Sunday’s matchup between the Patriots and the Packers was supposed to be a clash of quarterback titans—two of the best to ever play the game squaring off for just the second time in their respective careers. And for three quarters, it lived up to the billing. Neither Tom Brady nor Aaron Rodgers was at his best Sunday night, but it was still a back-and-forth affair, deadlocked 17-17 at the end of the third quarter. Just five minutes into the fourth, though, the floodgates opened for New England. The Patriots scored two quick touchdowns, and a nail-biter transformed into a 31-17 blowout.
Earlier that afternoon, Drew Brees oversaw his own offensive onslaught. Brees threw for 346 yards and four touchdowns in the Saints’ thrilling 45-35 win over the Rams. In beating the league’s last undefeated team, New Orleans showed just how formidable it will be throughout the NFC playoffs.
While Brady and Rodgers weren’t as effective as Brees on Sunday, each quarterback’s outcome illustrated a larger point about their careers. New England’s and New Orleans’s playmakers were able to lift up Brady and Brees in ways that Green Bay couldn’t do for Rodgers. The performances from the Patriots and Saints were reminders that while the Packers have long asked Rodgers to shoulder the load without much help, New England and New Orleans have made every effort to surround Brady and Brees with infrastructures and support systems that put both quarterbacks and their offenses in the best possible situations.
The Patriots have been the best in the NFL at that for the last 20 years, and, throughout Sunday’s win, New England showed its ability to create advantages all over the field. With running back Sony Michel on the shelf with a knee injury, the Pats turned to return specialist and speedster Cordarrelle Patterson to handle a majority of the workload on the ground. Before this season, Patterson had never finished a year with more than 13 carries. Over the last two games, he’s had 21. Using Patterson that way allows James White to stay in his role as the Patriots’ pass-catching back, which is prudent. But with the damage Patterson was able to do to the Packers upfront, it looked downright ingenious; he finished with 61 yards on 11 carries and one touchdown.
The Patterson move may have been out of the ordinary, but plenty of the Pats’ other choices Sunday fell right in line with what we’ve come to expect from Bill Belichick’s team. After connecting on a flea flicker to Julian Edelman for a 33-yard gain early in the second quarter, New England pulled off a wide receiver throwback from Edelman to White for a 37-yard gain in the fourth quarter.
Most of Brady’s big plays through the air involved work after the catch. His lone touchdown pass came on an intermediate throw to Josh Gordon that the wide receiver eventually took 55 yards to the end zone. After a relatively quiet start to his Patriots career, Gordon erupted Sunday with five catches for 130 yards. His acquisition is just the latest in a long line of bold moves that New England has made to ensure Brady has elite pass-catching talent around him. Trading for Randy Moss in 2007 is the most obvious example, but it’s far from the only one. The Pats sent a first-round pick to New Orleans in March 2017 to acquire Brandin Cooks because the offense needed a vertical threat. After dealing Cooks to the Rams this offseason, that element once again disappeared. Enter Gordon. With a field-stretching receiver back in the lineup, New England’s passing game is flourishing once again.
Brady does an outstanding job elevating the players around him, but he also plays for a team that never stops trying to find one last piece to put its offense over the top. Each year, whether it’s scheme or personnel, the Pats go into the workshop and tinker just enough to find an edge they might not have had the previous season. Brady is the through line for every iteration of New England’s offense, but the Patriots never stop trying to improve the circumstances around him.
The same goes for Brees and the Saints. As his career winds down, Brees is playing with arguably the two most dangerous weapons New Orleans has ever had during his tenure. Wide receiver Michael Thomas was flat-out unstoppable against the Rams on Sunday, hauling in 12 catches for 211 yards and a score, and running back Alvin Kamara added another 116 yards from scrimmage.
And therein lies the frustration with the Packers. Along with a stale offensive scheme, Green Bay’s roster is rarely altered, and when the team does make splashy personnel moves, like signing Jimmy Graham this spring, those big swings tend to miss. That leaves Rodgers with an uninspiring cast of characters—this season, that’s been the excellent Davante Adams, the shell of Randall Cobb, and a handful of young receivers still finding their sea legs—in an unimaginative offensive scheme, left to fend for himself. Outside of the occasional young receiver success story (such as Marquez Valdes-Scantling), the static personnel leaves most Packers seasons feeling … the same.
Contrast that with New England’s approach, where each year new faces come in and make an impact. The Pats are annual contenders in large part due to Brady’s unceasing greatness, but that greatness is able to flourish because Belichick and his staff are constantly searching for any bit of leverage they can find. As Brady plays his age-41 season and Brees nears his 40th birthday, the Patriots and Saints are positioned to make a run at the Super Bowl. The Packers, on the other hand, are struggling because they’ve once again asked Rodgers to do most of the heavy lifting. That’s why, as we cross the halfway point of the season, the Pats and Saints are cruising toward first-round byes and the Packers toward another frustrating—and likely disappointing—year.