Packers-Seahawks NFL Preview: First look at the NFC Championship Game
The NFC's No. 1 and No. 2 seeds square off in Seattle with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.
All the way back in Week 1, the Seahawks beat the Packers 36-16 in Seattle in the NFL's season opener. Seattle's offense outgained Green Bay by nearly 150 yards, controlling both the ball and the clock, while the defense held Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay offense in check. There's a rematch Sunday with the NFC championship on the line, only these Seahawks aren't exactly those Seahawks, and these Packers aren't exactly those Packers.
Seattle had Percy Harvin back then, and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell used him to great effect. Harvin had 11 touches for 100 yards in that game, as the Seahawks got him the ball on screens, slants and jet sweeps all night. They also used various fakes to Harvin to generate plays elsewhere. Harvin, of course, is now on the Jets.
The Seahawks have used a balanced offensive approach to make up for the loss of Harvin's services -- though it should be said that Harvin didn't have all that great a year while he was in Seattle -- with Russell Wilson spreading it around to Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse, Luke Willson, Cooper Helfet and more while also featuring a heavy dose of both Marshawn Lynch and Robert Turbin in the running game. The defense, of course, despite a midseason downturn to mere "good" play, is back at the height of its powers.
The Packers in that Week 1 game sacrificed No. 3 receiver Jarrett Boykin at the altar of Richard Sherman, keeping him on Sherman's side of the field while trying to work Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb elsewhere. Boykin has since lost his job to rookie Davante Adams, one of the stars of Green Bay's divisional-round win over the Dallas Cowboys. Dallas used Brandon Carr to shadow Nelson and Orlando Scandrick on Cobb, so Adams went to work on No. 3 corner Sterling Moore and came away with seven catches for 117 yards and a touchdown.
Elsewhere on Green Bay's offense in Week 1, rookie center Corey Linsley was making his first career start. He actually acquitted himself fairly well that night, but he has become one of the best centers in the NFL in the 18 weeks since, turning himself from a question mark into a genuine asset along the way. Green Bay allowed three sacks in that first game, but the offensive line has improved a whole lot since then while Seattle has lost a few valuable contributors on its defensive front.
Will the changes made by Green Bay outweigh that 20-point differential from Week 1? Or can the Seahawks withstand whatever comes their way by leaning on the stalwarts who are still in town?
1. Expect a lot of Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson runs
In two games against the Packers since 2012, Lynch has carried the ball 45 times for 208 yards, an average of 4.62 yards per carry. The Green Bay run defense ranked just 20th in yards per carry and 24th in DVOA this season, while DeMarco Murray was able to touch them up for 123 yards on 25 carries (4.9 ypc) on Sunday.
Green Bay's run defense got slightly better after moving Clay Matthews to inside linebacker on most downs, but it wasn't by all that much. (Grantland's Bill Barnwell noted that they moved from 24th in rush defense DVOA in the first half of the season to 20th in the second half.)
There's also the fact that Green Bay has a documented history of struggling to deal with zone-read plays. Who can forget Colin Kaepernick leaving Matthews in his dust while sprinting around the edge during the 2012 playoffs? Wilson ran seven times for 29 yards in the season opener and he wound up leading the NFL in rushes and yards by a quarterback, carrying 118 times for 849 yards and six touchdowns.
2. Can Eddie Lacy get going?
Lacy struggled pretty badly in that first game against the Seahawks, totaling only 34 yards on 12 carries. It was part of a season-opening stretch where Lacy faced off with four terrific run defenses and ran for just 161 yards on 53 carries. From that point forward, though, he ran 193 times for 978 yards and eight touchdowns, cementing himself as one of the best backs in the league.
Seattle will be without both Brandon Mebane and Jordan Hill along the defensive line in this one, absences that helped the Panthers run for 132 yards against the Seahawks on Saturday. Seattle had held opponents under 65 rushing yards in five of their previous six games before Hill was declared out for the year in advance of the Panthers game.
Lacy's rushing totals since Week 12: 125, 98, 73, 97, 99, 100, 101. It's safe to say he's on a roll.
3. Will Rodgers' calf hold up?
It was a huge story all week, and a huge one Sunday as well: Aaron Rodgers' calf is not right. In the first half against the Cowboys, he looked like he could barely move at times. He took hits he wouldn't normally take, made throws he wouldn't normally make and had some rather pedestrian numbers.
In the second half, though, Rodgers was able to stand taller and cleaner in the pocket as Green Bay's offensive line controlled the Dallas pass rush. That allowed Rodgers time and space to deliver the ball, and he went to work picking apart the Cowboys secondary with throws to Adams, Cobb and Andrew Quarless.
Seattle's pass rush is an entirely different animal from the one Dallas brought, though. Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril, Bruce Irvin and the rest of the Seattle defensive front can bring pressure like no other group in the league. Even without Hill, the Seahawks were able to generate two sacks, six hits and 19 hurries of Cam Newton on Saturday, and that was on only 36 pass attempts.
If Seattle can get pressure up the middle to go along with the rush Bennett and Avril bring off the edges, Rodgers is going to have a tough time moving around to buy time for his receivers to get open. And if they don't have time, Nelson, Cobb and Adams won't exactly have it easy trying to shake free of Sherman, Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas and the rest of the Legion of Boom.
4. Fail Mary
The 2012 Packers-Seahawks game was of course decided by the now-infamous Fail Mary play.
That pass was hauled in my Golden Tate, who is no longer with the Seahawks. And the refs for that game were replacements, so none of them will be on the field Sunday, either. Here's hoping we can get at least one NFC playoff game off without an officiating controversy.
5. The early line
Seattle opens the game as a 7.5-point favorite at home.
It seems pretty high, and then you go look at Seattle's game log and realize they've won seven in a row, all by double digits, and have outscored opponents by 12.5 points per game at home this season, including that 20-point win over the Packers. Green Bay is no ordinary opponent, of course, but they were outscored by 17 points in their eight road games (4-4 record) this season and the Seahawks are on some kind of roll right now.
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