Commentary

Bull's eye on Brady

The Packers' turnover-focused defense could create problems for Patriots

Updated: December 16, 2010, 8:21 AM ET
By Steven Krasner | Special to ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Something has to give Sunday night when the red-hot New England Patriots (11-2) host the Green Bay Packers (8-5) at Gillette Stadium.

Tom Brady's touchdown-filled, turnover-free brilliance will be tested by the interception-hungry, sack-producing Packers.

Brady has thrown at least two touchdown passes without coughing up an interception in each of his past six games, tying a record for the longest such streak, established by Don Meredith (1965-1966). He has not been picked off in his past 268 attempts, no small factor in fueling a five-game winning streak in which the Patriots have scored at least 30 points in each game while not turning over the football once.

New England leads the National Football League in scoring, at 31.9 points per game.

[+] EnlargeClay Matthews
Rafael Suanes/US PresswireClay Matthews, whom Bill Belichick calls "a hell of a player," ranks second in the league in sacks, with 12.5, and is a candidate for the Defensive Player of the Year Award.

On the other side of the field will be the Packers, who happen to boast the stingiest defense in the NFL, surrendering a mere 14.5 points per game. And Green Bay's defense has been especially impenetrable recently, limiting the opposition to less than 7.2 points a game over the past six games. The Packers have been victimized for only 18 touchdowns this year, the third-lowest total in the NFL.

While the Packers' defense has been receiving contributions from many players, two have stood out -- linebacker Clay Matthews and cornerback Charles Woodson.

Matthews, despite missing one game because of a hamstring issue, ranks second in the league in sacks, with 12, trailing only Miami's Cameron Wake (14). Matthews, a second-year player from USC, had 10 sacks as a rookie. He is a legitimate candidate for the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year Award.

If he is able to claim that hardware, that would make it two in a row for the Packers. Last year's winner was Charles Woodson, a former college teammate of Brady's at Michigan.

Woodson's play hasn't slacked off this season. He has two interceptions and four forced fumbles, and is third on the team in tackles with 89, eight more than he had last season.

Cornerback Tramon Williams (5 picks) and safety Nick Collins (2) also have been active in creating turnovers for the Packers, but Matthews and Woodson will have to be monitored.

"It's quite a bit of a challenge," Brady said on Wednesday of facing the Packers.

"Clay Matthews is a hell of a player. He can rush the passer. He has more than 20 sacks the last two seasons, 12.5 this year. And obviously I know a lot about Charles. I played with Charles in college. He was the defensive player of the year last year. He's a great interceptor. Nick Collins is a great interceptor back there. Tramon Williams is a great interceptor.

Woodson He's deadly accurate. He can make all the throws, his receivers are getting open and making plays after the catch, getting into open space and he's hitting them all over the field.

-- Packers cornerback Charles Woodson, on Tom Brady

"They've got a lot of guys who can make plays on the ball. I'm looking forward to it this week. It's one of the best defenses that we're going to face all year. I think we have a lot of challenges. I think they're first in scoring [defense]. What more of a challenge could you want?"

Patriots coach Bill Belichick, meanwhile, has been praising Green Bay defensive coordinator Dom Capers and his schemes all week.

"It's one of the top defenses in the league, most importantly in points [allowed]," Belichick said. "They do a good job of rushing the passer, they cover well. Matthews and Charles Woodson are great players."

Belichick was pressed to talk more about Matthews, a 6-foot-3, 255-pounder whose NFL bloodlines include his grandfather, Clay Matthews Sr. (four years with the 49ers), and his father, Clay Matthews Jr., who played a total of 19 years for Cleveland and Atlanta.

"He's a real good football player," Belichick said. "He's quick, active, has a good motor. He makes a lot of plays when you think he's out of it and is able to recover because of his speed. They use him more as a pass-rusher, but he's a good pursuit player. He's a hard guy to block."

From the Packers' point of view, Brady and the Pats' offense are going to be a challenge to hold down.

Woodson has the unique perspective of having seen Brady transform from a quarterback at Michigan who was fighting for playing time into an NFL superstar. And the roll Brady has been on lately has impressed Woodson.

"We knew he was a competitor and how hard he worked at his craft [at Michigan] and I knew he'd be good, but who knew what he'd be now?" Woodson said. "He had command of the huddle, guys respected him. Playing time for him didn't come around for a while. He split time his last year. Finally he got an opportunity in the NFL and he has run with it.

"He's deadly accurate," Woodson added. "He can make all the throws, his receivers are getting open and making plays after the catch, getting into open space and he's hitting them all over the field."

Woodson said he has watched some of the Patriots' games on TV and has noticed how different New England is in its passing game without Randy Moss, who was traded after the fourth game. Woodson said Deion Branch and Wes Welker give defenses fits, even if they aren't long-ball threats like Moss.

"They're definitely a different team," Woodson said. "They spread the ball around more. When Moss was there he was a target of a lot of passes. Now they're all over the place with the ball. All of their guys are getting four or five catches. The offense is clicking right now for them.

"Branch [acquired from Seattle after Moss' trade] fits in perfectly with what they do," Woodson said. "[Branch and Welker] spread you out and they have quick moves, they're clean in and out of their breaks quickly and they're great with yards after the catch."

Packers coach Mike McCarthy is well aware that Brady makes the Patriots go, along with a solid offensive line.

"Tom is playing at an incredible level," McCarthy said on Wednesday. "I can't say enough about Tom's performance. That offense is so in sync. They are absolutely functioning at a high level."

So it will be the Pats' high-level offense against the Packers' high-level defense, which sets up for an intriguing matchup.

Steven Krasner is a contributor to ESPNBoston.com.

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