NFC Championship Game Preview

Eric Ting, Staff Writer

The last seven NFC Championship games have been decided by seven points or less, and expect another nail-biter on Sunday. The Packers again travel to Seattle, looking to avenge a forgettable 36-16 loss to the Seahawks on opening night. Seattle has lost a grand total of two games at Centurylink Field in the last three seasons, so Green Bay will have their hands full.

Seattle Offense vs. Green Bay Defense

In those two losses Seattle home losses, (The Arizona Cardinals won 17-10 in 2013 and the Dallas Cowboys won 30-23 in Week Five of this season) Russell Wilson played some of the worst football of his career. He posted passer ratings of 47.6 and 49.6, good for two of the worst four games of his career (The other two came in road games early in his rookie season.) In addition to neutralizing Wilson, running back Marshawn Lynch failed to hit the 80 yard rushing mark in both of those games. What was the key to the Cardinals’ and Cowboy’s success defensively? They stopped the run and used a disciplined pass rush with tight coverage on Seattle’s unspectacular receiving core. So much of Seattle’s passing game comes from Russell Wilson scrambles or quick screens that come in 5-10 yard increments. As a pass rusher facing Russell Wilson, it’s not as much about getting home as it his keeping him in the pocket. The Packers’ edge rushers can’t allow themselves to get too deep, or Wilson will escape through the hole that opens up as a result.

Seattle’s leading receivers are Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse, who are second or third options in the NFL at best. One thing they can do well is use their their speed to improvise once a play breaks down. If Wilson escapes the pocket, Baldwin and Kearse routinely find a way to work back to a scrambling Wilson and make the drive saving catch. The Packers boast a great group of pass rushers in Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers, Mike Daniels, Datone Jones, Mike Neal and Nick Perry. They got four sacks on Tony Romo last week and they’ll get their sacks on Wilson against a shaky Seahawks’ offensive line. They need to stay disciplined in order to keep Wilson in the pocket. Another thing Seattle’s receivers do well is block for the quick screen game. Arizona and Dallas took it away by playing tough on the perimeter with their corners and using fast rangy linebackers to run them down. Tramon Williams and Sam Shields are solid physical corners for Green Bay, and shifting Clay Matthews to inside linebacker at times has helped not only the Packers’ run defense, but provides the aforementioned rangy linebacker to help in the screen game.

The Packers should hold their own in defending the passing game if they stay disciplined up front and physical in the back end, but stopping Marshawn Lynch is a completely different problem. Lynch ran for 110 yards and two touchdowns earlier this season, but this is a different Green Bay unit up front. After a 44-23 drubbing by the Saints in Week Eight, the Packers rush defense ranked last in the NFL. Since then they’ve used Clay Matthews more at inside linebacker, and gave second year linebacker Sam Barrington more playing time where he has become an important player for them. Since then, they’ve ranked 5th in the NFL in rush defense, and 10th in the NFL in total points allowed. This is a defensive unit reborn for Green Bay, and they’re ready to show Seattle and the rest of the league that this defense is ready to be taken seriously again.

Advantage: Green Bay

Green Bay Offense vs Seattle Defense

Seattle’s defense has ranked first in the NFL in scoring defense for the past three seasons, something that hasn’t been done since the 1969-71 Minnesota Vikings. What makes them so good? A consistent pass rush, athletic linebackers, and a good combination of size, speed and instinct in the secondary. I would like to point out however, that Seattle’s defense this season isn’t as good as it was last season. Why? It all starts up front. Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett, Tony McDaniel, Red Bryant, Chris Clemons, Clinton McDonald and Brandon Mebane were standout defensive linemen who made the Seahawks tough to run on and provided one of the most feared pass rushes in the NFL last season. As of now, only Avril, Bennett and McDaniel remain, as the rest departed in the offseason with the exception of Mebane, who is on injured reserve with a leg injury. The drop-off in the last two years pops right off the paper. Last season, the Seahawks ranked eighth in the NFL with 44 sacks, but this season have plummeted to 20th with 37. They also lose size up front, as it appears easier to run on Seattle than in years past.

It is quite simple: If Aaron Rodgers’ calf is not at least at 80%, the Packers will lose. He threw for 316 yards and three touchdowns essentially on one leg last week against the Cowboys, but will need the other leg to be successful in this one. Tackles Bryan Bulaga and David Bakhtiari will have their hands full with Bennett and Avril, and Rodgers will need the extra mobility to escape the pocket and extend plays. The weakened Seattle pass rush should Rodgers in that department. Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and the emerging Davante Adams will (dare I say it) have success against the (overhyped) Legion of Boom. Richard Sherman has struggled to defend smaller, faster wide receivers, as O’Dell Beckham and Keenan Allen gave him issues earlier this season. Cobb got open against Sherman on opening night, but Rodgers didn’t throw the ball at Sherman once in the entire game. Sherman is a good corner, but he has his weaknesses, and Cobb should bring attention to them. On the other side, Byron Maxwell is mediocre at best, and after not playing last week against Carolina we saw what Seattle has behind him. Reserve corners Tharold Simon and Jeremy Lane were picked on by Cam Newton and a subpar receiving core, completing all ten of their attempts on a corner not named not named Richard Sherman for 114 yards and two touchdowns, so be wary of what the Packers can do on that side regardless of whether Maxwell is in the game or not.

One part of the Legion of Boom that isn’t overhyped: their safety combination. Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor are polar opposites in almost every way possible, but they share killer instincts and a certain toughness that goes unparalleled in the NFL. They each have the anticipation and football IQ coaches drool over, and Rodgers should be limited in the amount of deep shots he takes over the middle. Green Bay will have success in the passing game, but need to lean on a strong running game to keep Seattle guessing. In the Seahawks’ home losses to the Cowboys and Cardinals, each team established the ground game and kept the Seattle defense on their heels. Eddie Lacy will find holes in the Seahawks’ front seven, and take pressure off of the hobbled Aaron Rodgers.

Advantage: Green Bay

The game could very well come down to whether Rodgers’ calf holds up. If it does, Seattle is going to be in trouble. Rodgers is the best pure passer in the NFL right now, and will expose the weakened Seahawks defense if healthy. On the other side of the ball, Green Bay’s new look defense will do just enough to earn the Packers a birth to Super Bowl 49.

Prediction: Packers 27, Seahawks 20