World’s Best Preview: Dynamic Coach-QB Duos

Checking in at a ridiculous 5,400 words, our preview crushes the competition. Leading off: Green Bay and New Orleans have reaped the rewards of their coach-quarterback stability. Plus, Randall Cobb bucks a league-wide trend inside the 10-yard-line, in-depth features on the Saints, and a bunch of stats, notes and quotes you won't find anywhere else. Guaranteed. (Dennis Wierzbicki/USA TODAY)

Entering the 2006 NFL season, there were nine new head coaches.

The only two left standing are the Green Bay Packers’ Mike McCarthy and the New Orleans’ Saints Sean Payton. They’ll be on the sidelines for a key NFC game at New Orleans on Sunday night.

Since the start of the 2006 season, the Packers have the NFL’s third-best regular-season record (87-47-1; .648) and the Saints have the seventh-best record (82-52; .612). Take it to 2009, and Green Bay is second (60-26-1; .758) and New Orleans is third (57-29; .663). Both coaches have led their team to a Super Bowl championship and two conference championship games. Both coaches have made the playoffs part of the yearly routine. Both have won Coach of the Year accolades.

Both coaches arrived with offensive pedigrees, and that’s been evident in their teams’ production. Green Bay fielded a top-10 offense in terms of yards in seven of McCarthy’s first eight seasons, including last season, when it finished third despite the half-year absence of quarterback Aaron Rodgers. New Orleans not only has fielded a top-10 offense all eight seasons but it’s only fallen outside of the top four once.

You want points? Points aplenty with these teams: Since 2006, New Orleans is second with 27.8 points per game, 61 games of at least 30 points and 17 games of at least 40 points. Green Bay is third with 26.8 points per game, 57 games of at least 30 points and 14 games of at least 40 points.

It’s a chicken-or-egg question: Have the coaches been so successful because of their quarterbacks, or have the quarterbacks been so successful because of their coaches? Regardless, McCarthy and Rodgers are as joined to the hip as Payton and Drew Brees.

“Continuity with your quarterback is obviously of most importance,” McCarthy said. “The quarterback position is the most important position in the game of football. So, to have continuity at that position means the player is of definitely high value, and both Aaron and Drew obviously are. It gives you an opportunity to have continuity, cohesiveness. The importance that they are to the program -- and I’m not just talking about on the field. I’m talking about in the locker room and the classroom, teaching the history of concepts, the origin of concepts – ‘This is where this play started.’ It’s about having the same message just from as many different people as possible and, when you have a great quarterback, who can deliver the message better than them?”

McCarthy inherited Rodgers, who was the team’s first-round pick in 2005. The Packers are a perennial Super Bowl contender due in large part to Rodgers, who owns the highest passer rating in NFL history. A couple months after Payton signed on with the Saints, Brees signed as an unrestricted free agent after San Diego opted to go with Philip Rivers. The Saints are a perennial Super Bowl contender due in large part to Brees, who owns four of the eight 5,000-yard passing seasons in NFL history.

With so many years together, the offenses have evolved and changed like a living organism. Years of experiences running the same plays against similar defensive looks make the quarterbacks seem like college professors running a middle-school math class.

“If you’re in the same offense for a number of years, you’ve been repping 90 percent of the plays for however many years you’ve been in the offense, so you know them in and out, you’ve practiced them a thousand times,” Packers offensive coordinator Tom Clements said. “You’ve seen it against different defenses so you know how to react, depending on what you get, so at a certain point there’s probably not much you haven’t seen against the plays that you’re running. So, the familiarity with it and it becomes second nature.”

These teams are a case study in the need to find a quarterback and the need to have patience. Because of the experience and stability, Rodgers and Brees run the show like few quarterbacks in the league. With unwavering trust from their coaches and an encyclopedic knowledge of the scheme, the quarterbacks almost always have the upper hand in the line-of-scrimmage chess game.

“I consider myself very lucky to have been with the same coach for nine years, in the same system for nine years,” Brees said in a conference call. “Really feeling like we evolve each year with our personnel and, as this game evolves, we always try to stay ahead of the curve. Aaron can say the same thing about being there with McCarthy and being in that system for a long time. There’s just a comfort level there and a lot of confidence going into every game, just feeling like we’ve been through so much together, so many different situations. You never, or rarely, encounter something that you haven’t seen before or done before. That’s comforting.”

And that’s bad news for the defenses, whether it’s on the practice field or the playing field. Payton said one of the biggest challenges is having his scout team somehow replicate the tempo and precision of Green Bay’s offense. Then, the challenge becomes somehow outsmarting the smartest guy on the field -- one, who, as Capers put it, is like an offensive coordinator playing quarterback.

“He’s going to do a lot of things at the line of scrimmage,” Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said of Brees. He’s very perceptive in terms of what you’re doing on defense. And when you’ve been in an offense that long, you know exactly what you want to do against the different looks that you get. He’s a quick decision-maker. It’s a real quick-rhythm offense. He gets the ball out of his hands very quickly. He’s got a progression he goes through. He knows where he wants to go with the ball and he goes to the right place most of the time. So it all starts with basically him.”

Red-zone wonder

How amazing is Randall Cobb’s production close to the goal line? Of Cobb’s eight touchdown catches, seven have come from inside the 10-yard line. According to STATS, Denver tight end Julius Thomas is second in overall catches – not just touchdown catches -- from inside the 10 with six.

At 5-foot-10, Cobb is the rarest of red-zone scoring threats (see chart at end of this note). This category, for obvious reasons, historically is dominated by tight ends and big receivers. This season, for instance, Cobb leads the NFL in inside-the-10 touchdown receptions with seven, with basketball players-turned-tight ends Thomas and Antonio Gates next with six. No other wide receiver has more than three. In 2011, 2012 and 2013, only one wide receiver shorter than Cobb had more than five touchdown catches from inside the 10 in a season. That’s Wes Welker, who at 5-foot-8 ¾ had eight last season. Only three receivers shorter than 5-foot-11 had five inside-the-10 touchdowns in a season: Emmanuel Sanders (5-foot-10 7/8) in 2013, Welker in 2012 and Lance Moore (5-foot-9 ¼) and Deion Branch (5-foot-9 1/8) in 2011.

“I think he’s probably rare to have those kind of numbers (at his size),” said Capers, who watches a lot of video of other teams so is in tune with league-wide trends. “You see him use his instincts and quickness to run routes, where other guys use their size. You’ve seen, in general, the bigger-size guys down there because they’re bigger targets and they can win going up for the jump balls. Aaron’s accurate at throwing and Randall’s going to win with quickness and route-running.”

The Packers went into this offseason trying to resurrect a red-zone offense that had fallen to 26th in the league last year with a touchdown rate of 50.8 percent. This year, they rank third with a touchdown rate of 70.4 percent. Giving a Cobb a bigger role, however, wasn’t by design. Sometimes, it’s a designed play, like Rodgers’ sprintout to Cobb against Carolina. Other times, it’s ad-libbing, such as Rodgers scramble and throw to Cobb, who had gotten open in the end zone on his fourth move at Miami.

“Well, the windows are really tight down there, so you have to be accurate and you have to put the ball in the right spot all the time,” Rodgers said. “And Randall does a good job of creating space down there. He did a good job of getting open and we fit some tight throws, and he’s also made some really quick moves at the line of scrimmage and we’ve hit some more wide-open throws, as well. He’s a quick guy and he’s great against the man coverage because he’s so elusive with his wiggles at the line of scrimmage and he does a good job at the top of his route not telegraphing anything. We just have to keep finding ways to keep getting him the ball in space because, like we saw this last game, he makes a lot of plays when he gets some 1-on-1 opportunities in space.”

Cobb, whose scoring plays have been, in order, 3, 6, 1, 22, 3, 8, 5 and 3 yards, was asked about his red-zone success after the game and again on Thursday. He deflected those questions much easier than opposing cornerbacks have deflected passes thrown his direction. Cobb said little more than Rodgers has been throwing him the ball and he’s been catching it. It’s a simple answer. Yet, there’s truth to it between these are two players with tremendous talent and uncanny chemistry.

“The key is No. 12. That’s the key. That’s a universal key. You can get into anybody’s house with that key,” cornerback Tramon Williams said this week. “Randall is an explosive, quick, smart guy. Tough to deal with in the slot. Also can play outside. You put a quarterback who knows where to put the ball and it’s tough. Guys don’t understand how tough it is when you have a quarterback like that and a receiver like that who has the chemistry and the physical tools. Only thing you have to do is make sure everyone else is on the same page and success is staring you in the eye.”

NameHeightTouchdowns
2014 
Randall Cobb51027
Mike Wallace60033
Emmanuel Sanders51073
Brandon Marshall60403
2013
Dez Bryant60209
Wes Welker50868
Brandon Marshall60407
Jerricho Cotchery60046
Marlon Brown60375
Eric Decker60315
Emmanuel Sanders51075
2012
James Jones60077
A.J. Green60357
Mike Williams60146
Eric Decker60316
Wes Welker50865
Victor Cruz51155
2011
Laurent Robinson60207
Roddy White60126
Calvin Johnson60506
Plaxico Burruss60535
Lance Moore50925
Jordy Nelson60255
Deion Branch50915
David Nelson60525

To translate the heights: First digit is feet, next two digits are inches, last digit is to the eighth of an inch. For Cobb, that’s 5 feet, 10 2/8 inches, or 5-10 ¼.

The Brees Factor

Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson are young stars. Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning have won multiple Super Bowls. Rivers and Tony Romo are having great seasons.

But when it comes to the game’s elite quarterbacks, it’s (going alphabetically) Brees, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Rodgers.

Never mind the whispers about Father Time catching up to the 35-year-old Brees. He remains a “premier” quarterback, McCarthy said.

“He’s got a great presence, a great ability to process things, decipher what you’re doing,” Capers said. “It’s such a quick rhythm; the ball’s out of his hand so quick. He comes out, he knows that if you’ve got this coverage, he knows right where he’s going with the ball. There’s no hesitation. I think that’s what the outstanding quarterbacks have is it’s not only physical ability but the ability to process (and) feel the rush.”

The numbers are absurd. He topped 4,000 passing yards in each of his first eight seasons with the Saints. Since 2006, he leads the NFL with 40,649 passing yards, 294 touchdown passes and 67.3 percent accuracy. His 66.0 percent accuracy ranks second in NFL history and his 374 touchdown passes rank fourth. At one point, he threw a touchdown pass in a league-record 54 consecutive games. Now, he’s on a run of 24 straight.

This season, Brees has completed an impressive 67.7 percent of his passes. In the first four games, he completed 69.0 percent, 67.5 percent, 77.1 percent and 72.7 percent of his passes. In his last three games, he’s thrown for 340, 371 and 342 yards. However, with 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions personally and the Saints struggling along at 2-4, Brees hasn’t quite played to his usual standard. Payton, however, hasn’t seen declining play from his star quarterback.

“Oftentimes, that quarterback position is a byproduct of a lot of things (such as) how you’re playing overall as a team,” he said. “When you find yourself behind, then you become one-dimensional and it becomes tougher to play that position. I think his preparation, his work and what we’re seeing on a daily basis is the same consistent, outstanding player that we haven’t ever taken for granted but we’ve grown accustomed to. I think it starts with the team. You start detailing the little things. I thought the way he played last week in Detroit – obviously at the very end he had the one interception – but he was outstanding in that game. I think that we’ve got to, No. 1, find a way to play a little better complementary football both offensively and defensively and then we’ve certainly got to do a better job with our takeaways and our giveaways.”

The other sideline

— In 2012, even with Payton serving a league suspension, the Saints piled up a third-ranked 461 points. It didn’t matter in the standings, though. New Orleans finished 7-9 as its defense allowed a next-to-last 454 points.

In 2013, the Saints rebounded to finish 11-5. It wasn’t just Payton’s return. New defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was a miracle worker. The Saints allowed 304 points – a whopping 150 fewer than the year before. The Saints finished fourth in scoring, fourth in total yards, second in passing yards, fourth in sack percentage, ninth in third downs and 18th in the red zone.

If Ryan could walk on water last year, he’s eyeballs-deep this year. The Saints enter this game ranked 28th in scoring, 21st in total yards, 28th in passing yards, 24th in sack percentage, 25th in third downs and 26th in the red zone. New Orleans has gone from 19.0 points allowed per game last season to 27.5 this season.

Payton pointed to inside linebacker Curtis Lofton and cornerback Keenan Lewis as two of the defense’s top players. Lofton has posted 75 tackles in six games, including 18 last week against Detroit. In his last three games, according to ProFootballFocus.com, Lewis has allowed 8-of-17 passing for 93 yards with a long of 18. At 6-foot, he figures to see plenty of Packers star Jordy Nelson.

“Overall,” Payton said, “I think that last week was the first game in which I felt like we really played good team defense for 90 percent of the game. Yet, at the end, there were some big plays we gave up. But I felt like we saw something that was different than we had early in the year. We’re at the point of the season – we’re six weeks in – where I think this group is anxious to earn their way, if you will.”

—The Saints won the Super Bowl in 2009 and the Packers won it in 2010. Given their impeccable quarterback play, strong coaching and consistent year-to-year play, it’s a surprise that neither team has gotten back to the championship.

Since winning it all, the Saints have advanced to the playoffs in three of the last four seasons but have a postseason record of 2-3 and have not advanced out of the divisional round. Green Bay has advanced to the playoffs in each of their three seasons since the Super Bowl but are 1-3 in the postseason and, like New Orleans, hasn’t escaped the divisional round.

“I use this analogy: When you accomplish that, you see the old ‘Rocky’ movies and he’s running around trying to catch a chicken and then, when you catch it, they ask you to let it go and start chasing it again,” Payton said. “And so, I think having had a chance to experience it, you become that much more determined to get back there again because you recognize it was far better and exceeded expectations than anyone could have described. There’s a lot of new faces. When you look at the roster now, there’s not a defensive player on our team from the ’09 season and you really get into a handful of guys on offense – six or seven total – that were here during that season. You recognize how challenging it is and yet how worth it the journey is.”

With Rodgers not turning 31 until December, the Packers have several more swings at a championship run. Brees, however, will turn 36 in January. There have been whispers that his play is declining – a notion scoffed at by the Packers’ coaches and defenders. Still, there’s no denying that time is running out for Brees to add a second championship to his incredible resume.

“We’re not getting any younger,” Brees said. “I don’t feel that pressure. Certainly once you go, there’s nothing like it, there’s no feeling like it in our sport. And that’s all you think about is finding a way to get back. A lot of things have to happen in order for that, if you have that opportunity. Everybody is good. Everybody has the talent to do that. It’s just a matter of if they can pull it together and catch some breaks and that kind of stuff. This season is far from over. I feel like we have a great opportunity ahead of us. I feel like we are getting a little bit better each week and eventually we’re going to break the seal, and look out. I hope it’s this weekend.”

— Capers’ obvious focus will be on slowing the Brees-led passing attack. But New Orleans boasts one of the better running games in the league, and that will test a Green Bay run defense that has improved the past few weeks.

The Saints are eighth with 123.0 rushing yards per game and second with 4.92 yards per carry. Khiry Robinson, an undrafted rookie out of West Texas A&M, leads the team with 330 rushing yards, a 5.2 average and two touchdowns. However, Robinson and versatile veteran Pierre Thomas won’t play because of injuries. That leaves Mark Ingram, the 2009 Heisman Trophy winner and 2011 first-round pick, who returned last week after missing three games following hand surgery. He’s rushed for 159 yards (4.7 average) and two touchdowns.

From Capers’ perspective, the Saints’ run game is like a mosquito. It might be annoying but it’s not going to kill him.

“These guys who throw the ball as well they do, normally their run stats – yards per rush, that type of thing – (are good because) people have to play so many pass coverage defenses against them that they don’t get people loading up in there on the run that much,” Capers said. “It’s normally running from the base box rather than having an extra guy down in the box, because the minute you put the extra guy down in the box, they’re throwing the ball. You don’t want them throwing the ball down the field because you’re in so many one-on-one matchups.”

— The Saints’ receiving corps has some Wisconsin flavor. Kenny Stills, a fifth-round pick in 2013, is the son of former hard-hitting Packers safety Ken Stills. He’s caught 15 passes for 244 yards and a touchdown, a 46-yarder last week at Detroit. All six of his career touchdowns have covered at least 34 yards. Nick Toon, a fourth-round pick in 2012, is the son of former University of Wisconsin and Jets star Al Toon. He’s been inactive in five of six games and hasn’t been targeted in the passing game.

“I think he’s their best route-runner,” cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said of Stills. “You watch him, he can get in and out of breaks, he’s got the vertical and speed that you have to be wary of. He understands the zones. He’s a young kid but he’s just constantly getting better and better. I’ve been more impressed with him than anyone else.”

A third player with some local ties is Jairus Byrd, the former Pro Bowl safety who the Saints signed away from Buffalo in free agency in the offseason. Byrd is the son of Gill Byrd, a former NFL defensive back and current cornerbacks coach of the Buccaneers. Byrd spent time in Green Bay as director of player development, at which time Jairus Byrd went to Pulaski High School about 20 minutes away from Green Bay. He had 22 interceptions and 11 forced fumbles in five seasons for Buffalo but is out for the season with a knee injury.

“He’s someone who we targeted in the offseason,” Payton said. “We think he’s an elite free safety with great ball skills. He’s someone that’s smart, has had great ball production in his career – not just interceptions but caused fumbles. He’s a Pro Bowl-caliber player but quickly you move on and make sure the next guy up is ready.”

History lessons

— Rodgers is 2-1 against the Saints, having thrown for 879 yards with nine touchdowns and four interceptions and a rating of 103.2 in those starts. Those stats don’t include his one attempt in the 2005 game, a 52-3 rout orchestrated by Brett Favre and a defense that forced five turnovers. For Rodgers, the Packers’ first-round pick that year, it was his first career pass attempt (and completion). It went to fullback Vonta Leach for 0 yards. Asked on Friday, not only did Rodgers know who he threw the ball to but the play that was called.

In games started and finished by Rodgers, his rating of 59.8 in the 2008 blowout loss at New Orleans is the fourth-worst of his career. He went 23-of-41 for 248 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions in that game. That’s one of only three three-interception games of his career.

— Including a 2003 game while San Diego’s quarterback, Brees is 2-3 against the Packers despite throwing for 1,904 yards with 14 touchdowns and two interceptions and a passer rating of 110.0. His worst game, from a yardage perspective, was the 323 yards he threw for as the Saints won at home in 2008, 51-29. His rating was a near-perfect 157.5.

The Saints have lost the last two games in the series, but it’s hardly been Brees’ fault. When Green Bay won 42-34 in the 2011 opener, he threw for 419 yards with three touchdowns, no picks and a 112.5 rating. When the Packers held on to win 28-27 in Week 4 of 2012, he threw for 446 yards with three touchdowns, no picks and a 109.0 rating.

— Nelson is moving on up the Packers’ all-time receiving list. His 349 career receptions are one behind Ahman Green for No. 8, his 42 touchdown receptions are one behind Billy Howton for No. 8 and his 5,302 receiving yards are 120 yards behind Carroll Dale for No. 10. Nelson has a touchdown reception in four consecutive games. A stretch of at least five straight games has been accomplished eight times in franchise history, the last by Greg Jennings in 2007. (Don Hutson occupies three spots on that list, including a pair of seven-game streaks.)

— While there’s been talk of Rodgers’ potential of catching Peyton Manning as the NFL’s king of touchdown passes, Manning actually was chasing some Rodgers history this week. Manning (2004), Brady (2010-2011) and Rodgers (2011) share the record with 13 consecutive games with at least two touchdown passes. Manning extended his current streak to 13 games on Sunday against San Diego.

Noteworthy numbers

— Good luck sacking Brees. Since 2006, the Saints have yielded a league-low 191 sacks. This season, Brees has been sacked six times and the Saints have allowed a sack on a league-low 2.28 percent of their dropbacks. Green Bay’s defense has recorded 16 sacks and is a mediocre 15th in sack percentage (6.58) but, according to STATS, ranks third in the league with 30 hurries.

“Because he gets the ball out quick,” Packers linebacker Julius Peppers said when asked why Brees rarely gets sacked. “He knows where he's going to with it. When he sees — he takes a picture of the defense and pretty much knows where he's going to go, so we've got to do a good job of disguising and do a good job of getting pressure on him.”

Disguising is easier said than done against a quarterback like Brees, who has seen everything countless times in his career.

“You know, sometimes when you watch them, you wonder if anything works much,” Capers said.

On the other side of the coin, the Saints’ defense is only 24th in sack percentage (4.19) but is second in hurries with 30. They have a top tandem in defensive end Cameron Jordan, a first-round pick in 2011 who had 12.5 sacks last season, and Junior Galette, an undrafted free agent in 2010 who had 12 sacks last season and has four of the team’s nine sacks this season. They were the only duo in the league with 12-plus sacks in 2013. Green Bay’s offense is 24th in sack percentage allowed (7.80) but the line has protected well. According to ProFootballFocus.com’s “pass blocking efficiency” rankings, which measures sacks, hits and hurries allowed by the line, the Packers’ front wall has been the fourth-best in the league. PFF has charged only 10 of the 17 sacks against the line.

“I think it’s a group that really has a chance to be really, really good,” McCarthy said. “And the younger guys have really stepped up this year. When I think of young I think of Corey (Linsley) and obviously David (Bakhtiari). Josh (Sitton) is so consistent in everything he does, just his anticipation and intelligence and his awareness and his athletic ability. T.J. (Lang), I’d say this is probably his best year and I think Bryan (Bulaga) just keeps getting better.”

— The Saints might be 2-4, but they’ve won 10 in a row at the Superdome. With Payton at the helm, the Saints haven’t lost at home since the 2010 finale, a streak of 19 consecutive wins. Moreover, since 2006, the Saints are 6-0 at home on Sunday nights.

It’s not as if the Saints have been this unbeatable juggernaut at home this season, though, with a 20-9 win over Minnesota and a 37-31 win over Tampa Bay. Those teams are a combined 3-10 and in last place in their divisions. The Saints are the only team in the league that is undefeated at home but winless on the road.

— With Brees and Rodgers, don’t expect the ball to hit the ground too often. In NFL history, Chad Pennington has the highest completion percentage at 66.05, followed by Brees at 65.97 and Rodgers at 65.89. This season, Brees ranks fourth at 67.7 percent and Rodgers is seventh at 66.8 percent.

— Peppers is the only defender in the league with at least one sack (three), one interception (one), one fumble recovery (two), one forced fumble (one) and one defensive touchdown (one).

Four-point stance

— Third down is a key most weeks, and that will be especially true in this game, because both offenses are outstanding in move-the-chains situations. New Orleans ranks fourth with a 50.0 percent conversion rate while Green Bay checks in at No. 6 at 44.6 percent.

Think third-and-long is a victory for the defense? Not so much. On third-and-6-plus, the Packers convert 37.8 percent of the time while the Saints move the chains 35.7 percent of the time. That’s fourth and fifth, respectively. On third-and-10-plus, New Orleans converts at a 32.1 percent clip while the Packers are successful 30.4 percent of the time. Those marks also rank fourth and fifth, respectively.

According to STATS, on third-and-3-to-7, Brees ranks second in the league by converting on 72.7 percent of his passing attempts. On third-down plays requiring at least 8 yards, Rodgers moves the chains an incredible 52.6 percent of the time. That ranks second in the league.

Overall, Rodgers’ passer rating on third down this season is a fifth-ranked 122.1. Since 2009, Rodgers is No. 1 on third down at 111.7 while Brees is second at 101.8.

— The Packers have emerged as one of the prime contenders for the Super Bowl in the NFC while the Saints’ season is quickly approaching the point of no return. There are plenty of reasons why, but you can stop and end with this one: The Packers are a league-best plus-10 in turnovers and are tied for second with only four giveaways. The Saints are tied for 29th at minus-8 and only the Jets have fewer takeaways than the Saints’ four.

Under Payton’s tenure, the Saints are 26-0 when they don’t have a giveaway. Under McCarthy’s tenure, the Packers are 33-5-1 when they are turnover-free.

“You are what you are right now. We're 5-2. They're 2-4,” Rodgers said. “They've lost some close games. We won a couple close ones. They're a good football team. They're 2-0 at home. It's tough to play on the road in this league, I don't care who you're playing. But when you've got a good home environment, that's definitely worth a couple of scores.”

— It’s not just turnovers but the impact of them. Of New Orleans’ 12 giveaways, the opponent has scored eight times (39 points on five touchdowns and three field goals) and punted just once. Of the others, Cleveland and Dallas ran out the clock in their victories and the Buccaneers ran out of time to potentially win the game. Last week, the Lions turned the Saints’ two turnovers into 10 points, including the game-winning touchdown.

“Obviously, we’ve dug ourselves into a hole,” Payton said. “We’ve had three tough losses. We haven’t been able to finish games. We’ve got to look closely at doing a better job of that, making sure that we’re dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s.”

Green Bay, meanwhile, leads the NFL by scoring 55 points off of its takeaways. It has turned 14 takeaways into eight touchdowns and two field goals. The Packers’ four giveaways have been turned into points every time — 20 points on two touchdowns and two field goals.

—One final note on turnovers and one final look at these quarterbacks. Brees has thrown seven interceptions, including at least one in five of the six games. He’s never been shy about forcing the ball into a tight window. In his previous 12 seasons as a starter, he’s thrown at least 11 interceptions in 11 of them, and he threw a league-high 19 picks in 2012.

Contrast that to Rodgers, who’s in his seventh season as a starter. He’s thrown more than 11 interceptions in just one season while boasting the lowest interception percentage in NFL history. Rodgers has had just nine career games with more than one interception. He’s had more games with two-plus touchdown passes (63) than games with an interception (41).

Finally, there’s this: Brees has thrown four interceptions in two games in October. In his last 15 October games, Rodgers has thrown four interceptions.

Quoteworthy

Rodgers, on the historic passing numbers being posted league-wide: “I think the quarterback play is better. It’s just gotten better. You look at every level. The little guys playing in elementary school to high school to junior college. I go back and watch Butte and Butte’s team is better than the team we had there then. They’re doing more. The quarterback is asked to do more. There’s more checks at the line of scrimmage. You’re seeing quarterbacks coming into the league and being able to play Year 1. That didn’t happen 10 years ago when I was a rookie. Myself, Alex and Jason, who were all first round picks, we would all say to a man the quarterback now is way more prepared to play in the league. I think that’s due to coaching and the way the game has grown. You’re seeing guys continue to transcend the game. Use the rules to their advantage, but I think quarterback play, this is the generation of a lot of guys playing at a really high level.”

Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.

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