Two weeks ago, the Packers made their statement by beating one of the top teams in the NFC, the Eagles. Then they avoided, just barely, falling in their trap game against the Vikings in TCF Stadium. On Sunday, they get their chance to make another statement by beating the Patriots, probably the top team in the AFC, in what some people are calling a possible Super Bowl preview.
About the Vikings game - sure, we all expected the Packers to dominate the game, and they really did not do that. They never trailed in the game, but they never really took control of the game, either. It was the classic sort of game where the better team plays down to the level of the competition, and lets the other team hang around and hang around, all game long. There were a number of contributing factors. First, the Packers just seemed flat. Rodgers missed some passes, and should have been intercepted at least once, and receivers dropped some passes that they normally would catch. The Vikings played a lot of cover-2 defense, which seems like it always frustrates Rodgers, and it does tend to decrease the efficiency of the Packers' offense. Teddy Bridgewater looks like he might be the real deal for the Vikings, but he was wild on Sunday, especially early in the game. If he had completed some easy passes, instead of overthrowing them, and if his receivers had not dropped a handful of catchable passes, the Vikings might well have won the game.
Still, the positive parts of the Vikings game were the effect that the Packers suffered through a subpar performance and still managed to win the game - somewhat like the Jets and Dolphins games, both of which they could easily have lost. And there is nothing more satisfying than to see the Packers get the ball back, with over 3 minutes to go, and watch them grind it out on 5 straight Eddie Lacy runs, for two first downs, to get the game into kneel-down time.
What about the Patriots? They have the best record in the AFC at 9-2, and they are on a 7 game winning streak, after a maddeningly slow start of 2-2. People were beginning to question whether Brady was over the hill, but just like that, they turned it around. In their seven game winning streak, only one win has been by less than 15 points (they beat the Jets by 2 points). One of the things that I have always admired about the Patriots is the way that they keep their foot on the gas until the game is way out of control. So if the Patriots get ahead of the Packers on Sunday, there is no hope that the Patriots will slow down the game and give the Packers a chance to catch up. The Packers will have to seize the opportunity themselves, with no help from the Patriots.
I can make the case for the Patriots winning the game. They have two top cornerbacks, so they should have a better chance to keep Nelson and Cobb in check than most teams. Both teams have high-level passing offenses and middle of the pack rushing offenses, They both have middle of the road passing defenses, but the Patriots have a much better rushing defense, and the Patriots have shown that they are willing and able to emphasize the run offense when that is the easier way to score points. If the Patriots win the game, it will be likely be because of the Packers' Achilles' heel: rushing defense.
But I am predicting a Packers' win. True, the Patriots have won 7 in a row, but the Packers have won 7 out of their last 8 games, and are 5-0 at home (thanks to the furious comeback against the Jets). The Packers do have, on a year-to-date basis, one of the worst rushing defenses in the league, but I would suggest that the statistic is out of date. Since the Packers started to use Matthews inside, the Packers have given up 55, 109 and 112 rushing yards in those three games. If they did that all season long, the Packers would have a top 10 rushing defense.
It is interesting that Brady and Rodgers have never started against each other - a fact made possible by Rodgers' concussion in 2010. Matt Flynn played instead, and came close to upsetting the heavily-favored Patriots. But this time, we get two of the best quarterbacks in the league, both (I would argue) sure future Hall of Famers. This will be an interesting battle, between the classic pocket passer in Tom Brady, and the newer model, more mobile quarterback in Rodgers. According to the NFL Network, there has never been a game in which the starting quarterbacks have more career touchdown passes. Brady and Rodgers have 603 combined passing TDs. In second place is a Roethlisberger-Favre matchup late in Favre's career - those two had 589 passing TDs. This should be a great matchup.
Happy Thanksgiving to all!