GREEN BAY – For all the hype coming from NBC and other media outlets about Sunday night’s Packers-Patriots game factoring into the greatest-quarterback-of-all-time debate, Aaron Rodgers isn’t about to go there.
“I’ll let you guys worry about those types of conversations,” Rodgers told reporters at his locker after Wednesday’s practice, discussing the rare clash pending with Tom Brady. “I’m just worried about winning right now. He’s got five championships, so that ends most discussions I think.”
Fair enough, but there’s no denying how special Sunday night’s matchup at Gillette Stadium will be given it’s just the second head-to-head meeting between two QBs in the GOAT discussion.
Head Coach Mike McCarthy compared it to a set of duels he saw up close as a young assistant coach breaking into the league with Kansas City, when Joe Montana went to the Chiefs and took on Denver’s John Elway in the 1993-94 seasons.
One of those showdowns, in ’94 at Denver’s Mile High Stadium, is still considered one of the best Monday night games, if not regular-season games, ever. Tied at 21 midway through the fourth quarter, Montana drove the Chiefs for a go-ahead field goal. Elway countered with a TD drive. Then with 1:22 left and 75 yards to go, Montana worked his magic and threw a short TD pass with eight seconds left for a 31-28 win.
Count McCarthy among those who would hardly be shocked if drama like that is in store come Sunday night, but he also referenced the “little things” that will make this a football junkie’s delight. The command at the line of scrimmage by the quarterbacks, the checks and audibles, the chess match, it’ll all be on display, both ways.
“For pure quarterback play,” McCarthy said, “this is definitely one you want to watch.”
The previous Rodgers-Brady showdown wasn’t bad, either. Back in 2014 at Lambeau Field, the Packers prevailed 26-21, needing a sack of Brady late and a clutch third-down catch by Randall Cobb to run out of the clock. A late first-half touchdown by Jordy Nelson against Darrelle Revis and a big game from rookie receiver Davante Adams were ultimately the difference.
What Rodgers remembers most, other than the big victory, was the never-ending challenge presented by New England head coach Bill Belichick’s defense, because it was constantly changing throughout the game.
“The thing that stood out was they had a plan to start the game to take away Jordy and Randall, and we got Davante going, who was a rookie at the time,” Rodgers recalled. “Then they adjusted the plan and then we found Jordy for a big one, and they adjusted again.
“That’s what Bill and his staff will do. They’re going to try to take away what you do best, your one and two options, and if you start getting something else going, they’re going to adjust quickly to it. You have to have a second and third game plan when you play the New England Patriots.”
Brady, who wears his emotions on his sleeve as much if not more so than Rodgers, was visibly upset on the Lambeau Field sidelines when the end of the game did not go New England’s way.
Having battled other greats in the AFC like Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger on a regular basis, Brady relishes these types of games, not because of the specific opposing QB necessarily, but due to the demands a high-level matchup places on him.
“We actually had an opportunity late in the game to make some plays to help us win, and we didn’t get to do it,” Brady said of the Green Bay game four years ago. “Whenever you play against another prolific offense with a great quarterback, you can’t have a day where you play less than your best, or you lose, and that’s what makes it tough to beat.”
The admiration society is mutual. Rodgers said he watched a lot of Brady film early in his career, studying how he moved in the pocket to create throwing lanes. Brady said he’s been “inspired” by the different style of game Rodgers plays, and the 41-year-old Patriot has been happy to share some of his longevity secrets with the soon-to-be 35-year-old Packer over the years.
From Green Bay’s perspective, a great lesson from their first meeting was the value of not only Adams’ performance (six catches, 121 yards in his coming-out party as a pro) but that of another rookie, tight end Richard Rodgers, who hauled in a 32-yard TD pass.
Does that mean emerging rookies like receivers Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown, who have come up with big, clutch plays in the past few games, will have the spotlight find them? Maybe, maybe not.
“You never know who it’s going to be,” Rodgers conceded. “It could be Marcedes (Lewis) this week who could get opportunities in the red zone and needs to make important plays. It could be Lance (Kendricks). It could be one of those young guys again.
“But we need those guys to be ready. I think the staff has done a good job and the conversations have been good to make sure those guys are dialed in, that you never know when it’s going to be your opportunity. But when it comes, you have to make the plays.”
With so few clashes against Brady (Rodgers missed what would have been the first one in 2010, also on Sunday Night Football, due to a concussion), Rodgers’ biggest regret is the lone meeting thus far wasn’t that year’s Super Bowl preview. The Patriots beat the Seahawks in the final moments four years ago for Brady’s fourth title.
“I wish we would have been there in ’14,” Rodgers said. “We were right there on the doorstep. That would have been a fun one.”
Indeed, it would have. But unless another meeting for all the marbles materializes or Brady plays until he’s 45 when the Packers and Patriots are slated to meet again, in 2022 – which is by no means out of the question – this will have to do.
“You’re seeing two of the best, two of the best all-time,” McCarthy said. “If you want to study how to play quarterback, then you need to watch that game Sunday night.”