The Patriots (9-2) have dispatched some of the best offenses and defenses in football over the team's seven-game winning streak and things won't get any easier in this trip to Green Bay to take on the Packers (8-3). It's the first-ever meeting between Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, with those two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks leading the two highest scoring offenses in the NFL. New England embarks on a two-game road trip with the team heading directly from Green Bay to San Diego for a week of practice prior to a battle with the Chargers. But first things first, the Patriots look to keep the momentum rolling from the last month-plus heading into the post-Thanksgiving portion of the season that's been so friendly to the team in the Bill Belichick era. Hopefully the players ate a bit less than the rest of the world to avoid a turkey-slowed performance on the not-quite-frozen tundra of Lambeau Field. As you slice up your turkey sandwich and kill time this holiday weekend until the late afternoon kickoff, continuing imbibing with this beer, brats and cheese curds edition of the Patriots at Packers Pregame Six-Pack!
Check out photos from access to players and coaches during Week 13 as the Patriots prepare to play the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field this upcoming Sunday.
1. 1-2 punch – Rodgers is in the prime of his career and in the middle of another truly elite season. With 30 touchdowns compared to just three interceptions the Packers passer leads the NFL with a 119.2 passer rating. He has a Super Bowl ring, Super Bowl MVP and NFL MVP on his resume. One of the few things that Green Bay's No. 12 has never done is face New England's No. 12, Brady. Rodgers did see some mop-up duty in a 35-0 Packers loss to the Patriots in Green Bay in 2006, but this is the first time he's Da Man calling the shots against New England, having missed his only other opportunity due to injury in a game that Matt Flynn lost in Foxborough in 2010. Beyond just his passer rating, Rodgers leads the NFL in average gain, touchdown percentage and interception percentage. He's having about as efficient and productive a year as a passer can have. And like Brady, Rodgers had to tell people to "relax" during a slow September start. Now he leads an offense that's scored 38 or more points in five of its last eight games. Rodgers can extend plays with his legs. He doesn't make mistakes, having not thrown a home interception since 2012. He can make all the throws. (Belichick says that about a lot of quarterbacks, but Rodgers really can.) He's as confident and competitive as anyone. Brady himself raved about Rodgers this week. Belichick too. In a month that's already seen Brady go to battle on the scoreboard with Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck, Rodgers is playing the best of the bunch. Of course Brady hasn't been too shabby in his own right, ranking in the top six in the league in attempts, completions, yards, touchdowns, interceptions and rating while leading a team that's scored 34 or more points in fourth straight and six of the last seven games. Both quarterbacks will find themselves in Canton someday. Each has a resume that any passer would kill for. It's the 37-year-old legend who's fending off Father Time against the best of the best right now enjoying the prime of his career. It's a legendary matchup that hasn't been seen before. It should be fun.
2. Run-D-imensional– The Patriots run defense has been incredible over the last three games. But that came against rushing attacks from the Broncos, Colts and Lions that weren't exactly stiff challenges. Things are a bit different heading into this battle with Green Bay as the Patriots hope to make the Packers one dimensional on offense. But Eddie Lacy is a far bigger challenge – both literally and figuratively – than the Patriots have faced in recent weeks. While Green Bay doesn't run the ball that often, the 230-pound Lacy is averaging 4.4 yards a carry on the season. After a slow start, Lacy has averaged 4.5 yards or better per carry in four of the last five games. He's notched a run of 16 yards or longer in each of the last four games. Vince Wilfork, Dont'a Hightower and the rest of the New England front seven has been on point the last three games in shutting down opposing runners and forcing teams to throw. But the run fits, tackling and team run defense will have to be better against Lacy. The Packers are hard enough to defend when they are just throwing the ball, but if they can run and throw it with success it could be a much longer day than we've seen of late for the Patriots defense. Keeping Lacy from getting a head of steam – both on individual plays and early in the game – will be key up front.
3. 2x2 matchup – For the second straight week the Patriots face a passing attack with two very clear top targets. The bulk of Rodgers' production goes to Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. Nelson has 68 catches for 1,066 yards (15.7 avg.) with nine touchdowns on the season. Cobb has 58 catches for 837 yards (14.4 avg.) with 10 touchdowns. One or the other has notched 100 yards or more in five of the last six games, while they've combined for nine 100-yard games on the season. The 6-3 Nelson is a big-play threat, having had a catch for 64 yards or longer in five different games this season. He's also a master of working the back-shoulder fade with Rodgers, something Brady says the pair does better than anyone in the game. The good news is that the Patriots have two high-level cornerbacks that they could deploy against the dynamic pair, just as they did a week ago when Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner teamed up to take away Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate. Revis is playing at a truly elite level. Browner is coming off by far his best game as a Patriots defender. Having shut down Johnson last week, Browner may be rounding into midseason form after missing the first month-plus to an NFL suspension. Belichick and Matt Patricia seem to deploy the two corners based on size, which would point to the 6-4 Browner matching up with Nelson and Revis with Cobb. In that scenario Browner would probably get some help over the top from Devin McCourty, who's also had a very impressive season. And it's likely that the Patriots will mix things up at times, as well, throwing different personnel groups and coverages at the veteran Rodgers. But boiled down to its base this could be another two-on-two battle between a pair of impressive receivers and tandem of very good cornerbacks. With Lacy as Rodgers No. 3 guy in terms of receptions, and rookie Davante Adams missing time this week to a heel injury that popped up in practice, taking away Nelson and Cobb goes a long way toward shutting down the Packers impressive attack. The question is whether Revis, Browner and the rest of the pass defense are up to the challenge.
4. Endangered turnovers – Turnovers are a key to winning in the NFL – forcing them on defense and avoiding them on offense. The Patriots and Packers are two of the best teams in terms of turnovers in the NFL this season. Green Bay leads the NFL with a plus-15 turnover differential. That comes thanks to 23 takeaways, which is second in the league, and a mere eight giveaways, which is the best in football. New England has a plus-11 differential that ranks second in the league. Its 20 takeaways are tied for fifth in the league. Its nine giveaways are tied for second. So what's this all mean? It means both teams are good at taking care of the football. Rodgers hasn't thrown an interception at home since 2012. No player other than Brady – six interceptions and three lost fumbles – has turned the ball over for the Patriots all year. The team that lives up to its production on defense could gain a major advantage, especially if that's the road underdog Patriots. If either impressive offense suddenly starts turning the ball over, that's a major boon for the battling defenses. Turnover histories can often predict how a game might play out, but in this one that wouldn't seem to be the case. Not surprisingly, the two teams tied for the No. 1 spot in the Patriots Football Weekly Wilson-Hart Power Index are the two best teams in football in terms of turnovers. Who'd have thunk it?
5. 2-man rock party – A week after the Patriots faced Detroit's No. 1-ranked rush defense, New England will take on the Packers front that ranks 30th against the run. Green Bay allows 136.7 yards per game on the season and 4.5 yards per carry. Opponents have averaged better than 4 yards per carry in eight of 11 games this season. The middle of the defense was such a concern against the run that defensive coordinator Dom Capers has moved Pro Bowl outside linebacker Clay Matthews to inside linebacker in base defense on early downs. Long story short, running the ball on the Packers is a popular and successful plan of attack. With LeGarrette Blount fresh off a productive return to New England and Jonas Gray likely back in the mix after being sidelined last week for seemingly disciplinary purposes, the Patriots have two power backs that might be looking to take it to the Green Bay front. A year ago Blount and Stevan Ridley were a tag-team tandem that shared the load as Josh McDaniels would often got with the hot hand. This game could be a chance for that two-man approach to return to the Patriots backfield. Not hard to envision both Blount and Gray getting the chance for 10-plus carries. Also not hard to envision the Patriots taking a balanced approach to offense against Green Bay, maybe a game where 30-something runs and 30-something passes are the ideal mode of attack to score points, keep the Green Bay defense off balance and keep Rodgers on the sideline a bit. More traditional sets with either Gray or Blount in the backfield could be a key to running the ball and getting the play-action game going against a suspect Packers defense.
6. More Gronkowski – It's almost cliché to point it out at this point in the year, but the Patriots advantage each week with Gronkowski lining up at tight end is almost laughable. The beastly pass catcher only had five catches for 78 yards in last week's win, missing out on the end zone for the first time in a month. But with Detroit sending two or three bodies in his direction in the red zone, fellow tight end Tim Wright ended up with a pair of wide-open touchdowns. It's pick-your-poison for opposing defenses. They're damned if they do and damned if they don't. Defenses are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Enough clichés? Get it? Gronkowski will likely be a force in the blocking game this week, again, when the Patriots look to establish the run. Then he should have a chance to take advantage of some play-action against the middle of the Packers secondary that includes strong safety Morgan Burnett as well as rookie Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Gronk remains the most dominant mismatch in the game. Against good defenses he's a game-changing force. Against questionable defenses like Green Bay's, he might once again put on a show.
Prediction: Two very good teams will take the field Sunday evening. The weather is expected to be decent. And while the footing at Lambeau has been an issue recently, a Patriots team that struggled on grass in Kansas City is doing everything to be prepare to deal with imperfect turf. The two best scoring attacks in football are set to battle, led by two elite passers. So there will be plenty of yards and points put up, especially if the teams play to the chalk and avoid turnovers. The two wild cards would seem to be the Packers overall defense and the Patriots run defense. If Green Bay gets Lacy going, that keeps Brady on the sideline and the Packers rolling on offense. While I don't think the Patriots will continue to dominate on the ground, I don't see Green Bay running to victory. On the other side, I can't see Nelson and Cobb running wild in the back end where Revis and Browner have been holding things down of late. This has a chance to be New England's marquee game on defense if it can take care of business against Rodgers and Co. That doesn't mean shutting them down or out, but simply playing well enough to allow Brady, Gronkowski and the rest to get a lead and play from ahead. That's exactly what I expect to happen. I think the Patriots will throw and run the ball successfully. I think the New England pass defense will make enough plays to keep Rodgers from keeping pace with Brady on the scoreboard. I'd expect both teams to be in it at halftime, but I think Brady will pull the Patriots away in the second half. Look for another game where special teams might give the visitors a boost as well. Combine it all and I see the Patriots pulling off the 35-24 road victory to continue to establish New England as the best team in the NFL and the team to beat moving forward.