), but it’s pretty clear that Brady won’t throw many up for grabs in this game.
Moreso than the quarterback match up is the match up of two of the most successful head coaches in the league since Packers head coach Mike McCarthy came into the league in 2006. Belichick has won 109 games during that span while McCarthy has won 90 games. Belichick has appeared in two Super Bowls, both losses to the New York Giants. McCarthy led the Packers to their most recent Super Bowl championship in 2010. McCarthy is also the second-most winning coach in Packers history, having now surpassed the legendary Vince Lombardi with last week’s win over the Minnesota Vikings. Much like Belichick’s comparison between Brady and Rodgers, the comparisons between he and McCarthy end at both being the worst press conferences in recent history. Belichick is the savvy, wheel-and-deal type who likes to outsmart his opponents and play around with personnel to do it. Just two weeks ago, he added running back LaGarrette Blount after Blount was released by the Pittsburgh Steelers. With Stevan Ridley lost for the season due to an ACL injury, the Patriots needed a steady back to pick up the slack. While Blount is a former Patriot and familiar with Belichick and his offense, he is also the type of big back that the Packers struggle with. As far as scheme and game planning, if there is a weakness to be exploited in the opposition, Belichick will find it on both sides of the ball. Trust that he’s fully aware that the Packers struggle to stop the run and likely have few answers to contain tight end Rob Gronkowski. He also won’t be putting a single safety back in coverage and leaving Packers receivers matched one-on-one. He’ll likely try to take away Eddie Lacy and the deep ball and force the Packers to earn their yards and points with passes underneath and longer drives. McCarthy is more of the “we are who we are” type. He fields his team and runs his plan, often not wavering from it except for the occasional attempt to steal a possession with the surprise onside kick. He lauds his staff’s preparation and often points to execution and lack of fundamentals when there are failures.
Both are offensive-minded and heavily involved on that side of the ball and so expect to see some points scored. Neither team is really built for the typical defensive battle that keeps the scores under 20 points each. The Packers stiffened up against the Vikings and when they had to last week to secure the win, but they also benefited from some inaccuracy by Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. This was also the case against Mark Sanchez and the Eagles and Jay Cutler and the Bears. Brady won’t allot the Packers that luxury this weekend. Not beyond maybe one or two throws. New England’s defense, until allowing just nine points to the Detroit Lions last week, had given up at least 20 points in the five games prior to that. They can be scored on and that’s what the Packers have done at home this season: scored. We all know the gaudy stats Green Bay has put up at Lambeau Field over the last month. I wouldn’t expect another 50-point effort in this game, but I’m thinking around 35 should suffice.
Everyone is talking about how the Packers will account for Gronkowski so naturally, it will be someone else who becomes an issue for the Packers. The only question is whether it’s receivers Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola or Brandon LaFell. The Packers have had some success getting to the quarterback and the one thing working in their favor with Brady is that he’s not going anywhere. He’s never been mobile and despite the occasional breakdowns in containment, there won’t be much room to roam. In the last match up, Brady had more modest numbers and faced some pressure from the Packers front. Green Bay needs to dial up more of the same this week. It’s really the only way to force a mistake or give the defense an opportunity to get the ball back. Stating the obvious and this strategy applies to any quarterback in any game, but the one “known” is that Brady isn’t going to be operating out of the pistol and taking off.
Rodgers, on the other hand, will have to get on the move and keep the Patriots defense running. Green Bay ran very little no-huddle last week but I expect to see more of it this week in an effort to wear down the defense and open things up for the Eddie Lacy show later on. Lacy continues to recover from an ailment he played through last week. It was the Vikings, but if he can rack up 125 yards and two touchdowns while feeling ill, I like what he might contribute to this week’s effort.
On the health front, both teams seem to be in decent shape. The Patriots aren’t ruling anyone out for Sunday while the Packers have just two questionables in defensive back Jarrett Bush and linebacker Nick Perry. Both Bush and Perry missed last week’s game and both would be a notable loss for the Packers. Bush is a special teams ace and valuable from a field position perspective. Perry adds some good depth and rotation at outside linebacker, especially since Clay Matthews moved inside to the middle. Perry has dealt with plenty of injuries in his three seasons with the team, but when healthy and active, he tends to make a few key plays.
On one side of the argument for the Packers, this is a measuring stick game and one that will tell us who the Packers really are. Get a win and there’s no question they’re among the NFL’s elite. Lose and they still have some work to do in order to take control of their own destiny. In reality, it’s a tough game against a great AFC opponent. Losses hurt at this point of the season, but it’s a non-conference game. It would put Detroit back in the driver’s seat in the NFC North by virtue of the head-to-head win over the Packers earlier this season, but those two teams meet up in week 17. In between, the Packers have a home game against the Atlanta Falcons and road games at Buffalo and Tampa Bay. All are winnable. Try to keep it in perspective and enjoy this rare clash between two of the game’s best right now.
I leave you with a few interesting factoids about these two teams facing each other, which is noteworthy in and of itself given they only face off every four years. The last three times the Packers have appeared in a Super Bowl, they faced the Patriots either in the game itself or during that regular season (1996, 1997, 2010). New England appeared in Super Bowl XLIII (also in Glendale, Arizona) with a 16-0 record and might have faced the Packers had they somehow beaten the Giants in the NFC Championship game. Some have this silly notion that this game might be a preview of the upcoming game in Glendale in early February, 2015. I don’t dare say which. And unrelated to the Patriots, but the first time Arizona hosted a Super Bowl was following the 1995 season when the Packers appeared in the conference championship game against the eventual champion Dallas Cowboys. I’m just sayin. . .
Jason Perone is an independent sports blogger writing about the Packers on AllGreenBayPackers.comFollow Jason Perone: