Packers vs. Seahawks: Key matchups in NFC title game
WHEN THE PACKERS (13-4) HAVE THE BALL:
Pretty simple, really: balance. With a healthy QB Aaron Rodgers (12) and RB Eddie Lacy (27), that usually is not problem for the Packers. But Rodgers has been bothered by a calf injury and was particularly hobbled in the second half last week vs. Dallas. Still, he threw for two second-half touchdowns.
Running against Seattle is about as easy as hearing each other at CenturyLink Field for a visiting team. Led by dynamic LB Bobby Wagner (54) and a stout defensive line featuring Michael Bennett (72), the Seahawks rarely allow an opponent to control the clock on the ground. Establishing any sort of rushing attack is a major challenge for Green Bay's line, particularly rookie C Corey Linsley (63) and guards T.J. Lang (70) and Pro Bowler Josh Sitton (71).
An inability to do so would force Rodgers to the air early. Sounds like a good idea when your quarterback is an All-Pro, but only if Rodgers has the mobility he needs to escape pressure from DE Cliff Avril (56) and LBs Wagner and Bruce Irvin (51), plus whichever Legion of Boom member blitzes from the secondary.
Then there's the equally difficult chore of completing throws against All-Pros CB Richard Sherman (25) and S Earl Thomas (29), plus S Kam Chancellor (31), who comes off a dominant performance against Carolina. Rodgers should feel comforted that his two outstanding main targets, WRs Jordy Nelson (87) and Randall Cobb (18) are complemented by the emerging WR Davante Adams (17) and TE Andrew Quarless (81).
Regardless, if the Packers can't establish a semblance of a running game, it figures to be a long Sunday.
WHEN THE SEAHAWKS (13-4) HAVE THE BALL:
Also relatively simple, and the same formula that worked on the way to last season's championship: Seattle must feed the Beast, RB Marshawn Lynch (24), and give QB Russell Wilson (3) freedom to create.
Lynch, like Lacy, has the power, speed and determination to ruin a defense's day. The way DeMarco Murray marauded through Green Bay's defense last week is worrisome. And Lynch gets better as the game progresses, with defenders tiring.
The Packers will need outstanding showings by an underrated defensive line, including DLs Mike Daniels (76) and Letroy Guion (98), who come off a strong game against Dallas, and more from star LB Clay Matthews (52). If Lynch gets through the first wave, the Pack will be in trouble because the secondary lacks good tacklers.
Matthews and LB-DE Julius Pepper (56) must be disruptive, and also need to keep Wilson from escaping outside, whether as a scrambler or on designed runs.
With the unsung offensive line, led by LT Russell Okung (76) and C Max Unger (60), pretty much back intact, the Seahawks are capable of dominating the trenches. Green Bay must find ways to make Wilson uneasy.
The matchup of Seattle receivers against the Packers' secondary isn't nearly as high-profile as the other way around. But even after losing free agent Golden Tate and trading Percy Harvin, the Seahawks have gotten timely plays from Doug Baldwin (89), Jermaine Kearse (15) and TE Luke Willson (82). Packers CBs Tramon Williams (38) and Sam Shields (37) struggled last week against Dallas, which has more dangerous wideouts. Safeties Morgan Burnett (42) and rookie Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (21) had problems covering Jason Witten, which bodes well for Willson. And Wilson.
Green Bay's Mason Crosby (2) and Seattle's Steven Hauschka (4) are solid placekickers, reliable in the clutch. Hauschka has gotten better on kickoffs through his career, too. But both the kickoff coverages weren't great in 2014 for either squad.
Both Seattle's Pete Carroll and Green Bay's Mike McCarthy pulled off one of their best coaching jobs this season. Carroll saw his team suffering from a Super Bowl hangover early in the schedule and not only got the Seahawks to snap out of it, but reach peak form down the stretch. His energy is contagious; his top assistants, Dan Quinn on defense, Darrell Bevell on offense, are masterful game planners.
McCarthy is more low-key than Carroll, and oversees the prolific offense while leaving the defense to coordinator Dom Capers. McCarthy has found ways to overcome injury issues better than most coaches, particularly on offense.
CenturyLink Field is as difficult a place for visitors as any stadium/arena on the planet. The best way to describe the noise level when the fans get pumped is beyond deafening. Indeed, local seismologists plan to measure the surge of sound on Sunday.
Green Bay has been mediocre on the road (4-4), with only one truly well-rounded performance, at Chicago. But the Packers have some key veterans such as Rodgers, Nelson, Peppers, Matthews, Sitton and Crosby who have been through such tough challenges before.
No team has been to successive Super Bowls since New England 10 years ago. Seattle is primed to do it.
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