Patriots/Packers matchups to know (QB/special teams)

There’s a potential Super Bowl preview next week pitting the two hottest teams in the NFL –- the Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots -- against each other. We’re sure you’re going to want to hear a lot about the matchups this week, so we’re here to oblige with some information on a matchup you’ll hear a lot about and another that you may not hear much about, but that you’ll want to keep in mind as you follow this game.

The matchup that will get a lot of attention …

You’re going to hear a lot about the Tom Brady versus Aaron Rodgers matchup this week.

Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers have never started in a game against each other. Rodgers got some mopup duty in a blowout loss against the Patriots in 2006. Matt Flynn started when the Packers and Patriots concluded the regular season with a 31-27 Patriots win in 2010.

Rodgers and Brady have the two highest QBRs in the league since Week 4. Rodgers has 25 touchdowns and two interceptions in eight games. Brady has 23 and six in that same span. The two are separated by one percentage point in completion percentage, with Rodgers up 68.3 to 67.3.

Brady can expect to see a lot of blitzing from the Packers defense, which has sent extra men on 178 opposing quarterback dropbacks (fifth-most in the NFL). But that’s of little concern to him. Brady’s QBR against the blitz is 93.1, best in the league.

Rodgers ranks fourth-best against the blitz, but he probably won’t see it often. The Patriots have blitzed 97 times, 28th-most in the NFL.

And the matchup you might not (but that you should watch closely)

The Green Bay Packers rank first in the NFL in Expected Points Added (EPA) on offense. The New England Patriots rank third. In other words, their offenses have performed with the highest level of success in the NFL

The Packers rank 11th in Defensive EPA. The Patriots rank 13th.

The two teams are fairly even within those two aspects of the game.

But where do they differ?

The biggest differential is in special teams’ performance. The Patriots have the edge there by a good margin.

The Patriots rank second in the NFL in special teams EPA. The Packers rank 26th.

The Patriots’ special team excellence comes in a couple of areas.

Their kicker, Stephen Gostowski, leads the NFL with 26 field goals and has missed only once all season. He ranks eighth in kicking accuracy over the last three seasons (90 percent). Packers kicker Mason Crosby ranks 35th in that same span (79.5 percent), though he’s a steady 16 for 18 on tries this season.

The Patriots are also helped by a pair of blocked kicks against opponents field goals. Opposing kickers are 19 for 24 against them this season. Opponents are 15 for 16 against the Packers.

The Patriots have a solid kick return game on both ends, ranking sixth in yards per kick return and fifth in yards per kick return allowed. The Packers are 27th and 24th.

The two also rank about even in punting performance, though some may give Ryan Allen a slight edge based on their most recent recollection of him- his booming 66-yard punt against the Lions on Sunday.

The player to watch in the return game is Julian Edelman, who ranks second in the league at 13.5 yards per punt return. The Packers have only allowed 5.8 yards per punt return, fifth-best in the NFL and haven’t allowed a punt return longer than 13 yards all season.