The difference between Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady was the difference in this game.
In this matchup of the NFL's two best quarterbacks and two hottest teams, the New England Patriots had as good a pocket passer as the NFL has seen. But the Green Bay Packers had an added dimension in Rodgers' mobility and throwing ability on the run, which was the decisive edge in their 26-21 win Sunday at Lambeau Field.
Rodgers' playmaking outside the pocket changed the game from the start, because it profoundly influenced the Patriots' game plan. Bill Belichick, the Patriots' coach and maybe the game's premier game planner, clearly wanted to keep Rodgers in the pocket. So he didn't blitz much and generally deployed a controlled, lane-conscious pass rush, with seven or even eight men usually dropping into coverage.
But it didn't work, because it didn't prevent Rodgers from making plays. He more often than not had loads of time and space to move around and find receivers, and more often than not he moved around and found them.
"We held up great in protection and gave him lanes to move around," said Josh Sitton, the Packers' left guard. "When we do that, he's the best in the biz."
Rodgers came into this game at even money to win the NFL's MVP award, according to Bovada.lv, with Brady second at 4-to-1. After outplaying Brady on Sunday, it's looking more likely that Rodgers will win his second MVP, though there still is a quarter of the season to play.
Rodgers finished Sunday with a passer rating of 112.6 to Brady's 102.7. Both threw two touchdowns and no interceptions, but Rodgers hit on four passes of 28 yards or more to Brady's one, and threw for 368 yards to Brady's 245.
At several key points Sunday, Rodgers' ability to keep plays alive led to big plays, either for long gains or third-down conversions.
There was his first-quarter, 38-yard touchdown pass to tight end Richard Rodgers, on which Aaron Rodgers had time to pump fake to Jordy Nelson on one side of the field, then move around and find Richard Rodgers beating the single coverage on a corner route on the other side.
There was Rodgers' scramble to his right and throw downfield to running back James Starks for a 28-yard gain that set up a key touchdown at the end of the first half that put the Packers up by nine points.
There was the second-and-5 play in the fourth quarter, when Rodgers held the ball for about 12 seconds while moving around in search of an open receiver. He ended up throwing the ball away, but it added to the sense that the Patriots' plan wasn't working.
And there was the game-clinching play, when on third-and-4 with 2:28 left. Rodgers had no pressure from the Patriots' soft four-man rush, which allowed him to stand in the pocket and find Randall Cobb as he worked the middle of the field for several seconds. Cobb found just enough of an opening for Rodgers to thread a throw in a small window, and the 7-yard gain meant the Packers could run out the clock with three straight kneel-downs.
"Extend the play," Rodgers said of his mindset once the Packers picked up on the Patriots' plan. "You just know the way our line was protecting it was excellent, you know there's going to be some opportunities to kind of hold it and move around. A couple of those we had a lot of time, seven, eight, nine seconds, and they locked onto our guys pretty good."
Said Patriots cornerback Darrelle Revis: "Aaron is very good at scrambling and extending plays. You don't want to be in that position as a defensive back."
Rodgers also was a key factor in nullifying Belichick's plans for covering the Packers' receivers. In the first quarter, he put his best cover man, Revis, on Cobb, and then had his huge, physical cornerback, Brandon Browner (6-4, 221) on Jordy Nelson. It worked to the extent that neither Cobb nor Nelson had a reception in the first quarter.
However, the Packers' No. 3 receiver, Davante Adams, had three catches for 90 yards in the first quarter while matched against No. 3 cornerback Logan Ryan. So in the second quarter, Belichick moved Revis to Nelson, and Browner to Adams. Then Cobb caught four passes in the second quarter, and Nelson even beat Revis, who might be the league's best cover man, for a 45-yard touchdown.
Essentially, nothing the Patriots did worked very well.
"They're a matchup team, so we needed to win those matchups," Rodgers said.
The 9-3 Packers have had several blowouts in their run of winning eight of their past nine games, but this has to qualify as their most impressive win of the year, because it came against an elite quarterback and the highest quality of opponent.
Yet, the Packers players, including Rodgers, were noticeably subdued when meeting with reporters after the game. It was hard not to suspect that one of coach Mike McCarthy's messages to his team after the game was to not over-celebrate the win against the favorites to win the AFC.
"We're happy about the win, obviously an excited locker room," Rodgers said when asked about his muted demeanor in his postgame news conference. "But we have some big goals, and we're getting into December football now with the chance to have everything right in front of us. We're going to celebrate this win tonight and move on."