New England Patriots

New England Patriots

New England Patriots

(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

  • “Hallowed Ground.”

    The words at the top of page 582, headlining the section of the Green Bay Packers Media Guide devoted to Lambeau Field, let you how the locals feel about the site of Sunday’s visitation by the Patriots. It’s their house of football worship.

    Fifty-five years have passed since “The Pope” of Green Bay, Vince Lombardi last walked the turf mythologized as “Frozen Tundra” in the “Ice Bowl.” Still, his shadow in the shape of a fedora atop a trench coat extends across generations of fans and players.

    Since Lombardi’s final two teams left Lambeau Field with NFL titles bound to become the first two Super Bowl Champs, only two successors in his long shadow have lifted the trophy that bears his name. Mike Holmgren did so after defeating the Pats in Super Bowl XXXI. Mike McCarthy did so after defeating Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XLV.

    Current head coach Matt LaFleur has yet to do so in three seasons plus three games — though he’s been close. He got to the NFC Championship game each of his first two years, before losing to San Francisco in last postseason’s divisional round.

    Two of those playoff losses occurred at Lambeau, where LaFleur’s Packers have otherwise won 23 of 25 regular-season games since 2019. The Buccaneers captured the NFC crown, 31-24, on Jan. 24, 2021. Then on Jan. 22 of this year, the 49ers advanced to the conference final by a 13-10 count.

    The San Francisco outcome ultimately came down to cardinal sins in the kicking game. A blocked field goal try by Mason Crosby kept Green Bay from gaining a two-score halftime lead. Much later, in the final five minutes, with the Packers ahead, 10-3, the Niners returned a blocked punt by Cory Bojorquez for their lone touchdown.

    It marked the first time in 33 years that a team had both a field goal and punt blocked in the same playoff game. As an extra kick to the gut, the Packers deployed only 10 players on the field when Robbie Gould won it for San Francisco with his 45-yard field goal on the final play.

  • Gould

    The 49ers celebrated at Lambeau Field last postseason, after they blocked a Packers’ field goal and punt and Robbie Gould made his game-winning kick. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

    Within two weeks, LaFleur fired his special teams coordinator for the second straight year, relieving Maurice Drayton, who’d replaced Shawn Mennenga. Within one week of that decision, LaFleur hired Rich Bisaccia, the 20-year NFL special teams coach who most recently doubled as interim head coach of the Raiders.

    Next, the Packers upgraded their punt unit in free agency, signing ex-Bear Pat O’Donnell and acquiring special teams ace Keisean Nixon. Through three weeks, the improvement has been significant. Last week at Tampa Bay, it was a game changer. 

    The Packers scored on their first two series, then were shutout the rest of the way. Yet they won, 14-12, marking only their fourth victory with Aaron Rodgers when scoring 14 or fewer points. They did it with a complement of good defense, O’Donnell’s punting and Bisaccia’s coverage unit continuously tilting the field in their favor. Five of O’Donnell’s seven punts pinned the Bucs inside their 20-yard line.

    Overall, in O’Donnell’s first three games for Green Bay, he’s forced six fair catches, placed nine of 13 punts inside the 20 and posted a net average of 45.2 yards a boot. 

    Meanwhile, the downfield coverage of Nixon, Rudy Ford and Dallin Leavitt have helped to force opponents to begin their average series at the 21.6-yard line. That’s the worst starting field position in the league.  

  • Lambeau Field at sunset on Aug. 14, 2021, in Green Bay, Wis. (Sarah Kloepping/USA Today Network-Wisconsin via Imagn Content Services)

    The Packers have won 14 straight at Lambeau Field. (Sarah Kloepping/USA Today Network-Wisconsin via Imagn Content Services)

    “They’ve got three very explosive coverage players, and a good core, and good specialists, and a good returner, and a good coach. So they’ve put together a good core group,” Patriots Coach Bill Belichick said on Wednesday.  “They’ve played well. They can rush. They can return. They can cover. And they can protect. 

    “I know Rich is one of the top special teams coaches in the league and has been…always had a ton of respect for Rich and the job he’s done. He’s very thorough, aggressive. His units always play well.”

    Conversely, the Pats’ Myles Bryant has returned seven of 11 punts for just a 6.6 average and has been fortunate to recover two muffs in as many games. In the end zone at Pittsburgh. At his 11-yard line vs. Baltimore.

    Two weeks ago, Jake Bailey had two punts bound into the end zone for touchbacks. Last week he had to make a diving hit to force the Ravens’ Devin Duvernay out of bounds on a 43-yard return.

    There will be no margin for such mishaps today. The Packers have won 14 straight at Lambeau.

    And unlike years past, their special teams treat every yard of field position there the way their fans do — like hallowed ground.

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