FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The last time Charles Woodson played in the snow in Foxborough, he was part of history.
The wrong part.
His blitz of Tom Brady in the playoffs in the 2001 season took the “Tuck Rule” from the depths of the NFL rulebook to an oft-repeated phrase that still sparks emotion.
“I’ve had that flashback more times than I would like,” said Woodson, then with the Oakland Raiders. “I catch that game on the classic football channel sometimes. That’s a bad memory for me.”
Last year’s NFL defensive player of the year returns with the Green Bay Packers to face the New England Patriots on Sunday night. More snow is in the forecast and his team’s playoff prospects are again in jeopardy.
With starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers missing practice with his second concussion of the season, the Packers (8-5) could have a tough time against the Patriots (11-2), the hottest team in football.
“We’re just going to try and concentrate on getting this win, whether it snows or not,” Woodson said.
Nine years ago, his Raiders lost 16-13 after an on-field ruling that Brady lost a fumble with 1:43 left in the fourth quarter was overturned on a review that decided it was an incompletion because Brady’s arm was moving forward when he was hit by the star cornerback. It seemed clear that Brady was trying to tuck the ball into his body, but the rule states that when the ball gets loose while the arm is going forward it’s an incompletion.
Adam Vinatieri forced overtime with a 45-yard field goal. Two weeks later, the Patriots beat the St. Louis Rams for the first of their three Super Bowl titles.
Brady, Woodson’s teammate at Michigan in 1997, had his championship ring.
“He did steal my ring,” Woodson joked. “I’m still waiting around to get mine.”
The Packers have lost two of their last three games and trail the first-place Chicago Bears by one game in the NFC North. The Patriots are the only team that has clinched a playoff berth and can earn a first-round bye if they win and the Jets lose to the Steelers.
New England is averaging an NFL-high 31.9 points per game. But the Packers defense, led by Woodson and NFC sacks leader Clay Matthews, is the stingiest with just 14.5 points allowed.
“Clay Matthews is a hell of a player,” Brady said, “and, obviously, I know a lot about Charles. I played with Charles in college. … It’s one of the best defenses that we’re going to face all year.”
Woodson and Brady were teammates only in the year before Brady became the starter.
“You knew he’d be good, but who knew he’d be where he is now?” Woodson said. “He was a guy that always worked at his craft and you knew what kind of competitor he was.”
He saw Brady’s control in the huddle and admires his poise in the pocket.
“Joe Montana was ‘Joe Cool’ and Brady’s no different,” Woodson said.
This season Brady leads the NFL with 29 touchdown passes. He’s thrown just four interceptions, none in the last eight games. Rodgers also is having an outstanding year but was knocked out of last Sunday’s 7-3 loss to the Detroit Lions in the second quarter. In the four games before that, he led the NFL with a 131.3 passer rating while throwing 11 touchdowns and no interceptions.
Matt Flynn replaced him and played decently, but threw an interception in the red zone and came up short on a late-game drive with a chance to win.
“We always have to prepare for all the quarterbacks,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “Their offense is still their offense. For them, (if) they change quarterbacks, its not like they have 100 new plays that they haven’t run before just because they put one guy in there.”
The Packers passing game has been the strength of their offense, but the Patriots young secondary has improved as the season has gone on. New England has 11 interceptions in its last five games.
Green Bay’s defense should be tested by an offensive machine coming off back-to-back wins of 45-3 over the New York Jets and 36-7 over Chicago. It will be tougher without end Cullen Jenkins, set to miss second straight game with a knee injury, and outside linebacker Frank Zombo, expected to sit out with a knee sprain.
“Their offense is so in sync,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “As you watch them play, you can see the coordination between Tom and the offensive line as far as the adjustments that are made, particularly the protection adjustments. … You can see the timing between him and the receivers.”
The Patriots are doing what they usually do in December — winning. Their 31-5 record in that month starting in 2002 is the NFL’s best.
“The timing is just right,” New England wide receiver Deion Branch said. “Nobody ever panicked when things weren’t going so good earlier in the season. We knew that we’d always get it going and I think right about now we’re headed in the right direction.”
The Packers would like to reverse direction with a win and improve their playoff prospects.
“Your back is against the wall when they tell you you’ve got to win the next three to get in,” wide receiver Donald Driver said. “We’ve still just got to win one game. That’s what we’ve got to, and if we do that, we’ll be fine.”