Welcome to Season 7, Episode 8 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-yet-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup.
Forget that Monday night rock-fight with the willing but hapless Bills. Now this is what a prime-time matchup should look like.
Patriots vs. Packers, one an annual Super Bowl contender (the Patriots have quietly won five games in a row), the other a team that usually has championship aspirations only to seem to lose a round earlier than expected (the Packers are 3-3-1 this year).
Tom Brady vs. Aaron Rodgers, a quarterback showdown of the highest magnitude.
Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth on the Sunday Night Football call (OK, maybe Collinsworth isn’t for everyone, but SNF is the marquee NFL time slot, and this tandem screams big game to me).
This is one to anticipate, and better, one that might just live up to its billing.
Kick it off, Gostkowski, and let’s get this thing started . . .
Three players I’ll be watching not named Tom Brady
Devin McCourty: Oh, just admit it: You had no idea he still had those jets, if you ever knew it in the first place. McCourty’s 84-yard pick-6 against the Bills Monday night was revelation. He can run like that? Oh, yeah, he can run like that. Better, it was a weclome reminder that he is still capable of big plays at 31. (Hey, it had been awhile.) Per NFL.com’s Next Gen Stats, McCourty hit a top speed of 22.05 miles per hour on the return, the fastest any player in the league has been clocked at this season. McCourty is rarely thought of as a burner – the terms physical and smart tend to be applied to him before anything else — but he did have that reputation coming into the league, when Mel Kiper Jr. had him pegged as a special-teams gunner above all other potential contributions.
Josh Gordon: I still don’t know where Ian Rapoport’s NFL Network report last week that Gordon was going to be “kept off the field for several series” as punishment for tardiness in the Bills game came from, but I bet Bill Belichick does. I do believe the Patriots would discipline him had something actually happened, just as Belichick did with Adalius Thomas and his fellow failed Jetsons when they were late for practice on a snowy morning during the 2009 season. Gordon started, ended up playing 64 snaps, had a so-so game (4 catches, 42 yards), yet earned further praise from his coaches for his efforts. (“Josh has done everything we’ve asked him to do here,’’ said receivers coach Chad O’Shea.) I get the sense Gordon is doing the right things, perhaps with a slight hiccup here and there, and everyone is going out of their way in praising him to make sure he keeps doing the right things.
Davante Adams: The Packers are dealing with some minor injuries in their receiving corps. Randall Cobb (hamstring) and Jimmy Graham (knee) are both probable for Sunday, but it remains to be seen whether their effectiveness will be diminished. Rodgers’s best weapon is good to go, though — Adams has 52 catches (10th in the league) for 690 yards (eighth) and 6 touchdowns. That’s a pace of 119 catches, 1,573 yards, and 14 scores, which would be a monster season by any receiver’s standards. It’ll be interesting to see if Adams draws the attention of cornerback Stephon Gilmore, but he’s a tough matchup for even an accomplished quarterback at this point.
Grievance of the week
I’ve got a beef with any serious person who suggests Rodgers is the best quarterback in NFL history. (Max Kellerman, who has proclaimed as much, gets paid to say dumb things in the hope that we will notice. He does not count.) Rodgers is probably the most talented quarterback in NFL history — his accuracy, mobility, and arm strength are unmatched by any single quarterback I have seen (yes, including Nick Mullens). But the best quarterback? It cannot be anyone other than Brady. If you’re a Patriots fan, you’ve been lucky enough to live all the reasons, but the most pointed reminder is this: He has played in eight Super Bowls, won five, including a winning drive to beat the greatest show on turf, a fourth-quarter comeback against a Seattle defense that desperately wanted to be the ’85 Bears, and the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history against the Falcons. Take any one of those achievements and it’s the highlight of Rodgers’s career. To put it another way: There is nothing on this NFL Network highlight film of Rodgers — which you may notice is labeled Greatest QB of All-Time: Aaron Rodgers — that would crack the first 10 minutes of a Brady retrospective.
Prediction, or this would be even more fun if it were Lynn Dickey throwing to James Lofton and John Jefferson
The Patriots and Packers have played just 11 times through the years, with the Packers winning six, including Super Bowl XXXI. (Dammit, Parcells, get off the phone with the Jets and pay attention). For such an abbreviated history, there have been some quirky and memorable moments through the years. In October 2002, the Packers beat the fading Patriots in Foxborough, 28-10. It was the defending champions third straight loss, and I remember it for Kevin Faulk and the rest of the Patriots’ offense standing around and forgetting to fall on a backwards pass that hit the turf. The Packers recovered the lateral and scored on the next play (Brett Favre’s 300th career touchdown pass, as it turned out). Some reactionary dingbat (hi there) wrote after that game that Belichick should cut the underachieving Faulk to send a message to his sleepy team. Belichick did not follow said dingbat’s advice, and Faulk received a lovely red sports jacket one day many years later to commemorate his legendary place in Patriots lore.
Another oddly memorable moment came in November 2006, when the Patriots thumped the Packers, 35-0. Favre got hurt, and the speeding cart he took to leave the field nearly turned Ellis Hobbs III into the NFL equivalent of a squirrel on I-95. Rodgers came in to pitch relief, just his fifth career appearance, and he was brutal, completing 4 of 12 passes for 32 yards while taking three sacks. You never would have figured he’d become this, one of the quarterbacks in the argument as the second-best of all time.
Perhaps there will be another quirky moment or two Sunday night. But it’s hard to figure that they will come in a Packers victory. As great as Rodgers is, he’s not surrounded by high-end talent, and the Packers have lost three in a row on the road. Sunday night, the greatest quarterback of all time will collect one more win. Patriots 41, Packers 31.