It's being billed in some quarters as a Super Bowl preview and, if so, watch how Pats coach Bill Belichick and Packers counterpart Mike McCarthy react to each other's moves. If nothing else, this meeting figures to be an important test of their wills.
Belichick is the NFL's version of a mad scientist, a strategist who's willing to overhaul his game plan from week to week, in part because he has quarterback Tom Brady to anchor the offense and enough mix-and-match defenders to play a variety of schemes.
McCarthy, too, has proved plenty adaptable during his nine seasons in charge at Green Bay. But his coaching philosophy was formed early in his career, and with Aaron Rodgers, an equally smart, adaptable and accurate quarterback in his corner, he's more likely to take a nip-and-tuck approach to change rather than a face-lift.
McCarthy learned the virtue of patience nearly 30 years ago, as a skilled but undersized Pittsburgh prep star looking to play tight end in college. He wound up at tiny Baker University (enrollment: 3,200 students) outside of Kansas City, a football powerhouse in NAIA play. What McCarthy didn't know at the time was that the Wildcats' dominance was built on an option running game.
"It could be third-and-15, third-and-16, third-and-whatever and we'd almost always run. Poor, Mike," said Scott Rampy, who played quarterback at Baker during McCarthy's time there and remains a good friend. "I'm pretty sure he wound up blocking a lot more than he ever imagined."
"That's not what they told me before I went there," McCarthy recalled with a chuckle Wednesday. "That's good recruiting."
It turned out to be, though, since in addition to patience, Baker is where McCarthy first became a student of the game.
He learned the value of preparation from the late Charlie Richard, a Hall of Fame coach. But his first real hands-on experience came when then-assistant Dan Harris turned over responsibility for the line calls to McCarthy in his senior year.
"That was the first sign of his coaching potential," Harris said. "He began to analyze the game in more detail."
Both Harris and Rampy said McCarthy was an instant hit at Baker, regaling the mostly small-town recruits with tales of the big city, showing the kind of leadership that got him elected captain his last two seasons. The Wildcats finished second and fourth in the NAIA playoffs, but those around him sensed McCarthy's football days were just beginning.
"After graduation, we worked to get Mike a graduate assistantship in college and the rest," Harris said, "is history."
Not quite. McCarthy went from Baker to Fort Hays State and coached linebackers there. After two years seeing the game from the other side of the ball, he went back on offense at Pitt under coach Mike Gottfried and quarterback guru Paul Hackett. Stints as an NFL assistant in Kansas City, Green Bay, New Orleans and San Francisco followed before McCarthy returned to Green Bay as the boss in 2006.
Given the chance to draw up his own game plans, McCarthy went back to his Baker roots.
"The way Charlie Richard went about a football game ... one thing you knew when you stepped on a field, you were extremely confident," McCarthy said. "You felt like you were better prepared than your opponent. Charlie was an aggressive, offensive play-caller, because not only did we have our bread-and-butter option package, there were always deceptions and big-play opportunities that he would create."
Preparing for a Belichick-coached team is particularly tricky, as New England's seven straight wins attest. The three-time Super Bowl winner found a way to disarm such luminaries as Denver's Peyton Manning and Indianapolis' Andrew Luck during the run, and would love to shut down Rodgers for the trifecta.
Belichick won both previous meetings, and while he and McCarthy approach the game differently, there are some important similarities.
Asked to compare the two quarterbacks early in the week, Belichick replied tersely, "They both wear No. 12," before ending his session with the media.
Faced with the same question, McCarthy replied "They're both from California," and he, too, called it a day.