Packers vs. Seahawks NFC Championship Preview: Strength Against Strength
When the NFL opened up the season on a Thursday night in early September, perhaps it knew that the teams playing in the game -- the defending Super Bowl Champion Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers -- might be meeting again a few months later in the NFC Championship game.
The Seahawks won that game handily, by a score of 36-16, behind Marshawn Lynch's 110 rushing yards and 2 touchdowns and the typical efficient game from quarterback Russell Wilson, who threw for 2 touchdowns and 191 yards and rushed for 29 yards on seven carries.
Further, the vaunted Seahawks defense held MVP candidate Aaron Rodgers to 189 yards passing with a touchdown, when the game was effectively decided, and an interception. Star running back Eddie Lacy was also held to 45 total yards.
There were two main storylines for the game, one which still can play into this week's NFC Championship tilt and one that definitely will not.
The one that will not repeat was the opening week of the since-jettisoned Percy Harvin, who had 7 receptions for 59 yards and 4 carries for 41 yards in the opener. Harvin, of course, got traded to the Jets midseason due to his negative impact on the Seahawks' locker room. The other storyline figures to factor deeply into the success or lack thereof in Green Bay's passing game this week.
Will Rodgers Challenge Richard Sherman?
The opening week storyline that figures to factor most into this week's playoff game is whether or not Rodgers will throw at or challenge all-world cornerback Richard Sherman. In Week 1, the Packers thought there was a possibility of Sherman's moving from his typical post on the left side of the field to shadow Packers number-one wide receiver Jordy Nelson.
That didn't happen, and consequently, Sherman did not have a pass thrown in his direction against then number-three wide receiver Jarrett Boykin. Nelson ended up with 9 receptions for 83 yards, and slot receiver extraordinaire Randall Cobb was held to 6 receptions for 58 yards, including a late touchdown. However, in spite of those statistics, all of the receptions were of the short play variety as a 23-yard reception by Cobb was the longest play from scrimmage for the Packers in the game.
This week, the rhetoric and mutual admiration that Rodgers and Sherman have voiced for one another seem to indicate that Rodgers is not afraid to take shots at Sherman. This would at least open up the other half of the field for the Packers' passing game.
When the Packers Have the Ball
According to our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, Rodgers and the Packers were good. In fact, in terms of Adjusted Passing NEP -- which is adjusted for schedule strength -- Green Bay was the best passing team in the NFL this year. In simple terms, the Green Bay passing offense added 164.93 points for their team during the regular season -- more than 10 points per game better relative to an average team.
They certainly didn't get that distinction by lacking creativity, which may be exactly what they need to do against the Seahawks to be successful this week.
In light of how good the Seahawks secondary is, Rodgers' calf injury, and the fact that ball-hawking safeties Kam Chancellor (who had a 90-yard interception return for a touchdown and 11 tackles against Carolina last week) and Earl Thomas (11 tackles and 2 passes defended last week) are constantly causing havoc and hitting hard, look for head coach Mike McCarthy to get creative with how the Packers get their playmakers the ball.
In the game against the Dallas Cowboys last week, with Rodgers in the shotgun due to the calf injury, the Packers used Cobb all over the field, including in the backfield, to create mismatches. In turn, Cobb had 8 receptions for 116 yards on 11 targets, including the game-clincher. Additionally, rookie number-three wide receiver Davante Adams showed the ability to make defenders miss and had 7 receptions for 117 yards and a 46 yard touchdown, which helped to offset Nelson's 2-catch, 22-yard performance.
The best plan for Green Bay's passing attack may be to exploit whomever Seahawks defensive back Tharold Simon is covering, as Carolina racked up 10 receptions for 114 yards and 2 touchdowns on Simon's coverage. While starting right cornerback Byron Maxwell figures to be back from illness, Simon still should see action when the Packers go three- or four-wide.
Last week, the Packers also used a healthy dose of Lacy, who had 19 totes for 101 yards against the Cowboys. Considering that Jonathan Stewart averaged 5.4 yards per carry against the Seahawks last week, look for the Packers to remain more committed to the run than they were in Week 1 as well. Lacy has factored into the passing game on screens frequently this season for Green Bay, and he finished third among running backs with a Reception NEP of 34.56. Either way, the Packers will need to be creative to succeed against the Seahawks third-ranked pass defense and fifth-ranked run defense, according to our metrics.
Run Him Until He....
The 2014 Seahawks are best known for their ability to run the football, and Seattle fans are thankful (see what I did here?) for the Lynch(pin) behind those rushing efforts. The eccentric Lynch -- who uses Skittles as antacid, likes to grab his privates, and doesn't like to talk to the media -- finished first among all running backs in Rushing NEP (27.34) this year.
Given that the Packers are ranked 22nd in Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP, Lynch's Week 1 success, and the fact that DeMarco Murray gashed the Green Bay front-seven for 123 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries last week in Lambeau, the Seahawks' best recipe for keeping Rodgers off the field is to feed "Beast Mode," who may need the Skittles to settle his stomach after the Seahawks keep running him. Lynch also caught the ball well this season, finishing with the 16th ranked Reception NEP among running backs.
Another significant factor in the running game for the Seahawks is quarterback Russell Wilson, whose Rushing NEP of 60.50 was historically good. Wilson's ability to run the football (118 carries for 849 yards and six rushing touchdowns) in 2014 figures to cause the Packers defense to flashback to a recent game in playoff history where a nimble-footed quarterback ran all over them (more on that in a bit).
Don't You....Forget About Me
While the identity of the Seahawks is on the ground with Lynch's rumbles pumping up the raucous crowd at Century Link and Wilson's making plays with his legs, last week's narrative against Carolina was markedly different. Lynch struggled somewhat on the ground, and Wilson threw for 268 yards and 3 scores with a quarterback rating of 149.2.
The Seahawks wide receivers have been criticized by multiple media outlets in the past (ESPN for one called the corps "appetizers"), noting that they are not capable of making big plays. However, last week, Jermaine Kearse had 3 catches for 129 yards and a 63-yard. one-handed touchdown catch, making it three straight playoff games with a touchdown for him. Additionally, Doug Baldwin and Wilson hooked up on a pretty rainbow touchdown early in the first quarter.
While these receivers didn't do much against the Packers in Week 1, they certainly play with a chip on their shoulders, as Baldwin's comments seem to indicate. The success of this group against the Packers' 15th-ranked Adjusted Passing NEP defense will be a key to the game one way or another.
Quarterback Splits: Double-Check or Double-Take?
One of the most unique aspects of this matchup is that both Rodgers and Wilson from a statistics perspective, would prefer this game to be at Lambeau Field. The splits for Rodgers on the road and Wilson at home are significantly worse than when Rodgers is at Lambeau and Wilson is on the road (with the exception of Wilson's record):
The narrative seems to be that, at home, Wilson is more of a game manager who seems to have a hard time getting settled into a rhythm until the second half. To that end, at home, he is a quarterback who relies on Lynch and his defense to win games and the Seahawks went 7-1 at home behind that formula this season. As for Rodgers, he plays well in both scenarios, but he makes mistakes every now and then on the road and lacks the explosiveness he has at home, evidenced by his yards per attempt average.
What Does History Tell Us About This Game?
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