Rodgers is the key in Pats-Packers
Every week during the season, Mike Reiss and Tedy Bruschi break down the New England Patriots' upcoming game. This week's breakdown is on Sunday's game between the Patriots and Green Bay Packers at Gillette Stadium (8:20 p.m. ET).
Mike: The big story this week is whether Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers will play after sustaining his second concussion of the season. Rodgers did not practice Thursday or Friday, and he is listed as doubtful for Sunday. The plan is to make a decision Saturday, and if Rodgers is cleared I'd have a hard time thinking he won't start. When you were a player, how did you deal with weeks like this?
Tedy: If it was earlier in the season, I think it would be much more of a distraction. But right now, with three weeks to go and you're sitting at 11-2, they won't talk about it because what they are really thinking about is that first-round bye. You want home field throughout the playoffs. You don't care who plays now. You don't care what the team is. It could be the Carolina Panthers coming in here. It's all about playoff positioning now. Whoever starts, you just deal with it.
Mike: One of the questions that some are pondering is whether the Patriots could potentially be peaking too soon. Do you buy that line of thinking?
Tedy: It's always a possibility, but I think you look at the head coach in situations like these. Coach Belichick always has a great pulse on what this team needs, whether they've been a younger team or a veteran team, whether they need to be pushed or he needs to take his foot off the gas. I think he has a great feel for that and I think he's the reason I think they will continue to surge. I've seen this happen before -- play your best football after Thanksgiving and you ride it all the way to championship weekend. I think this team will be there. I don't think they are peaking too soon.
Mike: As usual, we want to focus on one technical aspect of the game, and this week it's roster management. In our weekly mailbag on ESPNBoston.com, "Pats South" writes: "One aspect of the Patriots' success that I don't think the national media articulates well enough is how the Patriots (and Bill Belichick) utilize their 45-, 53- and 61-man rosters better than other teams in the league. Could you articulate that point and compare it to other teams?"
Tedy: The Patriots have to be very creative in how they use their roster spots because they are a week-to-week game-plan team. Offensively, if the plan were to utilize the run game it's possible that they would activate an extra lineman, running back, etc. Defensively, if you're going up against a pass-heavy team, then you bring more coverage players to the game. Having this complexity in your offensive and defensive systems you always have moving parts on your roster. As players, you came to understand that late-season roster changes were the norm. Other teams have their "guys" and ride them out to the end. In that locker room you know if you're not getting it done they will find someone who will.
Patriots defense vs. Packers offense
Mike: I was in the Patriots' locker room this week and one defender kept it simple. When I asked what is the key to the game, he said: "Aaron Rodgers. Have to keep him in the pocket." Rodgers can make plays with his big arm and with his feet, and that's why his availability is such a big storyline leading into this game.
Tedy: He's a very, very athletic quarterback. He plays behind an offensive line that gives up pressures, but he's often able to escape and move the chains with his legs, which is an advantage he has. Last week against the Lions, you saw that and it was to his disadvantage when he didn't slide properly and took a shot -- helmet on the turf, concussion.
Mike: If he doesn't play, the Packers will turn to Matt Flynn and likely promote Graham Harrell from the practice squad for depth. Flynn entered the league in 2008 as a seventh-round draft choice out of Louisiana State, having led the Tigers to the national championship as a senior. The Packers had also drafted Brian Brohm out of Louisville in the second round that year, and Flynn leapfrogged him on the depth chart and is now the No. 2 quarterback in Green Bay. We saw him on tape last week -- he had the costly interception in the end zone that cost the Packers at least three points, but also threw some nice passes. If the Packers do turn to Flynn, they could be in trouble because they don't have a great running game to support him.
Tedy: The Packers remind me a little bit of the Indianapolis Colts. They will mix in the running game a little bit to set up their play-action. They ran for 66 yards against the Lions last week and 35 were from the quarterbacks and scrambles. What they have is hidden running yards, with check-downs, screen passes and quick-look passes to the receivers. That can set up second-and-5 and third-and-shorts, but overall this isn't an offense that is going to line up and dominate you on the ground. If Flynn plays, I think you can chalk this up with the Patriots getting the victory, improving to 12-2.
Mike: The Packers' strength is at receiver, where Greg Jennings and Donald Driver can hurt defenses down the field. When Patriots fans see Jennings, they can wonder what might have been. The Patriots traded up in the 2006 draft with the Packers to select receiver Chad Jackson, which turned out to be the wrong move. The Packers, moving down, got Jennings and offensive lineman Jason Spitz. Both are still with Green Bay, so that's a deal the Patriots would like to have back.
Tedy: You look at the offense and conceptually you would categorize it as a West Coast offense -- rhythmic passing with slant routes. It is an up-tempo type of system. But they have a down-the-field element. Rodgers likes to take shots down the field, and that's not truly indicative of a West Coast team. Maybe when you get to midfield a West Coast offense will take those shots, but Rodgers will take them on a regular basis. I think that's what sets them apart from other West Coast teams.
Mike: In last week's game against the Lions, we saw they were going for a big play -- Rodgers to Jennings -- and it was intercepted when it bounced off Jennings' facemask. They won't be able to make those mistakes Sunday night and beat the Patriots. In what I think is the most defining stat for the Patriots: They are 10-0 this season with a positive turnover differential and 80-3 since 2001. When you look at the Patriots' defense, what stands out to you?
Tedy: They were bend-but-don't-break earlier in the year, but now they're not giving up a lot of yards, along with getting those big plays on defense, the turnovers. Devin McCourty has been fantastic and his rib injury will be a key to monitor. I think he can be that all-around corner, a perennial Pro Bowler, in the years to come.
Patriots offense vs. Packers defense
Mike: Two players really stand out when looking at the Packers' defense; let's start with their pass-rushing linebacker, Clay Matthews. The Patriots could have had him 26th overall last year and he might have solved their need for more pass-rush explosion. He has 12.5 sacks and is a high-motor player.
Tedy: I don't think the Patriots really look at it that way, as a guy they could have had or a guy they missed on. They said they are happy with the guys they have. There are great players who were selected in the second, third and fourth round, so you don't always say "You had a first-round pick, you should have picked him." Matthews is thriving in Dom Capers' 3-4 defense as an outside linebacker, a possible defensive player of the year candidate. This guy does it all. His hair looks like it's on fire coming out of that helmet. He's going to get after Tom Brady and they do a lot of things with him, moving him around. He isn't just on one side. Capers applies some of those old Pittsburgh concepts, as it's a similar 3-4 to the one the Steelers have, which is a stark contrast to the one the Patriots run. Matthews is used as a penetrator, a blitzer, to apply pressure.
Mike: To revisit that trade, the Patriots had the 26th pick and the Packers traded them a second-round selection and two third-rounders. The Patriots then traded one of the third-rounders for a second-round and seventh-round pick, and when all the dust settled they ended up with cornerback Darius Butler, receiver Brandon Tate, tight end Rob Gronkowski and receiver Julian Edelman. It's not a bad haul, but if they could do it over again knowing what they know now, I think they'd take Matthews and find a way to maximize that pass-rush burst.
Tedy: In addition to Matthews, the other player who stands out on this Packers defense is cornerback Charles Woodson. There are a lot of good corners out there -- Nnamdi Asomugha in Oakland, Darrelle Revis in New York -- but I like Woodson. There was a big debate last year on who should be the defensive player of the year, Revis or Woodson, and Woodson won out. I think he won because he's more of an all-around corner. Watch him on Sunday and the way he tackles, delivering a blow. Watching him all year on film, you see the way he forces turnovers. He's a turnover machine -- not just interceptions. He puts his face in there, strips balls, and that's why he's the reigning defensive player of the year.
Mike: Bill Belichick likes both Packers corners, with Tramon Williams starting opposite Charles Woodson, saying they are as good as the team will face from an all-around perspective. How would you sum up this overall Packers 3-4 scheme compared with the Patriots' 3-4 defense?
Tedy: There is a lot more movement. The Patriots are asked to two-gap on a consistent basis -- first, second and sometimes third down, depending on the down and distance. There isn't as much movement. The Packers have movement from everywhere -- they like linebackers coming in from one side, dropping linebackers out from the other side, safeties coming in. There is a lot more movement, pressure-based schemes, some zone blitzes. Think of the old Blitz-burgh, where the zone blitz originated, and I think that's what Dom Capers brings with him. Some might look at the game plan the Patriots used against the Steelers -- spreading them out and making them cover -- and think it would be effective in this game. But the personnel involved changes that -- the Steelers' weakness was cornerback, while the Packers' strength is cornerback. If you go with the same concepts as the Steelers' game, you may be playing right into their hands. It will be nice to watch, seeing how Bill O'Brien and the offensive staff adjust.
Mike: Boston College fans will see a familiar face in nose tackle B.J. Raji. He's a 2009 first-round draft choice who starts. They have some size up front, although one Patriots player said that lately they are running more 2-4 schemes, with two big defensive linemen up front and four linebackers. If they do that against the Patriots, getting the running game going with BenJarvus Green-Ellis will be important.
Tedy: Benny has taken the job and run with it. When you have that momentum, you don't take someone out, even when you have a situation where Fred Taylor is back at full strength. You stay with the hot hand. One of the things that stands out with him is that he seldom gets stopped for negative yardage. He doesn't dance, he gets positive yards, and I think that's what Coach Belichick loves.
Mike: Special teams-wise, the Patriots got a strong performance from kicker Shayne Graham, punter Zoltan Mesko and snapper Matt Katula in those challenging snowy and windy conditions in Chicago. But the coverage units were really disappointed in the performance, losing containment multiple times, and that's something they are working on this week in practice.
Let's wrap things up with a question from a Patriots follower. On Twitter, @tomwatsonpats asks, "How do the Patriots manage expectations when everyone is proclaiming them the best in the league?"
Tedy: That's a great question, Tom. You usually need a strong veteran presence to maintain focus in the locker room. This is a young team. I think they've shown that they have matured this year, especially after the Cleveland game. We have seen this team grow before our eyes all year. Can they maintain this level all the way to Dallas? That will be the final test.
Mike: Let's make some predictions on what could be a snowy night. I'm going to make two -- one for if Aaron Rodgers plays, one for if he doesn't. The Packers need this game to keep their playoff hopes in a good place and I expect them to play much better than they did in Detroit. If Rodgers plays, I could see the Packers winning a close game late as I envision him having success against a pass defense without Devin McCourty. I'd go Packers 30, Patriots 27. If Rodgers doesn't play, I like the Patriots 31-14.
Tedy: OK, Reiss, I guess I will do the same, but my result is the same no matter who plays at quarterback. The Packers are beat up. You could field a pretty good team with their players that are on IR. I don't see this Patriots momentum slowing down. This is the most dialed-in I've seen Brady since '07. No Rodgers, Patriots 28-7. With Rodgers, Patriots 31-24.