The last time the Patriots played the Packers, four years ago in Foxborough, the postgame scene at midfield was a bit, well, nauseating.
“You’re the best,” Aaron Rodgers told Bill Belichick following the Patriots’ 31-17 win.
“No, you are, you are” Belichick responded. “You’re awesome.”
“You hang up first.”
“No YOU hang up first.”
Belichick is famous for lavishing praise upon his opponent. But his admiration of Rodgers isn’t mere coach-speak. Belichick seems to truly love Rodgers’s game.
“He’s as good as anybody that I’ve faced, and we’ve faced a lot of good ones through the years,” Belichick said before the 2018 matchup. “He does everything good. He can even play golf. He’s a good golfer, too.”
It’s a respect forged from a distance, other than a few chance run-ins at the Pebble Beach Pro-Am. Though Belichick is in his 23rd season as Patriots coach and Rodgers in his 15th as Packers quarterback, Sunday’s matchup in Green Bay will be just the third meeting between the two.
The respect runs deep both ways.
“Well, he’s the best coach of all time,” Rodgers said on his weekly appearance on “The Pat McAfee Show.” “He’s a legend, a living legend, and he’s been ahead of the game for a long time.
“He makes incredible in-game adjustments, halftime adjustments, third-quarter adjustments, fourth-quarter adjustments, whatever it takes. You know that there’s going to be an initial idea of what they want to take away from our offense. Then they’ll have a Plan B, Plan C, and Plan D.”
There’s a chance the Patriots and Packers could meet in the regular season two years from now. And in theory, the Patriots could play the Packers in a Super Bowl.
Otherwise, unless the 38-year-old Rodgers plays another four years, Sunday’s matchup will likely be the final battle between him and Belichick.
The series is tied 1-1, with Rodgers winning, 26-21, in 2014, and Belichick returning the favor at home in 2018. Rodgers was Brett Favre’s backup for a 35-0 Patriots drubbing in 2006, and he was hurt for a 31-27 Patriots win in 2010.
Against the Patriots, Rodgers has thrown for 627 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions for a 100.2 passer rating, but he completed just 59.3 percent of his passes. Coincidentally (or perhaps not), the Patriots won the Super Bowl in both seasons they faced Rodgers as a starter.
“Glad he’s in the NFC and haven’t had to face him more than we’ve had, because he’s always been a problem,” Belichick said on his Monday WEEI spot this week. “Really no weaknesses with the player at all. Tremendous amount of experience in game-situation management. He’s as good as there is.”
This season, neither Belichick nor Rodgers is off to his best start. Belichick’s Patriots are 1-2, the offense has struggled, and now Mac Jones is dealing with a significant ankle injury. Rodgers’s Packers are 2-1 but rank just 27th in scoring (16 points per game) and had an ugly 14-12 win over a depleted Buccaneers team last week. Rodgers so far is averaging just 228 passing yards per game, with four touchdowns and two interceptions.
But Belichick knows full well that Rodgers, the reigning NFL MVP, is as dangerous as ever.
“He’s a very resourceful quarterback,” Belichick said. “He makes plays that are there, and he makes a few plays that really aren’t there. He rarely makes a mistake where he has a bad play. He’s got a great arm. He’s got great touch. He’s accurate. He helps the team win.”
Belichick has practically gushed every time Rodgers’s name has come up in the past eight years.
In 2014: “I think pretty much everything with his game is excellent to outstanding. … He does a tremendous job, really at everything.”
What makes Rodgers different?
“It’s just, he’s great. He’s quick, he’s big, he throws the ball very accurately, has great vision down the field. He finds guys that there’s not a lot of space, but he finds them and he hits them. He’s really good. I’m not taking anything away from anybody else, but this guy is a really good player.”
After the 2018 game, a Patriots win by two touchdowns, Belichick couldn’t stop raving.
“Aaron made a couple of throws there to [Marquez] Valdes-Scantling, I mean, that were just unbelievable plays,” Belichick said. “We were all over them. I don’t know how the coverage could’ve been much better than what it was.
“Just being the great player that he is, he made great throws there. Those are the kinds of plays you’ve got to live with when you play the Packers.”
And Belichick went on … and on … and on in 2018 when asked about Rodgers’s ability to extend plays.
“God, he’s a hard guy to get,” Belichick said. “You look at the pictures — everybody’s where they’re supposed to be. We feel like we had a good rush plan against him and he escaped a couple of times and extended plays and then got out and threw the touchdown there on a scramble. It looked like we had him on a lot of plays, to be honest with you. He’s just so good.”
Belichick’s praise didn’t occur in a vacuum. A lot of it came in 2018, while Belichick was feuding with Tom Brady behind the scenes. Belichick’s effusive praise may have been a way to needle Brady, who we now know didn’t always feel so appreciated by his coach.
But there’s no doubt that Belichick’s love of Rodgers is genuine. Even Brady privately acknowledged to friends several years ago that if Rodgers played for the Patriots, “He’d throw for 7,000 yards every year. He’s so much more talented than me.”
And Rodgers loves everything Belichick is about — the accomplishments, the way he builds his teams, and of course, the way he trolls the media.
“I think he’s a fantastic coach,” Rodgers said. “Love what he’s accomplished and love what he’s about. Think he’s hilarious in his press conferences, and yeah, he’s a legend.”
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.