It’s only Week 2 of the NFL season, and yet the entire fate of the NFC may come down to this week’s primetime game: Seahawks vs. Packers. With both teams projected to have a deep playoff run, a win on Sunday could be the deciding factor for home-field advantage in a potential playoff rematch.
You probably don’t need (or want) me to remind you, but let’s take a brief trip through time to see how the matchups have gone between these two teams since Russell Wilson joined the Seahawks.
The Fail Mary – September 24, 2012
Seattle 14, Green Bay 12
Boy, this is already harder to write than I had expected. It was a low-scoring, back-and-forth affair in Seattle, with the Packers jumping out to a 12-7 lead midway through the fourth quarter. In only Wilson’s third game as the starter, it was up to him to lead his team down the field to score a touchdown to win the game.
What resulted on this drive is a play that will go down in infamy. As the clock expired, Wilson rolled out to his left and heaved a 40 yard pass into the back of the Seattle end zone. Seahawk receiver Golden Tate and Packers’ safety M.D. Jennings both went up for the ball. Jennings came down with both hands firmly on the ball, while Tate had one hand on it, his arm tangled in with Jennings’ arm. An obvious call: interception. Game over.
Unfortunately for the Packers, however, this was week three of the infamous referee strike that meant amateur replacement referees were calling professional games. They made the wrong call (touchdown), still got it wrong after an extensive review, and the rest is history. The real referees were back on the field in a matter of weeks.
I understand that this is now three years in the past, and that what’s done is done. As angry as it still might make some of us to think about, it’s important to move on and know that none of this matters much anymore. Both teams are very different now. The Packers leading rusher that day was Cedric Benson. Their leading receiver? Jermichael Finley. Needless to say, that play has nothing to do with the Packers gameplan. But what it will do is add a spark to the mounting flame of frustration the Packers have with the Seahawks.
Seattle 36, Green Bay 16
This game served as a wakeup call for the Packers, who were beaten pretty badly by the Seahawks on national TV and opening night. Seattle’s defense, backed up by the raucous Seattle faithful, proved to be too much for Rodgers and company. A second quarter pass hit off Jordy Nelson’s hand into the waiting arms of a Legion of Boom member, Marshawn Lynch ran wild for 110 yards and two touchdowns, and the Packers again learned how hard it is to beat Seattle at home. They used this game as a lesson to strategize for their inevitable meeting later in the season.
The Ultimate Choke – January 18, 2015
Seattle 28, Green Bay 22
This one is the hardest to swallow for Packers’ fans. This was a hard-fought game between clearly the two best teams in the NFC, one that I’ll never forget.
The Packers had the game all but won. They stormed out to a 16-0 first half lead in Seattle, an unheard of score before the game, especially when considering Wilson is 22-2(!) at home so far in his career. And then, slowly but surely, it all fell apart. Even after allowing the Seahawks to score a touchdown off a fake field goal, the Packers were sitting pretty. Up 16-7 with about five and a half minutes to go, the Packers intercepted Wilson for the fourth time of the day. I was on a flight home from Omaha, Nebraska. This was literally the last thing I saw before putting my phone in Airplane Mode. I high-fived my dad, put in headphones, and tried to fall asleep. I think deep down I’m glad I didn’t see the rest.
Somehow, as the plane landed, the Seahawks had the ball in overtime and were marching down the field. They had scored a touchdown with 2:09 left in regulation, RECOVERED THE ONSIDE KICK, and then proceeded to score ANOTHER TOUCHDOWN. Once overtime hit, the Packers, who had dominated the line of scrimmage all day, were out of gas and couldn’t compete with Seattle’s momentum and home crowd. The Seahawks got the ball to start overtime, and a few plays later they had won the game. 43 of the 53 players on the Packers’ roster were in Seattle for that NFC championship game. You can bet the slimy taste of defeat still lingers on their tongues.
So, to this point, the Seahawks have controlled the recent series of games between the two teams, winning the last three. But the Packers had two of the three games all but won, and in both cases Seattle relied on Russell’s brilliance and a few lucky breaks to snatch the game from Green Bay’s clutches. The Packers have been so close, but how can they turn the karma and finally win against Wilson’s Seahawks? A look at several of the key matchups and issues heading into Sunday night should shed some light on the question.
Can the Packers slow down Seattle’s running game?
This has been one of the matchups that has defined the recent set of games. Seattle has easily one of the best rushing attacks in the league, and the versatile option-style running game they deploy is one that has given the Packers fits ever since Colin Kaepernick torched them in the 2012 playoffs. Slowing down Seattle’s running game will be imperative to the Packers’ chances on Sunday.
Stopping Marshawn Lynch isn’t really a thing. In fact, tackling him hardly is either. Just ask the Saints. Since his first full season in Seattle, it’s pretty much been a two-man race – between Lynch and Adrian Peterson – for the best running back in football. Lynch breaks tackles with ease, is an underrated receiver and never takes plays off. Off the field “issues” aside, he’s basically the ideal running back.
Beast Mode has averaged about 4.39 yards per carry (YPC) against Green Bay, which is actually below the 4.53 YPC he’s averaged since his first full season in Seattle in 2011 (5.03 in the playoffs). Matt Forte gouged the Packers’ defense last week, going off for 141 yards on 24 carries (6.13 YPC). If the Packers get down early and let Lynch run like that, it could be a long Sunday in Lambeau.
The unfortunate wrinkle in all of this is the season-ending ankle injury Sam Barrington suffered this past week. Barrington showed promise down the stretch of last year, and many were hoping he could be the rangy inside linebacker that the Packers have desperately needed for years. Nate Palmer will still start, and he’s solid, but he doesn’t offer as much speed as Barrington does. Losing Barrington leaves a huge hole at the other inside linebacker spot, with rookie fourth-round pick Jake Ryan next in line. But, Ryan struggled in the preseason and doesn’t seem remotely ready to start in such a big game, so it also means Clay Matthews will probably spend the majority of his time inside.
Matthews is still great inside, and he ended up playing there a decent amount last year, but a position change like that can have rippling effects throughout a defense. Matthews and Julius Peppers form a mean 1-2 outside rushing attack which has now become the strongest part of the Packers’ defense.
Shifting Matthews inside means that Nick Perry, Mike Neal and Jayrone Elliot should be splitting the remaining reps outside. All are solid players to varying degrees (although the Packers are still waiting for Nick Perry to make good on his first-round price tag), but Matthews is an elite pass rusher, and losing that potent attack means Wilson has more time to pick apart an inexperienced Packers secondary.
One plus about Matthews playing inside is that he can essentially act as a spy for either Lynch or Wilson, depending on the situation. Running quarterbacks have run rampant over the Packers’ in recent memory, but Clay is one of the few humans athletic enough to contain Wilson, especially if Mike Daniels and Julius Peppers can create some pressure. St. Louis sacked Russell six times last week and went on to win in overtime. Their defensive line might be the best in the league, but Packers’ defensive coordinator Dom Capers surely took note of how the Rams were able to win that game.
Packers fans can take solace in one of Seattle’s biggest weaknesses: their offensive line. They traded away two-time Pro Bowl center Max Unger in the Jimmy Graham trade, then lost former first-round pick and four-year starting left guard James Carpenter in free agency. They’ve been replaced by a couple of second year fourth-round draft picks with hardly any starting experience. This could be the break the Packers have desperately needed against Seattle. If they can pressure Wilson and get to Lynch before he gets down field, the scale definitely tips in favor of Green Bay. If not, it could be another game of heartbreak for the Packers.
Rodgers vs. The Legion of Boom: Who will come out on top?
On the other side of the ball, things get even more interesting. It’s the best quarterback in the league against the best secondary in the league. Both have dominated their respective positions for years now, and the game could very well come down to this intense battle.
For as good as Rodgers is, it’s pretty obvious that Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and company have won this matchup so far. The two-time MVP has averaged a mere 197 yards per game and a paltry 5.56 yards per pass attempt (compared to 8.2 for his career) in the last three games against Seattle, paired with a 2:3 touchdown:interception ratio. Everyone knows Rodgers is significantly better than these numbers, but Richard Sherman can talk all he wants until he proves it against Seattle.
Obviously, things look a little different this time around. The Packers are without star receiver Jordy Nelson, which undoubtedly changes the scope of the Packers’ offensive scheme. Although it sounds ridiculous, the addition of receiver James Jones has actually helped stopped the bleeding somewhat. He’s not in Nelson’s league as a route-runner or sideline tip-toer, but he has undeniable chemistry with Rodgers and always seems to make an insane catch at the right time. His two touchdown performance last week against Chicago was a positive sign for the Packers offense.
The Seahawks’ secondary looks different as well. Starting cornerback Byron Maxwell is now in Philadelphia, and former Eagle Cary Williams took his spot, an obvious downgrade. More importantly, Pro Bowl safety Kam Chancellor is currently in a contract holdout, and he won’t be suiting up on Sunday. Chancellor hits hard and is versatile enough to make plays in the passing and running game. Look for the Packers to attack Williams and Chancellor’s replacement Dion Bailey. I don’t expect Rodgers to avoid Sherman this time around, but McCarthy is smart enough to attack the non-Pro Bowlers in Seattle’s secondary.
Unfortunately, it just came out that starting right tackle Bryan Bulaga injured his knee in practice Thursday and will subsequently not play this weekend. This is a serious blow to the Packers line, and it now swings the arrow in Seattle’s favor in terms of who will not be on the field. Don Barclay will replace Bulaga, and though he’s solid and has started 18 games over the past few seasons, he’s not in Bulaga’s league as a pass-protector and he struggled in the preseason.
Barclay will be matched up against Michael Bennett, a phenomenal pass rusher. This isn’t the end of the world for Green Bay, but it’s a significant blow. Look for the Rodgers to try and get the ball out quickly, especially to start the game, so that he can get in a rhythm and keep Bennett’s pressure at bay. Rodgers’ brilliance will again be put to the test.
Finally, for the first time in this matchup, the Packers get to play the Seahawks within the comfortable confines of Lambeau Field. As mentioned above, Russell and the 12th Man are practically unbeatable at home. Similarly, the Packers know how to win in Green Bay. The Packers went 9-0 at Lambeau last year, including last year’s playoff win against Dallas.
Over his regular season career Rodgers is 45-10 at home, with an insane 122:12 TD:INT ratio. In fact, Rodgers hasn’t thrown an interception in Green Bay since week 13 of 2012. Heck, Favre last did it in 2010. If Rodgers can keep the streak going, it will go a long way towards the Packers winning Sunday night.
I know that’s a lot to digest. Bottom line, this should be a phenomenal game, between possibly the two best teams in the NFL, one that could have serious playoff implications down the line. The Packers go in knowing they’re finally on the right side of the roars from the crowd, and they have a serious chip on their shoulder.
Based on their last meeting alone, it’s impossible to really know what will play out on Sunday. Expect both coaches to throw out a few tricks to try and tip the scale in their favor. I might be biased, but I trust Rodgers to finally beat Seattle with the support of his home crowd; Mason Crosby hits the game winner.
Final Prediction: Green Bay 23, Seattle 20
Pro Football Reference