GREEN BAY, Wis. – Two star quarterbacks. Two championship-winning coaches. Two of the NFL's marquee franchises.
Toss in the iconic venue of Lambeau Field, and Sunday's game between the New England Patriots and Green Bay Packers shapes up to be more than just holiday weekend appointment viewing.
This potential shootout pairing the Patriots' Tom Brady and the Packers' Aaron Rodgers could be a Super Bowl preview — not that anyone who will actually play in the game has acknowledged to thinking that far ahead.
"This one's important because it's a November game, and you start to see the playoff stuff start to shake out a little bit," Rodgers said before correcting himself. "We're not allowed to talk about that, I don't think — we've got to win 10 games first, I think (coach Mike McCarthy) usually says."
The Packers seem well on their way given how well things have been going at home of late.
Green Bay (8-3) has been crushing opponents early at Lambeau, outscoring foes 128-9 before halftime in four straight home wins. Rodgers spent the fourth quarters of the last two home games watching from the sideline in a knit cap.
That seems likely to change Sunday.
New England (9-2) has won seven straight. It has already defeated every other squad in the four-team NFC North. Brady remains ridiculously good at 37, having thrown for 26 touchdowns against six interceptions.
"His command at the line of scrimmage. His up-tempo offense. His cadence," McCarthy said in beginning a long list of compliments for the Patriots star.
He could have gone on for hours.
The Patriots were probably in a similar mode. They don't to want to be the latest team caught up in a Packers offensive onslaught.
"This is not the team you want to get behind. You get behind 14-0, and then it's 21-0, then it's 28-0, and before you know it, they've just got the game so well under control that you have no chance," Brady said.
Some things to watch in the teams' first meeting since New England beat Green Bay 31-27 on Dec. 19, 2010:
COVERED UP: Rodgers has been pretty good himself this season, throwing 30 touchdown passes to just three interceptions. There are few better in the league than Rodgers when it comes to extending plays and making pinpoint throws under pressure.
"You definitely don't want a quarterback like him having more time than what he already has," Patriots linebacker Akeem Ayers said.
But Sunday's game will severely test the abilities of receivers Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb to get open against the Patriots' cornerback duo of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner. It will be a case of strength on strength when Rodgers try to throw to his top wideouts.
GUARDING GRONK: On the other end, 6-foot-6 tight end Rob Gronkowski will test young Green Bay safeties Micah Hyde and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, a rookie. Matchup nightmare Gronkowski might also draw Clay Matthews in coverage, though that could take the star linebacker away from his pass-rushing duties more often than the Packers might prefer.
TURNOVER TIME: The Packers are tops in the league in turnover differential at plus-15. The Patriots are second at plus-11. This could be a game in which the winner will need to cash in on any rare mistakes.
"Probably turnover margin, that's what it usually does," Rodgers said first when asked about the top keys to victory. "Turnover margin and situational football."
NORTHERN EXPOSURE: The Patriots will be trying to extend their winning streak against NFC North teams to 15 games. They've already routed the other three division clubs this season: Minnesota 30-7, Chicago 51-23 and Detroit 34-9. Since the divisions were realigned in 2002, the Patriots have lost only one game against an NFC North team: 28-10 to Green Bay on Oct. 13, 2002. The 14-game run is the longest current winning streak by a team against any other division.
SECOND THAT: Patriots coach Bill Belichick always emphasizes the need to improve as the season goes on and it seems to have worked. New England has been the NFL's best team in the second half of the season since 2010. Starting with that year, the Patriots are 32-3 after the midpoint. Second best? The Packers at 24-10-1.
So far this season the Patriots are 3-0 in the second half. They were 8-0 in both 2010 and 2011. In Belichick's 15 years as their coach, the Patriots are 92-23 in the second half.
AP Sports Writer Howard Ulman in Foxboro, Massachusetts contributed to this story.
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