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Early thoughts on Championship Weekend
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Early thoughts on Championship Weekend
Monday January 12th, 2015

The top two seeds in the NFL playoffs -- Seattle in the NFC and New England in the AFC -- survived the divisional round. Will the bracket hold true to form next Sunday, when Green Bay and Indianapolis, respectively, shoot for the road upset?

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Here's an early primer on what's ahead for the NFL's final four:

No. 2 Green Bay Packers (12-4) at No. 1 Seattle Seahawks (12-4), 3:05 p.m. ET (FOX)

The Seahawks' 20-point, Week 1 win over the Packers feels like it happened ages ago. The infamous "Fail Mary" game between the two teams is even more of a distant memory.

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Plan on hearing about both meetings ad nauseam ahead of next Sunday's NFC title game.

The dramatic 2012 finish, in which Golden Tate caught a last-second heave from Russell Wilson in front of a confused set of replacement referees, carries no weight for the latest rematch. The 2014 season-opener may not offer much insight into the upcoming matchup, either, given how far removed these two teams are from their early season selves.

Seattle won going away in that one, turning a 10-10 tie into an emphatic 36-16 scoreline behind a crushing defensive performance. En route to just 255 yards of total offense, Green Bay entirely avoided cornerback Richard Sherman, often using Jarrett Boykin as a decoy receiver against Sherman and running plays to the other side of the field.

Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, freed up from Sherman, combined for 15 catches, 141 yards and a touchdown, but the Packers struggled to generate much of anything offensively after halftime.

"I don't think you ever make a conscious decision not to throw to one side of the field," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said Friday. "Frankly, it was more of a decision to put Jordy on the left and see if [Sherman] would come over and play him. They played their defense and obviously they did a heck of a job."

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Boykin, the sacrificial lamb that evening, has been almost nonexistent in Green Bay's offense ever since. The emerging star, as Dallas learned painfully during the divisional round, is rookie Davante Adams. He led the way Sunday for the Packers, catching eight passes for 117 yards and a touchdown in a 26-21 win.

Between Adams, Nelson and Cobb, Green Bay ought to have enough weapons to test any member of Seattle's secondary. Running back Eddie Lacy, who finished with just 34 yards on 12 carries in the earlier trip to CenturyLink Field, also comes in hot off back-to-back 100-yard games.

The real question, though, is if a hobbled Rodgers will be able to turn it loose enough to test Seattle's dynamic defense. Rodgers was unable to do much in the first half vs. Dallas, only to regain his mojo -- and near full use of his injured calf, apparently -- for the final two quarters.

There are no mobility issues at QB on the other sideline. For as lethal an all-around threat as Rodgers is when he's healthy, Seahawks QB Russell Wilson is a better runner and an increasingly deadly passer. Wilson threw for 268 yards and three touchdowns Saturday vs. Carolina, the best of the bunch coming on a perfect 63-yard raindrop to Jermaine Kearse.

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Green Bay may have to choose between trying to limit Wilson and loading the box on RB Marshawn Lynch. The NFC North champs finished the regular season ranked 23rd against the run; Lynch sliced them up for 110 yards and two TDs on Sept. 4.

"Obviously we were the more physical team today offensively and defensively," Seahawks DE Michael Bennett said following his team's Week 1 win. "I saw supposedly some of the best players in the league not want to tackle Marshawn Lynch."

For the Packers to pull off the minor upset this time around, with the stakes raised, they'll need to find some answers on both sides of the ball. Otherwise, Seattle will head back to the Super Bowl.

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No. 4 Indianapolis Colts (11-5) at No. 1 New England Patriots (12-4), 6:40 p.m. ET (NBC)

You remember Jonas Gray, right? The former undrafted free agent out of Notre Dame came out of nowhere to gash Indianapolis for 201 yards and four touchdowns back in Week 11, a performance that earned him a Sports Illustrated cover.

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Gray overslept and missed a practice the following week, so the Patriots simply turned to their other options in the backfield -- Shane Vereen, Brandon Bolden, ex-Steeler LeGarrette Blount -- and continued to roll. The Gray-led triumph at Indianapolis was part of a six-game win streak that propelled New England to the AFC's top seed.

So now Indianapolis, this postseason's de facto Cinderella story, must travel to Foxboro all while trying to figure out how to prevent another thumping at New England's hands.

"Not acceptable by any means," said Colts coach Chuck Pagano in the wake of that 42-20 November loss to the Patriots. "They beat us soundly."

The Patriots' physical domination in Indianapolis (including Rob Gronkowski's "I threw him out of the club" block on Sergio Brown) was just as thorough in stopping the Colts' run game as it was in turning Gray into a star.

Indianapolis' totals: 16 rushes for 19 yards.

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"One of our main goals was being able to stop the run and making them one-dimensional,” Patriots DT Vince Wilfork said, via MassLive. "We know when we can do that, good things happen for us. ... Everything we practice that we wanted to do, we did it well."

The Colts' backfield has a completely different look than it did two months ago, of course. On that night vs. New England, it was Ahmad Bradshaw and Trent Richardson splitting the carries. Richardson, like Gray, was a surprise inactive for the divisional round. 

Andrew Luck's help now comes mainly from Boom Herron, who has been key in both playoff wins so far, as well as from little-known Zurlon Tipton. Luck is on top of his game right now (265 yards, two touchdowns and two throwaway INTs vs. Denver), but he's going to need help from the Herron-Tipton combo to keep New England off-balance.

The sledding will be tough if that pair cannot come through, in large part because the Patriots can deploy Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner on Indianapolis' receivers. 

Indianapolis features its own shut-down cornerback in Vontae Davis. Gray and the Patriots turned him into a nonessential piece by outmanning Indianapolis at the line and mashing their way to victory. 

Perhaps no offense in football can change on a week-to-week basis like the Patriots. Bill Belichick is just as likely to lean on his passing attack next Sunday as he is to repeat his run-heavy play calling. 

After all, we haven't even touched on Tom Brady yet. Toppling Manning was a massive step forward for Luck as he attempts to grab the AFC's QB torch. But Brady has been playing at a level that the slumping Manning proved incapable of reaching during this postseason.

Luck will be making his first AFC title game appearance; Brady has more playoff wins than any QB in NFL history (19) and will be taking part in his ninth AFC championship on Sunday.

Are we witnessing a complete changing of the guard? Or will New England prove to be one giant too many for the Colts this season?

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