When: 4:25 p.m. ET Sunday. Where: Lambeau Field; Green Bay, Wisconsin. TV: CBS.
In the quarterback world, they don't come much better than Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. And because Brady's New England Patriots and Rodgers' Green Bay Packers play in different conferences, they don't often cross paths on the field.
That makes Sunday's matchup at Lambeau Field one of the most highly anticipated games of the season.
The quarterback matchup is so intriguing that ESPN Patriots reporter Mike Reiss and Packers reporter Rob Demovsky devoted a separate, double coverage-style preview just to them earlier this week.
However, there's still much to discuss about the Patriots (9-2) and the Packers (8-3).
Reiss: We touched on the quarterbacks earlier in the week, so let's go deeper. The Packers' offense has looked unstoppable at home. Where is the deficiency on offense, if there is any?
Demovsky: There's probably two of them, Mike, but they both might be minor. One is at tight end, where the Packers still haven't found anyone who can do what Jermichael Finley used to do, and that's stretch the field and draw multiple defenders down the seam. Andrew Quarless and rookie Richard Rodgers have made some plays in short areas, but that's about it. The other might be the depth behind Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. The Packers have been fortunate that both have stayed healthy this season, but it might serve them well to develop some other weapons. A team like the Patriots, with two shutdown corners, could expose that.
A lot of teams have one cornerback who can shut down a receiver, but it looks like the Patriots are one of those rare teams with a pair. How do you think they will use them against Rodgers' primary targets, Cobb and Nelson?
Reiss: The Patriots played a lot of man coverage last Sunday against the Lions and had Darrelle Revis on Golden Tate and Brandon Browner on Calvin Johnson, often with safety Devin McCourty helping over the top. The week before in Indianapolis, they put Revis on Reggie Wayne and had Browner on tight end Coby Fleener, with cornerback Kyle Arrington on T.Y. Hilton (and often with safety help over the top). New England can do a lot of different things, and it's been fun to watch the plan unfold each week. My educated guess early in the week would be Revis on Cobb and Browner on Nelson, with the safety help from McCourty over the top. The Patriots will obviously mix up their looks between man and zone, as is the norm.
The Patriots have struggled to draft and develop receivers in Bill Belichick's tenure, with 2013 second-round draft choice Aaron Dobson the latest example. This seems to be a strength of the Packers. Any sense of why they have been so successful in that area?
Demovsky: You're right; the Packers rarely miss on a receiver drafted in the first few rounds, and the latest one -- rookie second-round pick Davante Adams -- looks like he has a chance to be the next in line following the likes of Cobb, Nelson, James Jones and Greg Jennings. General manager Ted Thompson and his staff have done well identifying receivers who fit their system. Jennings and Cobb were tailor-made for the inside routes in coach Mike McCarthy's version of the West Coast offense, while Jones and Nelson had the size to play on the outside.
From the outside, the Patriots' offense looked rather ordinary until Rob Gronkowski got going in that blowout of the Bengals. What happened to spark him, and why does he make this offense so much better?
Reiss: It was strictly health-related, as he was coming off his torn right ACL from Dec. 8. Gronkowski hadn't played in the preseason despite practicing from day one of training camp, so there was a process of easing him back into the game-day mix and him getting comfortable physically and mentally. Gronkowski averaged 35 snaps per game through the first four weeks, and he has been averaging 63 per game in the seven games since. So the first four games were really his preseason in a sense. As for why he makes the offense better, he is 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds, has a large catch radius, runs well and can throw people out of the club in the blocking game. He's a complete tight end who is extremely difficult to match up with -- safeties get overpowered and linebackers often can’t run with him -- and draws significant attention in the red zone to often open things up for others. Based on the aforementioned factors, I believe he has a strong candidacy for MVP consideration. I know it almost always goes to quarterbacks, and one can't go wrong with Rodgers or Brady, but my vote right now would go to Gronkowski, based on what I've seen.
Where do you see potential weaknesses on defense?
Demovsky: It's the run defense, hands down. There should be real concern this week if the Patriots come out the way they did against the Colts, when they were intent on running the ball. It could be a real problem for the Packers. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers said this week that he believes he has enough bulk up front to handle that, but there's no denying the Packers' smaller defensive front (that got even smaller than expected after B.J. Raji was lost for the season in training camp) has struggled against the run all season. When the Packers have been decent against the run, they have gotten great tackling games from their linebackers and defensive backs. They are going to need that again.
The run defense has been a little better of late, but it's still the biggest question mark on this team. Whom should they expect to see the bulk of the carries this week, and how committed are the Patriots to the run game?
Reiss: The Patriots are as committed to the run as they want to be, depending on the week and if they believe it gives them the best chance to win. Two weeks ago in Indianapolis, for example, they ran the ball 44 times (against 30 pass attempts) and had a sixth offensive lineman in the game on 37 of those snaps. They basically declared their intentions before the snap and still powered through the Colts. But then last week against the Lions, who entered as the NFL's No. 1-ranked run defense, they ran the ball only 20 times and threw it 53. This is the essence of what they refer to as the "game-plan offense" -- an attack that morphs into something new every week based on what they perceive the opponent's weakness to be. I would expect to see plenty of power backs LeGarrette Blount and Jonas Gray against the Packers, in addition to smaller back Shane Vereen. The Patriots are going to want to run the ball, at least to set up play-action possibilities but also because the matchup looks favorable.
What type of impact has free-agent signing Julius Peppers made on the defense?
Demovsky: It's been two-fold: It has given the Packers another pass-rushing threat. In the past, it was Clay Matthews, Clay Matthews, Clay Matthews. Peppers leads the team with five sacks and has returned two interceptions for touchdowns, so he has delivered in the big-play area. But perhaps just as important, he has allowed Capers to be more creative with Matthews, who has played inside, outside, on the line of scrimmage and off the line of scrimmage this season. Oh, and here's one other thing: Peppers has captured the locker room much in the way veteran Charles Woodson did when he was here. The younger players seem to respect and look up to Peppers.
There's something we didn't hit on with the quarterbacks earlier in the week, and it’s this: Rodgers has talked many times about the possibility that he will play his whole career as a starter with one head coach, McCarthy, which makes that coach-QB relationship so important. Brady is in the same boat. How do he and Belichick work together?
Reiss: They meet multiple times per week, and both have talked extensively about how they value their partnership. Brady has said how fortunate he has been to play in one offensive system over his entire career, and Belichick has talked about Brady as a challenging player to coach because he’s always so prepared, which means coaches always have to try to stay a step ahead. Jackie MacMullan, columnist for ESPNBoston.com, wrote a piece about this subject in January that is timely to revisit.
This is the type of game in which special teams could be a big factor. Tell us more about the Packers' special-teams units and some of the key players.
Demovsky: Some people (myself included) think McCarthy is crazy for still using Cobb on punt returns, but at least the Packers are platooning him with safety Micah Hyde, who returned a punt for a touchdown against the Eagles. But that tells you how much value they place on the return game. Special-teams coordinator Shawn Slocum calls those the first offensive plays of a series. Their kicking game is solid with punter Tim Masthay and place-kicker Mason Crosby, but they have had issues protecting on punts. The Patriots would be wise to go after Masthay, who has had two punts blocked this season. Slocum needs cornerback Jarrett Bush, who missed last Sunday's game against the Vikings because of a groin injury. He has been the Packers' best special-teams cover man and blocker for nearly a decade.
One more Belichick-related question: Packers fans don't get to see him up close often, and what they do see is probably just his grumpy, news conference persona. What is he really like?
Reiss: That's a tough one to answer, Rob, because much like the players we cover, we aren't around him much more than a short period of time each day. That adds up over time, so I guess I'd say the main thing about Belichick is that this is what he lives for -- football. That's my impression of him; he's the football coach and teacher through and through, and if what you're bringing to the table doesn't have anything to do with that or doesn't align with his goal of winning the next game, it's probably not going to produce much fruit. That's one of the things I've come to appreciate about covering his teams; there are no bells and whistles, and perception is reality. It's all ball with him.