Marquee matchup starts with quarterbacks
In a league known for repetition, it's the one clash the NFL has yet to witness.
Technically, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady have met once before, but it came during the New England Patriots' 35-0 blowout victory over the Green Bay Packers on Nov. 19, 2006, when Rodgers relieved Brett Favre before suffering a foot injury that ended his season.
It was another full year until Rodgers took over for good and began his rise up the quarterback ranks. A week shy of his 31st birthday, Rodgers stands in elite company with Brady and Denver's Peyton Manning as the only active quarterbacks to win a Super Bowl and be named league MVP.
Neither quarterback will concede Sunday's showdown at Lambeau Field is about playing the other. The same holds true for their respective coaches.
"They're both really good, obviously. Both wear No. 12, both look like they're really good golfers," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick on his conference call with Green Bay media Wednesday.
When asked a few hours later if he'd like to add anything, Packers coach Mike McCarthy deadpanned: "I guess to add to it, they're both from California."
While detailed scouting reports on how the quarterbacks compare and contrast might be difficult to come by in either locker room, there's no discounting how much they've impacted the league, particularly this season.
Rodgers and the Packers lead the NFC in points differential (plus-108) and points per game (32.2), while Brady and the Patriots pace the AFC in both categories (plus-130 and 32.5 ppg). Since October, the two have combined for 332-of-492 passing for 4,165 yards, 43 touchdowns and six interceptions (117.6 passer rating).
Both quarterbacks fall into the category of "CEO quarterback," a term former NFL coach Jon Gruden likes to use to describe those gifted few who have their coach's trust to adjust calls at the line of scrimmage or make a check based on something they've seen.
Rodgers and Brady are stoking the fire of the NFL's two hottest teams. The Patriots bring a seven-game winning streak into Sunday's game while the Packers have won seven of their last eight.
"It's fun to be living out a dream," said Rodgers of facing Brady. "This is my 10th season, he's been a few more than that. This is rare. We're both on the original team that drafted us, so that's pretty special. I think he's been with one coach his entire career. I've been with the same GM and one coach my entire starting career, as well. That's pretty special."
Brady versus Rodgers means big ratings for CBS, which protected the game from being flexed to prime time, but both are quick to point out there are 90 other players who'll be dressed on the sidelines Sunday afternoon at Lambeau Field.
The only time Rodgers and Brady likely will be on the field together will come during postgame handshakes. The real cat-and-mouse game comes down to which team's defense has more success containing the other's MVP quarterback.
Packers cornerback Davon House said last month he believed New England's core of cornerbacks (Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, Kyle Arrington, Logan Ryan and Alfonzo Dennard) are the closest comparison to Green Bay's depth.
The Patriots like to be multiple in their defensive fronts, but the secondary centers on the play of Revis and Browner, who was acquired in free agency to help replace Aqib Talib. Chances are good some combination of the two veterans will look to take away Rodgers' primary weapons, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb.
That likely will leave Arrington to play off Packers' No. 3 receiver Davante Adams, though Revis or Browner have the flexibility to play inside or out.
If that's the case, other options will have to emerge like they did in Sunday's 24-21 win over Minnesota when Eddie Lacy rushed 25 times for 125 yards and tight end Andrew Quarless had a season-high 50 receiving yards.
"It's a matchup defense," Rodgers said. "They'll figure out who they want on Jordy, who they want on Randall, who they want on Q (Quarless) and who they want on Davante and we'll run our offense and adjust if we have to. That's football. We adjust, they adjust and whoever can be more efficient is probably going to end up winning."
The same can be said for Brady. The task for coordinator Dom Capers and his defense is to do a better job against Brady than the Packers did against New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees when he threw for 311 yards and three touchdowns in a 44-23 win at the Superdome last month.
The Packers' secondary has rebounded since the bye week and ranks 13th in passing defense (234.4 yards per game), fourth in opposing passer rating (80.2) and tied for second in interceptions (15).
Asked if Brady is a mythical figure in the football realm, defensive back Micah Hyde said he's certainly among the best, but the secondary isn't shaking in its shoes, either. For the past four months, Green Bay's defense has benefited from cutting its teeth against an MVP quarterback of its own.
"I had the luxury of going against someone like A-Rod every day. He's pretty damn good himself," Hyde said. "I'm not going to go out there and look at Tom Brady and think he's God or anything, but he's a very good football player."
Rodgers and Brady independently agreed the comparisons between the two don't extend much past what their respective coaches outlined. They've both had success in the NFL, but have accomplished it in different ways.
The fleet-footed Rodgers loves to scramble to extend plays whereas Brady's polished mechanics and quick-release make him the ultimate pocket quarterback.
The key for both is keeping in context what Sunday's game at Lambeau Field means. Yes, everyone wants bragging rights, but the win counts the same as any other of the 15 games on the regular-season schedule.
It still has the makings of a special game since the Packers and Patriots only play each other every four years. Unlike the Brady/Manning rivalry that's been played out 16 times, this could be the only time Rodgers and Brady meet unless there's a Super Bowl showdown on the horizon.
The moment isn't lost on anyone, but neither side is overblowing its importance. As McCarthy puts it, there's real drama and made-up drama. What happens on the field Sunday is the only reality the Packers are concerning themselves with.
"It's always interesting when they think it's quarterback versus quarterback when they don't ever see each other, but it's great," Nelson said. "Two of the probably best quarterbacks who'll ever play the game, on the same field, in Lambeau Field. It's probably what the NFL really is wanting. Hopefully it can be a good game and a good show on both ends and we can come out on top."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.