It is finally here. The matchup that everyone wanted to see for years, pitting two of the top quarterbacks in the game against each other is happening. Aaron Rodgers vs Tom Brady. Perhaps the most physically talented quarterback against the without a doubt best quarterback of all-time (not debatable after his fifth title, sorry not sorry) in a battle against offenses that have yet to hit their stride.
This game unfortunately does not have the acclaim that the last meeting had back in 2014 when the Patriots were 9-2 with a seven game win streak heading into Lambeau Field to face the Packers who were 8-3 at the time. Furthermore the Packers offense has not been its usual self as they have broken the 30 point barrier just once in the first eight weeks, something they did four times in the first eight weeks of the 2014 season. That being said there are a lot of intriguing things to look for in the marquee Sunday night matchup.
Here is what to watch for:
1.) Green Bay’s struggles in red zone
I mentioned above that this Green Bay offense has struggled this year, but that struggle really only extends to the red zone and converting drives into points, which is obviously the most important part of the offense. Going into this game the Packers are fifth and the NFL in both total yards and passing yards, something that seems to be a given every year in the current landscape of the NFL when you have a player like Rodgers at quarterback. However that has not translated to points as they average just 25 per game which is just 13th in the NFL, and even worse is their red zone touchdown percentage (possessions in the red zone that result in TDs) which is at a mediocre 52 percent, a very small number for a quarterback who has solid weapons at his disposal. For reference, the Patriots currently sit at ninth in the NFL with a red zone touchdown percentage of 65.5 percent.
If the Packers are going to compete at Gillette with the Patriots, they cannot settle for field goals in the red zone. Good news for the Packers is the Patriots red zone defense is a middle of the road unit allowing touchdowns on 57.7 percent of opponent’s red zone trips. This to game could come down to if the Patriots can hold the Packers to field goals or if the Packers can punch the ball across the goal line.
2.) Big test for Stephon Gilmore
This is one of the biggest tests of the year for Stephon Gilmore. Gilmore has had an incredible year and shown why the Patriots paid him a boatload of money in free agency. The closing speed, ball skills and physical traits make him the ideal cornerback for any defense and he is finally taking advantage of his traits.
On the other side is Davante Adams who is seventh in the NFL in receiving yards with 690 yards to go along with six touchdowns, good for fourth in the NFL. Adams is a physical freak who can run and uses his body well. If Gilmore can shut him down, or at least make it a tough day for Adams the Patriots will be in good shape as the other weapons are not nearly as threatening. This is where Gilmore is going prove he is worth the money.
3.) Will Gronk get red zone touches this game?
This past week we saw something that we rarely have seen from the Patriots over the years: an agitated Rob Gronkowski at questions about his lack of red zone production and his overall seemingly missing production. It is no myth that Gronkowski has been hampered with nagging injuries and over the years it has no doubt slowed him a tad, but he is still a dominant player.
After the questions from the media this week there is little doubt to me that Gronk will be a feature in the game plan this week. I would expect Gronkowski to be motivated to prove he is still the same player he has been and for Tom Brady and Josh McDaniels to give him every opportunity to prove he still is that player. One thing that may help Gronkowski separate is trying to get him one on one on the end of the line running down the seam, a route he has always produced with his whole career.
Another option is to use the play action to allow Gronk some breathing room over the middle of the field. Either way, whatever the plan you can bet Gronk and Brady will be on the same page and you’ll see at least one Gronk spike.
4.) How will illness contribute to Patriots inactives and snaps?
One of the underplayed storylines so far this week has been the fact the Patriots have a mystery illness running through the locker room.
Unfortunately it is that time of year and the Patriots hopefully have it under wraps, but once one person gets it, it is usually too late for the rest of the team. With Sunday just around the corner, one has to hope the sickness is on the outs, or at least it won’t be a big problem for any of the players or the game plan this week. Either way it is something to monitor up to and during game-time.
-David Albiani is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media and covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @david_albiani