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PackersNews.com reporter Olivia Reiner lays out some key statistics and numbers in the Tom Brady vs. Aaron Rodgers debate. Packers News

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If you want to see what NFL rules changes mean for quarterback longevity, go back and watch Brett Favre in the NFC Championship game in the 2009 season.

That infamous Bountygate game wasn’t even quite nine years ago, yet watching it feels like it’s from a different era.

It’s not that he got hit on every throw. This week I studied all 46 of his passes, and by my count, the Saints hit him on at least 15. While that’s a lot – he wasn’t sacked in the game, so all came as or after he threw – it wasn’t so much the number as the brutality of several of the shots.

Two of the worst were penalized – a hard knockdown more than a second after he’d handed the ball off, and another where he was pile driven into the turf like a professional wrestler.

But at least six others shots went unpunished that probably would have been flagged in today’s game. They included a dangerous hard hit below the knee on which he injured his ankle (and where a penalty would have wiped out an interception) and a vicious shot to the head by Darren Sharper running full speed.

NFL quarterbacks don’t take those kinds of hits anymore because of the increasing emphasis on their protection, and the costly 15-yard penalties, fines and suspensions that go with them. No team would game plan like that now, because the personal fouls alone would lose the game.

That’s a big reason why Tom Brady’s hopes to not only play but play well until at least age 45 are looking more realistic than ever. Same for Drew Brees, who’s going strong at age 39, and perhaps Aaron Rodgers, who turns 35 next month and will face Brady on Sunday night in a rare matchup of the game’s two best quarterbacks.

“In the case of these quarterbacks, whether it’s Brady or Brees or whoever, this (longevity) is definitely being facilitated by the rules changes,” said Michael Joyner, a doctor at the Mayo Clinic who specializes in the study of the physiology of elite athletes. “It depends on how tight they call it. … It could be 45 (is realistic).”

It’s more realistic now than even a year or two ago.

Sure, all the advances in training and diet are making a difference – Brady is a fanatic’s fanatic in those areas. But an accumulation of injuries big and small probably poses the biggest threat to a quarterback's longevity, and the league keeps expanding quarterbacks' protection from taking hits.

The emphasis this season on penalizing defenders who land on quarterbacks with their body weight is yet the latest evolution and very well might add a year or two, maybe even more, to the careers of players such as Brady, Brees and Rodgers.

That’s on top of changes in the last five years that have tightened the definition of late hits, low hits, and hits to the head and neck area.

“Before I throw the ball the biggest thing I know is that the guy behind the camera right there is not very far away, but he can hit me still after I throw it,” said Joe Montana, who retired at age 38 because of an accumulation of injuries, in an interview with SI.com last April. “Now you can’t touch’em. It allows you not to take those big old hits that really make a difference in your play and your ability to last a long time.”

Brady is the trailblazer because of his goal of playing until 45 and perhaps beyond. The only quarterback in NFL history to have anything like an elite season at age 40 was Favre, who in ’09 went 12-4 with a 107.2 rating. That is, until Brady at 40 last year went 13-3 with a 102.8 rating and advanced to the Super Bowl.

Brady, who turned 41 in August, is famous for his meticulous training and lifestyle habits designed with football longevity in mind. He adheres to an eccentric diet in which he has eliminated nightshades (potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and eggplants, among others) because of their supposed inflammatory effects. He’s reportedly mostly a vegan, though he eats lean meats at certain times of the year. He’s also gluten-free and avoids dairy, white sugar, white flour and caffeine.

He reportedly aims for 8 to 10 hours of sleep a night to enhance recovery from training and playing football. And he works out multiple times a day with an emphasis on exercise bands to promote what he and his trainer call muscle “pliability,” which in his book "The TB12 Method" is described as the lengthening and softening of muscles.

Rodgers hasn’t gone to Brady’s extremes – he hasn’t given up nightshades, for instance – but he no longer consumes dairy because of an allergy. He has become friends with Brady and visited him a few years ago to learn some of his methods. These aren’t things Brady shares widely.

“Aaron’s own career longevity and his performance, I think there’s a lot of things we have in common, so it’s great to talk about those things,” Brady said this week in a conference call with reporters in Green Bay. “There’s probably not many people that I’ve had a chance to talk to that go through a lot of similar experiences as I do, and he’s probably one of those guys.”

As interesting as their diets and workouts are, though, what matters isn’t specifically what Brady and Rodgers do, it’s their commitment to doing it.

Joyner sees four common traits among athletes who have aged especially well – he especially admires baseball great Ichiro Suzuki, who retired last year at age 43. They’re highly motivated, have avoided catastrophic injury, adopted a stringent diet and are dedicated to working out.

“At one level, if you’ve seen one successful aging athlete, you’ve seen ’em all,” Joyner said. “… The diets themselves I think are a distractor. (But) the diets restrict what they eat so they don’t gain weight.

“… Then they all strength train. Some people do bands, and some people do Olympic lifting and some people use machines -- Ichirio’s got those crazy machines. But they’re all very dedicated trainers.”

Avoiding catastrophic injury is a huge factor as well. Brady sustained a torn ACL in 2008 but has never had a serious injury that affected his throwing arm. Peyton Manning, on the other hand, retired at age 39 because a neck injury cost him the arm strength needed to play.

Brees has injured his golden throwing arm – a dislocated shoulder in 2005 nearly ended his career. He has occasionally had shoulder issues since then, but obsessive training has so far allowed him to remain a top quarterback.

Also, a few years ago, according to a story in the Washington Post, Brees stopped throwing on Wednesdays during the season to reduce the wear on his arm. That’s a big concession by the Saints because it means he doesn’t practice passing plays on Wednesdays. But it’s worth it if it extends his career into his 40s.

Rodgers’ broken collarbone last year was on his throwing side, but because of advances in surgical techniques and implants, Joyner doesn’t see that as a threat to his longevity.

“If he’d have an injury to his shoulder, per se, or his neck, you’d be more concerned,” he said.

Rodgers hasn’t been as adamant as Brady about playing a long time, though he’s on record as saying he’d like to play until at least 40. The Packers and Patriots won't meet again in the regular season for another four years, but it's possible we could see a Brady-Rodgers rematch.

With his highly competitive nature and growing commitment to taking care of himself, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if Rodgers is thinking about playing beyond 40, especially with the protection quarterbacks get now.

Who knows? Maybe, just maybe, the Packers will get another eight to 10 years with him at quarterback.

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