The Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots have spent decades defined by their quarterback play. Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, two surefire Hall of Famers, have collected Super Bowl rings on the backs of MVP, All-Pro performances that have carried the team along with them.
But if this season is any indication, both men are entering the point in their career where they can’t earn those rings alone. Rodgers, injury-prone in the past few seasons, has done a Herculean job in 2018 despite an inconsistent running game and porous defense. But his Packers are just 3-3-1, struggling to define themselves in their own division. Keep in mind two of those wins were late Rodgers comebacks against the lowly 49ers and upstart Bears. It’s no surprise, then, that trades of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Ty Montgomery have some wondering if the Packers are on the verge of looking ahead to 2019.
And Brady? Continuing to defy the odds at age 41, he’s finding ways to win while putting the Patriots in position to contend for the AFC’s top seed at 6-2. (The team holds the tiebreaker over the Chiefs, currently in the No. 1 spot at 7-1). But cracks in the Patriots' offense, however slight, were evident in a 25-6 win over the lowly Buffalo Bills on Monday night. It took a pick-six from the defense to seal the victory as the Patriots' running game, missing young star Sony Michel, earned half of its 76 yards by a converted wide receiver.
It’s clear these two teams have the leader they need under center. It’s the players around them that are the issue.
Will Sunday night be the moment one or both teams finally find the right help?
Green Bay at New England
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 4 at 8:20 p.m. ET
Spread: Patriots -5.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Which banged-up players will suit up Sunday night?
The injury report for both teams would easily be enough to fill up a local hospital. A whopping 15 players made the Patriots report, affecting nearly every position on the roster. Even punter Ryan Allen made the list with an ankle injury that limited participation.
The most notable players are tight end Rob Gronkowski, running back Sony Michel, linebacker Dont’a Hightower and wide receiver Julian Edelman. Gronkowski appears to be the most noticeable after battling back and ankle injuries that have limited production. He missed the game two weeks ago in Chicago and hasn’t topped 100 receiving yards since the season opener. What’s worse is he walked out of a Wednesday press conference when questions centered around his on-the-field confidence.
Michel and Edelman are also major question marks. Michel’s impact on the Patriots' offense is clear; without him, counterpart James White averaged a paltry 1.9 yards per carry. Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels did an impressive job working wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson in for a nice change of pace. But the Packers are a far better team than the Bills and that trick is unlikely to play out twice.
Edelman’s presence, as we’ve seen, opens up the field for Brady and new deep threat Josh Gordon. Losing him would put more of a load on Chris Hogan, a capable role player but someone who seems incapable of assuming a starring role.
The Packers, meanwhile, appear to be in better shape. Rodgers remains on the injury report with his left knee but has been more mobile in recent weeks. Wide receivers Geronimo Allison and Randall Cobb both returned last week against the Rams but they looked rusty, combining for just five catches, 54 yards and no touchdowns. Cobb should be fine for Sunday night, but Allison injured his groin in practice on Thursday so his status is worth keeping an eye on. Tight end Jimmy Graham is expected to play despite a knee injury.
2. Where is the Packers' psyche?
This question is clearly worth asking after a weird week up in Wisconsin. The team traded away Montgomery, opening up the backfield for Aaron Jones but also raising questions on whether the team felt they could be competitive this season. Adding Pro Bowl safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to the departure list only heightened those fears.
New Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst, who replaced the now-retired Ted Thompson in January, insisted those moves weren’t designed to give up on 2018.
“I don’t think there’s a message it sends to the locker room,” he said this week. “I think the decisions we make are always in the best interest of our team, not only in the short term, but the long term, as well. I think our locker room knows where we’re headed and I think we’re humming at the right time.”
At the same time, there doesn’t seem to be a clear sense of direction on how this season will play out. The run game, at least, has some definition now as Jones ran for a season-high 86 yards on 12 carries against the Rams. But the Packers' defense has been problematic. Dix had three of the team’s five interceptions and was playing at a top-tier level. How do you replace that?
Add to that a long line of stories this week suggesting Rodgers would have smashed NFL records playing for the Patriots. It’s a backhanded criticism of the way the Packers have been coached and put together over the years compared to the five-time Super Bowl champions. While the quarterbacks have immense respect for each other it leaves the impression the Packers are second rate. And no one’s really spoken up to truly defend that, including head coach Mike McCarthy.
For the first time in a while, the direction of one of the NFL’s most storied franchises is worth questioning. Who’s steering the ship here?
3. Can the Patriots' defense pressure Rodgers into mistakes?
Monday night’s win for Patriots fans will be defined by Devin McCourty waltzing to the end zone, an 84-yard interception return off Derek Anderson dashing any hope the Bills had left. McCourty has been exceptional for this defensive unit, whose 11 interceptions are tied for second in the NFL.
That’s the philosophy this group has been built on; make the game-changing play that tilts momentum your way regardless of how many yards you give up. The unit ranks in the bottom quarter of the league in yards allowed per game and will give Rodgers his yards; they’re 27th in the league at 277.3 passing yards allowed per game. Chiefs superstar Patrick Mahomes just a few weeks ago torched New England for 352 yards and four touchdown passes.
But the Patriots also had two crucial interceptions in that game, early turnovers that built them a cushion which ultimately proved to be the winning margin. The Packers may be more than happy to give them the ball. Their seven fumbles lost is tied for fourth in the NFL; it was a botched kick return against the Rams which cost them an opportunity at toppling the lone remaining undefeated team. Up to that point, they had gone punch for punch and Rodgers appeared to have enough time to put the Rams on the ropes. (They lost 29-27).
Rodgers himself has lost three fumbles, tied for third in the league while getting sacked 22 times in eight games. All it’s going to take is one of those mistakes to throw this game the Patriots’ way.
The Packers enter this game knowing a win is crucial to their playoff hopes. A record of 3-4-1 would put them potentially a game-and-a-half back in their division with a second half schedule ahead that includes games against the Seahawks, Vikings and Bears on the road. Expect their best effort in what’s been a yo-yo type of season.
But the Patriots are playing in Gillette Stadium, where they’re 4-0 to start the year while downing fellow AFC contenders Houston and Kansas City. Brady knows how to get the job done here along with one piece of additional help that has never gone unreliable: Stephen Gostkowski. It was Gostkowski who kicked four field goals to give the Pats breathing room last week; he’s 17-for-19 this year and perfect on extra points to lead the AFC.
The Packers’ Mason Crosby, by comparison, has struggled, going 1-for-5 (and missing his only PAT) in a game against the Lions last month and missing a kick that would have avoided the tie with the Vikings. That type of volatility could make the difference in a back-and-forth offensive contest which will likely be decided by defense and special teams.
Prediction: Patriots 34, Packers 31
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.