The buildup to Sunday’s NFC championship game has focused on one matchup -- Tom Brady vs. Aaron Rodgers – providing a starting point for endless debate about historical greatness.
Sure, Rodgers, who played at Cal in 2003 and 2004, and Brady will tell the media they are not facing each other, that they are really going against the Buccaneers’ defense or the Packers’ defense, and blah, blah, blah.
But Sunday’s Packers-Bucs game will be seen as a personal contest between the two Northern California natives (Brady is from San Mateo, Rodgers from Chico), and grand conclusions will be drawn based on the results of this game.
They have faced each other just three times as starting quarterbacks, with Brady holding a 2-1 advantage, including a win this season. We will review those three games later in this story.
But Sunday will be the first time Brady and Rodgers have gone against each other in a postseason game, and the playoffs is when the public and the media make their judgments about a player’s place in history.
Rodgers talks this week about the Rams game and upcoming game against Bucs and Tom Brady:
Brady is generally considered the greatest quarterback of alltime, with Rodgers placed somewhere in the top 10. And the Brady-Rodgers debate is based on two very different statistics: Super Bowl titles and passer rating, one measuring team success in simple wins and losses, the other a complicated mathematical calculation of individual passer proficiency.
Brady’s six Super Bowl rings is seen as the overriding factor in every best-of-alltime quarterback debate. A quarterback’s worth is often determined by his team’s wins and losses, especially in the playoffs, and Brady’s 32-11 postseason record dwarfs Rodgers’ 11-8 playoff mark.
But then how do you reconcile that reasoning with the fact that run-of-the-mill types such as Trent Dilfer, Jeff Hostletler, Doug Williams, Brad Johnson and Nick Foles were the quarterbacks of Super Bowl champs? The other players, especially on defense, matter. Just ask the 1985 Bears, 2000 Ravens and 2002 Buccaneers, who won NFL titles with outstanding defenses and merely adequate quarterback play.
Sam Jones won 10 NBA titles, but you wouldn’t rank him ahead of Michael Jordan, who won “only” six. And, remember, Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen was Jordan’s teammate in all six of those title runs.
Oh, but a quarterback has much more impact on a team’s success than any one basketball player, you say.
OK, let’s go to the best measure of a quarterback’s passing proficiency.
No quarterback who has played more than four seasons has a better career passer rating than Rodgers, with Brady ranking fifth. Moreover, the two best single-season regular-season passer ratings in history belong to Rodgers – 2011 when Rodgers turned 28 late in the season, and 2020, when Rodgers was 37 on Dec. 2.
But, wait, you say, Kirk Cousins is ranked fourth on that career passer-rating list of quarterbacks who played more than four years, and you would never place him ahead of Brady, Peyton Manning, Joe Montana, Steve Young and Dan Marino, would you?
True, you respond, but, Oh, by the way, Marino never won a Super Bowl and is still considered one of the best quarterbacks ever.
There’s not much to choose between Rodgers and Brady otherwise. Rodgers is a shoo-in to win his third MVP award this year, which would match Brady’s three MVPs and still put both two MVPs behind Peyton Manning.
Let’s proceed to the most persuasive argument, which is painful to present since this is a Cal sports site:
---New England Patriots’ record in 2019 with Tom Brady as its quarterback: 12-5, including a first-round postseason loss.
---New England Patriots’ record in 2020 without Tom Brady as its quarterback: 7-9
---Tampa Buccaneers’ record in 2019 without Tom Brady as quarterback: 7-9
---Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ record in 2020 with Tom Brady as quarterback: 13-5, including two postseason wins.
The difference Brady makes is undeniable. And this is at a time when the 43-year-old Brady has lost some arm strength and is not quite as dominant as he was a few years ago.
Brady also outplayed Rodgers in their only head-to-head matchup this season.
Back on Oct. 18, the Bucs smacked the Packers 38-10, and Rodgers had by far his worst game of the season, and perhaps the worst game of his career. Rodgers was 16-for-35 for 160 yards, no touchdowns, two interceptions, four sacks and a 35.4 passer rating, the only time this season his passer rating was lower than 91.0. Only twice in his career did Rodgers have worse passer ratings – once in 2012, once in 2014.
Meanwhile, Brady was 17-for-27 for 160 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions, no sacks and a 104.9 passer rating.
They faced off two other times as starters:
In 2014, Rodgers led a 26-21 victory over Brady’s Patriots by completing 24-of-34 passes for 368 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a 112.6 passer rating, while Brady was 22-of-35 for 245 yards, two TDs, no picks and a 102.7 rating.
In 2018, Brady’s Patriots pulled out a decisive 31-17 win over Rodgers and the Packers, as Brady was 22-of-35 for 294 yards, one score, no interceptions and a 99.0 passer rating, and Rodgers finished 24-of-43 for 259 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and an 89.2 rating.
The Patriots ended up winning the Super Bowl in both those seasons, whatever that suggests.
They also met in 2006, but Rodgers only entered that game late in the second quarter after Brett Favre was injured and the Patriots already leading 21-0 in a game the Patriots won 35-0.
We can discard that game as inconsequential, but Sunday’s game will be seen as the concluding piece of evidence in whatever argument you choose to make.
Until they face off again next year.
The Undisputed duo debates Sunday's quarterback matchup:
Cover photo of Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady by USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin via Imagn Content Services, LLC
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