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Sunday opening drive: Going beyond the ‘Rodgers vs. Brady’ motif as the Patriots host the Packers

Sunday’s match up is about more than just two great quarterbacks — it’s a tilt between to great franchises.

New England Patriots v Green Bay Packers Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

(1.) If the coverage leading into Sunday night feels more like that of a UFC title fight than a primetime football game, it’s not by accident — but it’s also not entirely by choice.

A byproduct of the NFL’s incompetence with regard to having its two biggest stars face off twice per decade is that four years of Aaron Rodgers vs. Tom Brady media coverage is needlessly jammed into a single week — or six days in the case of this year’s go-around.

It’s almost understandable. With so much time passing between Packers-Patriots contests, very little meat is left on the content-bone. Rosters are thoroughly turned over. Context derived from the teams’ most recent battles isn’t pertinent, making it impossible to establish a chronology of any real substance. Narratives simply aren’t allowed to develop organically.

The NFL media machine — aside from a handful of excellent local reporters and analysts — has no choice but to capitalize on the moment. As a result, the Rodgers vs. Brady motif doesn’t just become the ripest and the lowest-hanging of the low-hanging fruit — it becomes the only hanging fruit.

Yet, if you give the tree a good shake, you’ll find that the NFL hasn’t just missed out on the opportunity for one or two more duels between historic quarterbacks, but that they’ve has deprived football fans of a showcase between the two most successful organizations from each conference since the turn of the century.

It’s true. Since Bill Belichick took the reigns in Foxborough in 2000, the Patriots have been historically good to the point where it renders the accomplishments of other franchises undistinguished. But, over that same span, the Green Bay Packers have been the cream of the crop in the NFC.

From 2000 to 2017, the Packers have an NFC-leading 178 regular season wins, the most playoff trips in the conference (13), as well as the most playoff wins (27). From 2006 — the first year of current head coach Mike McCarthy — through 2017, Green Bay leads the NFC in wins (121), postseason trips (9), playoff games (18), and Conference Championship Game appearances (4). Of course, they also added a Super Bowl in 2010.

The Patriots’ totals in these departments between 2000 and 2017 are obviously ridiculous. They led the NFL with:

  • 214 regular season wins
  • 15 postseason trips
  • 37 postseason games
  • 12 Conference Championship Game appearances
  • 8 Super Bowl trips
  • 5 Super Bowl titles

For the purpose of symmetry, here are those Patriots totals between 2006-2017 (still all league-leading, or course):

  • 151 regular season wins
  • 11 postseason trips
  • 26 postseason games
  • 9 Conference Championship Game appearances
  • 5 Super Bowl trips
  • 2 Super Bowl titles (tied with the Giants for the most since 2006)

(2.) Perhaps the most fascinating components of the Packers’ success are the methods and organizational characteristics that have allowed them to sustain it — elements and approaches that bear a striking resemblance to what Bill Belichick has established in New England.

One such characteristic is stability. While there are certainly a countless number of variables, and the causation is likely a bit cyclical, there is a strong correlation between winning teams and franchises that maintain long stretches of stability at their GM (or primary player personnel decision-maker) position and head coach positions.

The 11 organizations to have won a Super Bowl between 2000 and 2017 averaged 169.09 wins over those 18 seasons, and just 4.36 GM-head coach combinations. The other 21 franchises averaged 132.27 wins and 8 GM-head coach combinations.

Between 2000 and 2017, no NFC team had fewer such combinations than Green Bay (four), and only three teams in the league had fewer. One of those teams was the Bengals, who haven’t employed a GM in the history of their organization. The other two were Pittsburgh (two combinations), and the Patriots (Belichick).

(3.) A tangible approach that each organization has taken towards roster construction has been the organic growth of the middle and upper class of their rosters. Between 2011-2017, no other team in football had more “homegrown” players — ones drafted or signed as UDFAs and developed with the organization — with cap hits that were at or greater than 1% of that year’s league salary cap. The Packers had 96 such cap hits over that 18-season span. The Patriots ranked fifth on that list with 70. The league average was 50.

(4.) The number of draft picks since 2000 to be signed to multi-year extensions before or directly after the expiration of their rookie deals:

Packers35 total, 18 from draft rounds 1-3.

Patriots26 total, 12 from draft rounds 1-3.

One could speculate that the Patriots would’ve been closer in the total number of these “homegrown” middle and upper class players, but they simply didn’t need to re-sign as many due to consistently planning ahead for the departure of players by developing depth through the draft and undrafted free agency. The Patriots have also been the most trade-happy organization in football in since Belichick’s arrival.

(5.) With Patriots right guard Shaq Mason ruled out for Sunday’s contest, it marks the first time since his week eight of his rookie season that he hasn’t been active. Mason — who has been active for 54 of his first 56 career regular season games — is one third of a “homegrown” trio on the interior that includes left guard Joe Thuney and center David Andrews. It’s a unit that has been one of the more consistently-underrated in football over the past three seasons. Sunday will be just the third game since the start of 2016 in which all three won’t be on the field together.

With the signing of Andrews to a three-year extension last May (a deal that might be among the best values in football), and with Mason inking a deal with $23.5 million guaranteed to keep him in Foxborough through 2023, the Patriots have two legs of their interior trio under contract through 2020. Joe Thuney, who will be eligible to negotiate a contract after the completion of this season, will carry a cap hit of roughly $2.22 million in 2019 after qualifying for the Proven Performance Escalator (PPE) — a provision in the CBA that bumps the fourth year rookie salary of a player drafted after the second round up to the level of that year’s lowest restricted free agency tender.

Players can earn the PPE by participating in 35% of offensive or defensive snaps in two of his first three seasons, or by participating in 35% of all of those snaps over his first three years. According to, no 2016 draftee how was taken between rounds three and seven has participated in a high percentage of his unit’s snaps. The former NC State standout has participated has a 99.7% three-year average after playing in 99.6% in 2016, 99.5% in 2017, and 100% so far this year.

Follow Brian Phillips on Twitter — @BPhillips_SB