The Playbook: Breaking down NFL conference championship games
The quest for Super Bowl XLIX is down to the final four teams. Chris Burke and Doug Farrar get you ready for the conference championships with game previews, matchups to watch and score predictions.
When these two teams met in the opening game of the 2014 regular season at Seattle's CenturyLink Field, the Seahawks stomped the Packers, 36-16. Though, there is little to suggest that a repeat of that score is likely; the Seahawks might be stronger overall than they were in last season's ride to the Super Bowl, but the Packers are also much, much better.
Through the first three weeks of the season, Green Bay head coach Mike McCarthy talked about personnel over scheme, and that mindset was to his team's detriment -- Aaron Rodgers was setting career lows in yards per attempt and touchdown percentage, and the defense was a sieve. Now, the Packers have more formation diversity on offense and a better plan on the other side of the ball. Rodgers is playing at his career best, RB Eddie Lacy is bulling people over with help from an underrated offensive line and the defense is stopping the run at an accelerated rate -- all of which are very important when facing the Seahawks.
However, the big question is how Rodgers will hang in the pocket with his calf injury. He managed to do enough for a close win over the Cowboys in the divisional frame, but the Seattle defense he'll face this time around is better -- certainly in the defensive backfield and in the pass rush -- and operating at a higher level than it was in Week 1.
Another isssue is whether he'll want to test Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman. Rodgers stayed away from Sherman all night in that last matchup, Sherman said this week that the result was a "12 on a scale from 1 to 10" on his frustration-ometer, and several Green Bay players and coaches have said since that limiting your reads to one side of the field really won't work against the best defense in football. The rise of rookie receiver Davante Adams to complement Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb makes this Green Bay receiver group perhaps the NFL's best and most diverse, and Seattle's interior defensive line is depleted due to injury, so throwing Lacy at it like a battering ram would seem to be a good notion.
After their Week 9 bye, the Packers decided to move Clay Matthews from pass-rushing outside linebacker to run-stopping inside linebacker on a much higher percentage of snaps, and the difference has been graphic. Green Bay allowed 1,228 rushing yards and nine touchdowns in the first eight games and 691 rushing yards over the second half of the season. However, DeMarco Murray ran all over that defense in the divisional round, and the Packers didn't have too many answers against Marshawn Lynch in Week 1. They may have fewer answers now, because...
Seattle's offense is totally different. In Week 1, the Seahawks were still trying to force their offense through receiver Percy Harvin, a conceit that probably worked best in last season's Super Bowl, and then started to provide diminishing returns. After the team traded Harvin to the Jets following the Week 6 loss to the Cowboys (when Harvin refused to enter the game in the fourth quarter because h was unhappy with the game plan), the offense became balanced again.
When we talk balance in Seattle's offense, it means an equilibrium between Lynch and Russell Wilson in the run game. This is another area where the Packers could really be in for it -- they bring their linebackers up a lot against the run, because they don't have linemen who can consistently stop power at the point of attack. Lynch is the best in the game at breaking tackles, and transcending the efforts of his pedestrian offensive line.
But if the Seahawks are to head back to the Super Bowl, they'll do it on Wilson's shoulders -- and that's a good way to go these days. Wilson has been seen by many as a game manager, but it's time to throw that pejorative term in the garbage. The Packers have talked all week about the unique challenges Wilson presents with his rushing ability -- 849 yards on the ground in the regular season -- and with his passing acumen in key spots. Against the Panthers last Sunday, Wilson was 8-for-8 for 199 yards and three touchdowns, and all three touchdown passes came on third-and-long. The Seahawks have the horses and the home-field advantage to pull this game out even if Wilson doesn't perform at his best... and if Wilson continues on his current hot streak, this game could get out of hand. As the Week 1 game did, but for entirely different reasons. -- Doug Farrar
Chris Burke: Seahawks 27, Packers 14
Doug Farrar: Seahawks 27, Green Bay 17
Need proof of how dominant New England's run game has been against Indianapolis of late? Look no further than the covers of Sports Illustrated.
Patriots RB Jonas Gray was featured earlier this season, following a 201-yard, four-touchdown showing against the Colts. And his (once and current) teammate LeGarrette Blount landed out front on SI last January, thanks to a four-touchdown game of his own in a playoff victory over Indianapolis.
While the running backs stole the headlines, though, the underlying story of those past two Patriots-Colts matchups has been the thorough physical domination imposed by the AFC East champs.
"The numbers speak for themselves," Colts coach Chuck Pagano said during the run-up to Sunday's AFC championship game, "and if we don’t get that fixed and they’re able to run the ball the way that they’ve run it the last couple meetings, then we’re going to have a long, hard day."
Pagano pointed out the presence of DT Arthur Jones as one reason for optimism. Jones missed the earlier loss to the Patriots with an injury and he was playing for Baltimore last season. At the very least, a healthy Jones offers some hope for the Colts that they will not be shoved around as easily this time.
Which is all well and good, except that the Patriots are just as capable of flipping the script and taking to the air Sunday, thereby countering any adjustments Indianapolis makes to stop the run. In the game before their Week 11 win at Lucas Oil Stadium, the Patriots rushed for all of 66 yards while dismantling Denver; they had 77 yards rushing on their opening possession against the Colts two Sundays later.
Even if they can carry over a defensive effort that's seen them allow a mere 23 points in their first two playoff wins, the Colts likely will have to ask Andrew Luck's offense for a few scoring drives.
Therein lies problem No. 2: Indianapolis has averaged 11 points in the first half of its previous two losses to New England. But the Patriots struggled against the Ravens' attack last week, coughing up 31 points and 428 yards before sealing the game on a late interception.
Indianapolis' own running back, Boom Herron, could be the ticket to success. New England held the Colts to 19 yards rushing back in November, when Trent Richardson and Ahmad Bradshaw were splitting carries. -- Chris Burke
Chris Burke: Patriots 31, Colts 21
Doug Farrar: Patriots 24, Colts 21 (OT)
• It's interesting that Andrew Luck didn't make any throws off play action against the Patriots in Week 11, because no quarterback has been more prolific from a scoring perspective than Luck in that concept. Luck has thrown 13 play action touchdowns this season to only one interception, and if he can bring New England's linebackers up with those fakes, it could open up a lot of things for Indianapolis' intermediate passing offense.
• Tom Brady throws a lot of play action passes -- 159 attempts, the most of any quarterback in the NFL this season, and he's thrown eight touchdown passes to three picks when using it. But both of Brady's interceptions against the Colts in Week 11 came out of play action, based on pressure from Indianapolis' defense that took Brady off his spot. If the Patriots decide to throw the ball more in this rematch, look for Brady to throw quickly to mitigate an offensive line that has allowed 191 total pressures, eighth-most in the league. For a quarterback like Brady, who's been great at making his lines look better for years, that has to be a concern.
• Then again, the Pats totaled eight rushing touchdowns and 480 total rushing yards in their last two games against the Colts. That doesn't happen in the NFL -- those are Division I vs. Division II college numbers. But it's happened against Indianapolis, and it's why the Pats have run the ball nearly 56 percent of the time against Indianapolis in the last three matchups, as opposed to 41 percent of the time against the rest of the league in that timeframe. If the Colts don't have a better answer this time around, they can expect more of the same.
• Historically, the Packers have a real issue dealing with mobile quarterbacks who make their rushing yards off of zone-read concepts -- that's what happens when you play heavy man coverage and defenders turn their backs in coverage. Russell Wilson has run for 871 yards this season, and he's one of the more effective third-down runners at any position. He's averaged 7.7 yards per carry with five touchdowns on zone-read runs, per ESPN's Stats & Info. But it's Wilson's third-down passing the Packers should worry about -- against the Panthers in the divisional-round win, Wilson completed 8-of-8 attempts for 199 yards on third down, and all three touchdowns came on third-and-long. Wilson had multiple completions of 20 yards or more for the fifth-straight game; he had no games with multiple deep completions in the first 12 games of the season.
• Worried about Aaron Rodgers' ability to roll out and throw with that balky calf? It might not be a major issue. This season, per Pro Football Focus' charting metrics, Rodgers has completed 330 passes in 481 attempts for 4,121 yards (2,150 after the catch), 30 touchdowns, four picks and a 112.3 quarterback rating. On designed rollouts and scrambles to throw, he completed 35 of 74 passes for 576 yards (163 after the catch), six touchdowns, one pick and a 107.9 rating. Against Dallas in the second half of that divisional round win, Rodgers made several amazing throws from the pocket, including the beautiful fourth-quarter touchdown pass to tight end Richard Rodgers, when he split two converging Cowboys defenders and hit Rodgers with a dime. -- Doug Farrar
• Matchup to watch: Sergio Brown et al vs. Rob Gronkowski.
In the last nine games Rob Gronkowski has played (he sat out a meaningless Week 17 loss to Buffalo), the Patriots' tight end has scored a combined nine touchdowns. That he remains one of the league's toughest matchups is of little debate.
Brown would tell you that he is up for the challenge. Despite being blocked into Bloomington by Gronkowski on one of Jonas Gray's Week 11 touchdown runs, Brown contended that he shut down Gronk elsewhere.
"That boy had straps on him," Brown tweeted.
For the record, Gronkowski finished New England's 42-20 win over the Colts with four catches for 71 yards and a touchdown, counting a 16-yard grab while under Brown's watch.
Be it Brown, fellow safety Mike Adams or one of the Colts' linebackers, slowing down Gronkowski will be a must for the visitors. Then Indianapolis' defense only has to worry about circumnavigating Gronkowski's blocks in the run game.
• Sleeper player: Luke Willson, TE, Seahawks.
Amidst all the questions regarding Seattle's passing game, Russell Wilson has thrown for 200-plus yards in six of his team's past seven outings. Willson, an unheralded 2013 fifth-round pick, has been a key game-changer at times, too, during that stretch.
In last week's win over Carolina, Willson caught four passes for 68 yards and a touchdown. He scored twice in Week 16 at Arizona, starting with an 80-yarder that showed off Willson's sub-4.6 speed.
"Luke is really coming alive," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "[He and Wilson] are creating a chemistry that makes a difference."
The Packers' defense has struggled in the recent past against mobile quarterbacks. Should it put too much attention on Wilson, or on keeping Marshawn Lynch in check, Willson might be able to slip behind the linebackers and safeties for a home run.
• Rookie to watch: Davante Adams, WR, Packers.
They did not admit it, at least not publicly, but the Packers were afraid to throw Richard Sherman's direction during a Week 1 loss in Seattle. Rather than give Jordy Nelson or Randall Cobb a shot up against the Seahawks' superstar cornerback, they stuck Jarrett Boykin on Sherman's side of the field as a decoy and repeatedly rolled Rodgers the opposite direction.
Adams is the not-so-secret weapon in Green Bay's revised plans this Sunday. Fresh off 11 targets, seven catches, 117 yards and a touchdown vs. Dallas, Adams figures to draw Sherman head-to-head often Sunday.
The Packers may just give him a few chances to prove what he can do. -- Chris Burke