Super Bowl Preview: Patriots vs Packers Part 1
By Brian E Murphy, PackersInsider.com senior editor
~GREEN BAY, WI – It sure looks like a Super Bowl Preview. Now. But it definitely didn’t when October began.
First, Green Bay got steamrolled to fall to 1-2 in Detroit, losing to the Lions 19-7, with the Lions offense smothering the high-octane Packers offense.
But afterwards, Aaron Rodgers told everyone to R-E-L-A-X.
The following week, New England got clobbered 41-14 by the Chiefs on Monday Night Football to fall to 2-2 with their wins being against Oakland and Minnesota, two usual cupcakes.
Tom Brady said their offense was, essentially, “not good”.
“I can definitely do a better job, so I think that’s what I’m trying to focus on,” Brady said on Wednesday. “We’re 2-2. It’s not really where we necessarily want to be, but it’s where we’re at. We’ve got a lot of football ahead. We’re going to try to do a lot better job, all of us are.
“I don’t think we should feel sorry for ourselves. We’ve always found a way to kind of grind our way through tough times.”
Brady was optimistic, sounded positive. But fans near and afar, and analysts, thought the writing was on the wall and that Brady was losing it, and the Patriots were in trouble.
“When you’re weak, when you’re the weakest kid and you go into a bully’s house, you get the snot beat out of you,” ESPN analyst and former Super Bowl-winning QB Trent Dilfer said. “We saw a weak team. The New England Patriots, let’s face it: They’re not good anymore. They’re weak, and they came into a great atmosphere, with a team that feels like they’re in a do-or-die situation, a team that came out and attacked, played fast, and got after the weaker opponent. Let’s call it what it is.”
“How is it possible, with all these draft picks, and all this guru stuff we hear coming out, and all the personnel expertise from the Patriots and how great they’ve been for so long, how have they not been able to support Tom Brady in his career the last five years, especially this year, with enough personnel to go attack the Super Bowl? How have they fallen so far?”
Dilfer interjected: “At 37 years old, you need maybe more help than he did at 32, 33, and they’re giving him less.”
Fellow ESPN analyst, and former record-setting Super Bowl MVP QB Steve Young replied: “The problem is, people are going to say, ‘Tom Brady’s the problem.’ He is not. He didn’t play well, but I’m telling you, there’s a big separation between what they’re trying to do offensively and what Tom wants to do. Also, Tom gets either no help behind the line of scrimmage or gets no help down the field. You saw the tape, nobody’s open. In the end, if anybody wants to go after Tom Brady, come through me, because I guarantee you, this guy is still capable of taking anyone that’s really any good to the Super Bowl.”
“Two rookie offensive linemen, offensive tackles getting beat, no game-breaking wide receiver, Gronk not back to top form, and an offense committed to a lot of underneath short throws, along with a quarterback who at 37 is being asked to do a lot of heavy lifting,” Former Super Bowl QB Boomer Esiason said. “If LaFell [and] Dobson can’t stretch the field, defenses will not respect deep throws. I admire Edelman, but there has to be more options. With inexperience along the line and a running game grinding, it’s no wonder they are bewildered.”
Appearing on “Inside the NFL,” Esiason was even stronger.
“Something I can tell you from that Patriots offense is that nobody, I mean nobody, scares anybody. They are not throwing the ball at all. I can see with my own plain eyes that nobody is scaring anybody with that offense,” he said. “And this was a team that always lived scoring between 28 and 34 points, and the defense was an afterthought. The Patriots have really big problems, and I don’t see the answer on their roster.”
Now, fast forward to today, as we set to close out November and the third quarter of the season.
The Patriots haven’t lost since that game. As hot as the Packers have been winning seven of eight, the Patriots are even hotter. They’ve won seven in a row, including three straight against division-leading teams, by margins of 22, 22, and 25. That was against Peyton Manning’s Broncos, Andrew Luck and the Colts, and then the NFC North leading Lions, who held the Packers to 7 points earlier this season.
The Patriots also lit up the Bears for 51 points the week before that Broncos game, and they scored 43 points on the Bengals back in week five.
The Steelers gave LeGarrette Blount back to the Patriots last week, and he responded with a pair of touchdowns yesterday against the #1-ranked Lions defense. Blount plowed through the top-ranked Lions defense for 6.5 yards a carry. Remember, the Lions defense held the Packers to 7 points earlier this season.
Gronk is back. He leads all tight ends with 812 yards, and his 58 catches is just one behind Jimmy Graham (who plays tonight) for tops in the NFL. Gronk’s nine touchdown receptions is tied for 4th in the NFL, behind only Julius Thomas, Dez Bryant, and Randall Cobb.
He is a beast, and as many Packer fans are well aware of, covering opposing tight ends is one of the biggest weaknesses of the Packers defense, year after year. Packers inside linebackers have made it a habit to make decent tight ends look good and make good ones look great.
Gronk is a great one.
Who’s going to cover Gronk? A.J. Hawk can’t cover him. Brad Jones got some rust off this week, but that’s asking a lot of the former outside linebacker. Clay Matthews? Do you really want him running with Gronk down the seam and all over the field, or do you want him hunting down Brady?
Julius Peppers, size and skill-set, is probably the best specimen that you could design. But again, you stop Brady not by taking away one target, albeit his favorite. You stop him by hitting him before or when he throws the ball. Peppers and Matthews off the edges, and stunting inside, are the golden keys to slowing down Brady and that passing offense.
What about stopping the run? Yes, that’s been another Achilles heel for the Packers. They’ve done a better job the past couple of weeks, since Matthews was moved to inside linebacker at times. Coincidence or not, he’s quicker and better. Still, the Patriots have a power running attack with Blount and Jonas Gray, if he doesn’t oversleep.
The last power back the Packers faced was their last loss, in New Orleans, when Mark Ingram of the Saints had his best game ever in the NFL.
The Patriots also have a deep threat, now, in Brandon LaFell, who has five touchdowns and almost 700 yards.
They have the new Wes Welker slot guy in Julian Edelman, who will be a hard guy to cover for the Packers. Remember how wide open Greg Jennings was Sunday for the touchdown, and then the Vikings two-point conversion? The Patriots are experts at those cross, pick, rub slot routes and it’s Edelman who is the main man running those. He has 70 catches on the season, leading the team.
Another guy to watch is number two tight end Tim Wright, who has six touchdown receptions. He’s a hybrid type of tight end, who’s basically a large wide receiver in the Shannon Sharpe, Julius Thomas mold. Watch out for him too.
If the Packers are to stop Brady, they are going to have to win at the line of scrimmage, as the Chiefs did. This is a game where Julius Peppers can show the world that his addition was well worth the price tag. He already has, by the way. But on the biggest stage, that’s where the best showcase themselves. Speaking of big, he will be going against the Patriots right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, who is 6-8, 320. Peppers might be at a height disadvantage, but he’s much quicker than Vollmer is.
On the other side, it’s another 6-8, 320 bookend Nate Solder who protects Brady’s blind side. Again, while Matthews gives up some inches in the paint on a basketball court, Clay has an edge both athletically and quickness.
Dom Capers’ game plan is critical. One good thing is on third down passing situations, they can pin their ears back and go after the QB, not worrying about the long run by the QB like Colin Kaepernick has gashed the Packers on. Brady will not look to run. But he’s smart and will find the open guy if there’s a blown coverage on an exotic blitz where someone leaves a running back uncovered. Shane Vereen is a very good receiver out of the backfield and he could hurt the Packers with some big third down catches.
Now two weeks ago, the Packers defense did a fine job on Eagles backs LeSean McCoy and Darren Sproles, who’s one of the most dangerous guys out of the backfield.
But that was Mark Sanchez piloting the ship, this is Brady. And that was a rookie TE in Jace Amaro, while this is Gronk.
And that was Rex Ryan, this is Bill Belichick.
It would be great if this was the matchup in the Super Bowl. Well, except for Seahawks, Cardinals, 49ers, Cowboys, Eagles, Broncos, Steelers, Ravens fans.
Rodgers versus Brady.
Rodgers versus Belichick.
Brady versus Capers. That’s the one I worry about the most, quite frankly. I’ve seen how Capers’ defenses have fared against great QB’s before. Drew Brees and the Saints have looked terrible this year, even at home. That is, except the 44 they lit up Capers’ defense for back in week 8.
We’ve also seen how Colin Kaepernick has looked time and time again against Capers’ defense. He’s had his best ever passing game once, and his best two running games the other two times, including eliminating the Packers from the playoffs the past two years.
For the season now, Brady is 271-417, 65% completions, for 2,998 yards, with 26 touchdowns and just six interceptions for a passer rating of 101.
Rodgers, throwing much less, is 228-342, 67%, for 2,957 yards, with 30 touchdowns and 3 interceptions for a passer rating of an unbelievable 119.2.
Brady now is considered a front-runner for the MVP, along with Rodgers and Manning. Back to normal.
Brady has rebounded.
Dilfer and Esiason have had to eat crow the past month or so.