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Brady vs. Rodgers, Again, After All

Two seasons ago, Sports Illustrated devoted magazine space to what might have been the final matchup between the two legendary quarterbacks. On Sunday they’ll play for the second time this season—with a Super Bowl trip on the line.

For the Nov. 5, 2018 issue of Sports Illustrated, I wrote an essay in recognition of perhaps the final meeting between two of this millennium’s greatest quarterbacks. The Packers were traveling to Gillette Stadium that week to play the Patriots for what would be, somewhat remarkably, just the second time Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers had faced each other as starters.

Looking back, this was something of a time capsule moment. SI was still a bi-weekly magazine then, not monthly, so it was possible to send off to press stories relating to an upcoming game. On the day the issue closed, when working out of offices was also still a thing, we gathered around editor Gary Gramling’s desk searching for an apt hammer headline. As our discussion regressed into terrible GOAT puns—thankfully, these were unused—then MMQB executive editor Mark Mravic asked if anyone knew about these goats in Morocco that climb trees? (This is a detour, but a very worthwhile one, and I urge you all to marvel over these visuals).

Anyway: Brady was then 41, Rodgers 34, and the NFL’s scheduling rubric compels teams in different conferences to meet just once every four years (unless they collide in the Super Bowl, which Brady and Rodgers came close to doing in the 2014 season). With Brady’s stated goal of playing until age 45, though, and Rodgers’s having described how he sought to emulate his longevity, we left open the possibility at the end of the essay that this would not be their last meeting “With that in mind,” I wrote, “we’ll simply call this their ‘next’ meeting—there’s always 2022.”

Much has changed since then. Brady’s switching conferences to play for the Bucs brought us three meetings between him and Drew Brees, and now this weekend’s NFC championship game will be the second time Brady and Rodgers’s teams will meet this season after just two total meetings as starting QBs in the other 35 combined seasons of their careers. To review: In 2006, Rodgers was Brett Favre’s backup (though he came in after Favre injured his elbow in that game, throwing 12 passes in relief). In 2010, Rodgers sat out the game with a concussion. Rodgers won the matchup in Lambeau in 2014; Brady won in Foxboro in 2018. As it turned out, ’10, ’14 and ’18 were each a Super Bowl year for one of the QBs—and on Sunday, one of them will earn the chance to play in Super Bowl LV.

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Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady embrace after Patriots victory over Packers in 2018

Brady's Patriots beat Rodgers's Packers on a Sunday night in 2018.

Looking back at that 2018 game with the distinct benefit of hindsight, it’s easier to see it now as the beginning of the end of Brady in Foxboro. It was a tight game until an Aaron Jones fumble at the top of the fourth quarter led to the Patriots breaking the tie and swung momentum their way for a 31-17 victory. But what stands out in retrospect is how offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was emptying his bag of tricks to create offense with a limited supply of playmakers, something that became an acute concern in Brady’s final seasons in New England, and at least one factor in his departure.

When Brady signed with Tampa Bay he joined a roster that looked primed to compete, with a strong offensive line, elite receivers and a young playmaking defense—they just needed to get past some midseason growing pains. Rodgers had his own renaissance after the Packers hired Matt LaFleur, whose offensive system and partnership with his QB has blossomed in their second season together. Green Bay’s 38-10 loss to Tampa Bay back in Week 6 was the biggest blemish on the team’s now 14-3 season and Rodgers’s likely MVP campaign—an “anomaly,” Rodgers called it at the time, rather than the beginning of a trend, and so far he’s been proven very right. But, as ever, regardless of the color of his uniform, Brady and his team will be a measuring stick.

Comparisons between the top quarterbacks in the game are inevitable, and while it is true that they are never on the field at the same time, that does not diminish that a meeting like this is still a duel. They are each motivated to be the best QB on the field Sunday, at the other’s expense. That’s all the more true with Brady and Rodgers, who have shared an ethos dating back to their days as overlooked Northern California high school quarterbacks—they always play with something to prove.

Brady wants to win a championship without Bill Belichick. Rodgers wants to win his second title. Two years ago, we weren’t certain if they’d ever meet on the field again. On Sunday they will, with higher stakes than ever before.