Matthews played against Gronkowski when the two were Pac-10 rivals at USC and Arizona, respectively, and he considered him one of his toughest individual matchups at the college level. When the two went head-to-head in 2008, Matthews' senior season and Gronkowski's sophomore year, Gronkowski had just two catches for 12 yards in USC's tight 17-10 win, but it was his complete game that impressed Matthews.
"I think he was underrated," Matthews said. "Not only was he a talented receiving tight end, but he could block as well, and it's clearly evident that he's able to do that even on the professional level. He's one of those guys you really have to gear up for.
"I'm glad I've seen him before, knowing that I'm really going to have to focus on him personally with his blocks if I'm matched up against him and what not. But I think he's a great overall, well-rounded player, and his name will be highly regarded at the tight end position for years to come."
The reason Gronkowski's been a bit of a surprise early on was he missed all of last season at Arizona with a back injury, and then he entered the NFL Draft a year early. The Patriots selected him in the second round last April (42nd overall) and then two rounds later drafted another early-entry tight end, Florida's Aaron Hernandez, who in some ways was the bigger name because he had won a national championship with the Gators as well as the John Mackey Award as the nation's top tight end in 2009, the year Gronkowski was hurt.
The pair has formed an impressive rookie tight end duo. Hernandez has more receptions (41 to 31) and yards (532 to 365) this season, but with the seven TDs to Hernandez's four, Gronkowski has been the more frequent red-zone target.
It's worth wondering what Gronkowski's numbers might be if he were the sole featured tight end in New England's offense, but Matthews says there's no need to focus on his statistics. His personal experience, and this year's game film, have proven to him his read on Gronkowski two years ago wasn't off the mark.
"There are certain guys when you can personally play against them, you kind of predict where they're going to end up or how it's going to unfold," Matthews said. "I got to congratulate him after he was drafted, before the season started, and you could see where his head was at.
"I told him best of luck, congrats on getting drafted, and here we are 14 weeks later going up against each other, just like in college. I have my work cut out for me, and hopefully he does as well."
Another casual link between the two young stars is their athletic families. Both Matthews' father and grandfather played in the NFL, while Gronkowski has two brothers also currently in the league. Dan Gronkowski has played tight end for the Lions and Broncos the past two years, while Chris Gronkowski is a rookie tight end with the Cowboys this season. Their father, Gordon, was a collegiate offensive guard at Syracuse.
"Obviously he's from a football family as well, and with what appears to be a blue-collar mentality, he's going to work hard and get to where he's at," Matthews said. "I think that's exactly what he's done."
Tuck rule redux?
Packers cornerback Charles Woodson has played at New England just once since the infamous "Tuck Rule" game in the 2001 AFC playoffs. With the Raiders in 2005, Woodson opened the season against the Patriots in New England.
But if the forecast for snow Sunday night in Foxborough holds, the scene will undoubtedly remind Woodson even more of the play that allowed New England quarterback Tom Brady to "steal" Woodson's championship ring.
To recap, with the Raiders and Patriots playing in a heavy snowstorm in the 2001 AFC Divisional playoffs, Woodson thought he had caused the game-saving turnover late in the fourth quarter by blitzing on a pass play and stripping Brady of the ball, which was recovered by an Oakland teammate. But because Brady was trying to stop his throwing motion and "tuck" the ball back into his body when he was hit, the officials determined after a replay review that the "tuck rule" applied, making the play an incomplete pass, not a fumble.
Given the reprieve, New England proceeded to drive for a game-tying field goal at the end of regulation, and the Patriots eventually won the game in overtime. They also went on to win their first of three Super Bowl titles.
"You know, I've had that flashback more times than I would like," Woodson told Boston-area reporters in a conference call this week. "I catch that game on the classic football channel sometimes. That's a bad memory for me, but you know, it is what it is. This week, we're just going to try and concentrate on getting this win, whether it snows or not."
As for the championship Woodson is still chasing while Brady, his former college teammate at Michigan, has won three Super Bowls: "Yeah, he did steal my ring and I'm still waiting around to get mine," Woodson said.
Head Coach Mike McCarthy said on Thursday there was no change in quarterback Aaron Rodgers' status, and he didn't expect to have an update until late Friday or Saturday. Rodgers (concussion) did not practice for the second straight day.
McCarthy did say Rodgers' playing status would not be a game-time decision, though. He plans to make a decision on Saturday before the team boards the plane for New England.
Left guard Daryn Colledge (knee) returned to practice on Thursday on a limited basis after sitting out Wednesday. Talking to reporters afterward, he indicated he planned to be a full participant in practice, but a knee brace he has ordered did not arrive in time.
Still, he sounded confident he would be able to play on Sunday, which would run his consecutive games streak as an NFL player to 81 games, including playoffs. Colledge has not missed a game in his pro or college career.
"I know I've played with worse and I've done different things," he said. "It's a different knee, and that's why we're waiting on a brace, but I expect to continue the streak."
A first last week for Colledge was watching the Packers' game on TV while sitting on a training table in the Green Bay locker room at Ford Field. After Colledge left the game in the first quarter, the medical staff recommended he stay off the knee, so he didn't return to the sidelines and he watched the rest of the broadcast with his quarterback, who also didn't return to the field after halftime.
"Aaron and I spent the second half together on the table watching the game, which was tough," Colledge said. "You want to be out there playing with your guys."
In addition to Colledge, three other players on the Packers' injury report were upgraded on Thursday. Tackle Chad Clifton (knees), guard Josh Sitton (knee) and cornerback Pat Lee (ankle) all went from limited to full participants. Meanwhile safety Anthony Smith (ankle) and Woodson (toe) went from full to limited.
The rest of Green Bay's injury report remained the same.
For New England, Brady (right shoulder/foot) and cornerback Devin McCourty (rib) were upgraded to limited participants on Thursday. The Patriots had no other changes.
Additional coverage -- Dec. 16