NFL Playoff Preview - Green Bay (13-4) at Seattle (13-4)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll knows about life in the NFL from other stints around the league. He just wasn't used to having so much success.
Carroll struggled as head coach of the New York Jets and New England Patriots in the 1990s, and now his Seahawks are on the doorstep of a second straight Super Bowl appearance.
Standing in the way of Seattle's date with destiny are the Green Bay Packers, who will visit a boisterous CenturyLink Field Sunday afternoon in the NFC Championship Game. The Pacific Northwest has been a place where opposing teams come to die and the Seahawks were 7-1 there in the regular season.
The Seahawks face a big challenge versus quarterback Aaron Rodgers and a potent Packers offense.
"Everybody is looking forward to the preparation and getting ready for obviously a fantastic football team," Carroll said of Green Bay. "Mike (McCarthy) has done a great job with this team for years. They've always been in the hunt for being a championship team and here they are again. And it's no surprise."
Carroll said the experience in the Emerald City has been "amazing" with a whole perspective and culture within the franchise. He admitted he never thought he could top the success he achieved at the college ranks.
"I thought I could never top what had happened at SC," Carroll said. "What we're in the middle of right now and the youth and the connection we have with our following is so special that this is as good as it gets. So I'm thrilled about it."
It helps to have such a loyal fan base and talented players. The Seahawks are 25-2 at home, including the playoffs, over the past three seasons and are unbeaten in the previous eight postseason games as the host. They are currently riding a seven-game winning streak in which they've outscored opponents by a lopsided 165-56 margin (102-20 in second half).
Seattle, which is the No. 1 seed in the NFC for a second straight season, opened its playoff run with last weekend's 31-17 rout of the Carolina Panthers. Russell Wilson passed for 268 yards with a touchdown pass to Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse and Luke Willson, while Marshawn Lynch ran for 59 yards on 14 carries.
Wilson knows what he'll be up against versus the Pacers.
"It's going to be one for the ages," said Wilson, who is 5-1 in the postseason with a 109.6 passer rating.
The NFC West-champion Seahawks (13-4) haven't lost since Nov. 16 at Kansas City and hope to eventually become the eighth different team to win back-to back Super Bowl, joining New England, Denver, Dallas, San Francisco, Pittsburgh (twice), Miami and Green Bay. The Patriots were the last team to accomplish the feat in Super Bowl XXXVIII and XXXIX.
"It's exciting but the job's not done," Wilson said. "We're on one mission. You just have to take it one game at a time. Our goal is to go 1-0."
Wilson hopes to have center Max Unger back Sunday. He left Saturday's win over the Panthers with an ankle injury and missed the final six regular season games. Carroll said Unger "felt pretty good the next day and looks to be OK."
The Packers (13-4) recorded their fourth straight NFC North title in the regular season and went 9-0 at Lambeau Field, including last Sunday's 26-21 victory over the Dallas Cowboys.
Green Bay punched its ticket to the conference title game for the first time since winning it all back in 2010 and Rodgers shook off a gimpy left calf to throw for 316 yards and three touchdowns. The PFWA's NFL MVP completed 24- of-35 passing and still extended plays on basically one leg.
Rodgers was asked how much more can the injured calf take.
"I think I've got 120 minutes left in me so I'm going to do everything I can to play all of those minutes," Rodgers said.
He added the leg felt worse after beating Dallas and will face a tough, gritty Seattle defense.
"You've just got to be efficient against them, which is tough because they take away just about everything you do. It's not an intricate scheme, but it doesn't have to be when you have those kinds of players," said Rodgers, who has a 105.3 passer rating in the playoffs.
The Packers, who benefited from an overturned call on a catch by Dez Bryant near the goal line, are 31-19 in postseason play and have reached the playoffs seven times in the last nine years under McCarthy. They are 8-1 over the last nine games and have won 12 of the last 14 games since Rodgers told the fan base to relax following a 1-2 start to the campaign.
One of those two losses for the Packers came in Seattle on Sept. 4. The Seahawks crushed Green Bay, 36-16, and were led by Lynch's 110 yards and two TDs on 20 carries. Wilson needed to pass for only 191 yards and collected a pair of touchdown strikes with no interceptions. He is 2-0 against Green Bay.
Rodgers threw for 189 yards with a TD and an interception. McCarthy believes his team improved significantly from that Week 1 loss.
"We've improved as a whole offense. We've scored a few points this year," McCarthy said. "They have a great defense. We recognize that and look forward to the challenge."
Green Bay, which went 2-2 in its last four road games, will meet Seattle for the third time in the postseason and has won the previous two matchups, including a 42-20 rout at Lambeau Field on Jan. 12, 2008. The Packers lead the all-time series with the Seahawks, 10-7, and are 3-2 in NFC Championships. The Packers have won the last two they played on the road and are tied with Baltimore for the most road wins in postseason history (10).
There have been seven consecutive NFC Championship Games decided by seven points or fewer, the longest streak in conference championship game history.
Seattle is vying to become the 12th team in NFL history to reach the Super Bowl after winning it the previous season.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
If Rodgers didn't have an issue with his calf, the Seahawks would be in trouble on their own turf. It doesn't matter what the decibel level is during the game because Rodgers is coming to play bum leg or not.
Sherman doesn't feel Rodgers' calf injury will be a factor.
"Not much. Doesn't take away much. That was evident the last game," Sherman said. "In the last game, he puts that zip on the ball. He has quick wrist release anyway. He doesn't always have to drive through his throws to get them where he wants them."
Rodgers was visibly in pain versus the Cowboys and was still able to make plays with his feet when he needed to. Dallas' defense doesn't have as much talent as Seattle's and allowed two 100-yard receivers in Davante Adams (117 yards, TD) and Randall Cobb (116 yards). Jordy Nelson wasn't much of a factor with two catches for 22 yards. Just don't sleep on him, Seattle.
Rodgers has thrown for 1,470 yards with 12 TD strikes, four INTs and a 108.2 QB rating on the road in the postseason.
The Packers' receivers will face Seahawks talkative cornerback Richard Sherman, who had an interception last week versus Carolina. Safety Kam Chancellor also recorded an interception of Cam Newton and returned it 90 yards for a touchdown. Sherman and free safety Earl Thomas were named to the NFL's All-Pro team.
Seattle hopes starting cornerback Byron Maxwell will be able to go at full speed and was sidelined through portions of the Carolina win because of shortness of breath. Second-year cornerback Tharold Simon got the start opposite of Sherman and will do so again if Maxwell can't go.
"He was real sick," Carroll said. "He's had a history of some chest stuff. He's had pneumonia before and all that. So he was uncomfortable and he couldn't catch his breath in normal fashion. He could play a play, but he didn't know if he could play a sequence."
Carroll is hoping to get one of his top defenders back Sunday.
The Seahawks paced the NFL in points allowed (15.9), total defense (267.1) and pass defense (185.6). Michael Bennett led the defense with seven sacks and linebacker Bruce Irvin had 6 1/2. Linebacker K.J. Wright posted a team-high 107 tackles in the regular season and LB Bobby Wagner had 104.
"We're playing for each other," Sherman said. "That's been the biggest thing. Guys are doing whatever it takes to win. Guys are playing for one another, they don't care about stats. Championships are won in the playoffs."
Green Bay's defense should take a page out of Dallas' scheme from a 30-23 win at Seattle on Oct. 12. Wilson passed for only 126 yards with no touchdowns and an interception, and Lynch was limited to 61 yards on 10 carries. Lynch, who's a threat catching passes in the flats, has only one 100-yard rushing game in his last five contests.
Lynch ran for 1,306 yards and 13 TDs in the regular season for the Seahawks, who led the NFL is rushing offense with 172.6 ypg. Lynch had no problem against the Packers in Week 1, but things are different at this juncture, especially with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. The one known by the nickname "Beastmode" has six rushing touchdowns in the past six postseason games and four rushing scores in four playoff games in Seattle.
Over the last eight games of the regular season, Green Bay's defense ranked in the top 10 in rushing yards allowed (691), rushing average (3.60) and rushing touchdowns (two). Packers linebackers Clay Matthews and A.J. Hawk, and safeties Morgan Burnett and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix should be flying around the football.
"Yeah, you have to always be aware of Clay. He's moving around, playing defensive end and outside linebacker and middle linebacker, all over the field," Wilson said. "One of the best players in the National Football League. You have to be aware for where he is. And he's got tons of talent. It's going to be a great matchup going up against him."
Cornerbacks Sam Shields and Tramon Williams aren't facing a dangerous wide receiver core, but can't take the foot off the pedal against Baldwin and Kearse. Shields has four INTs in his last seven playoff games and Williams owns four picks over his previous nine postseason appearances. If the front line can get pressure up front, Shields and Williams will be in better position to create turnovers.
Packers running back Eddie Lacy can bring the pain similar to Lynch and ran for 101 yards on 19 touches versus the Cowboys. It was his 10th consecutive game with at least 100 scrimmage yards, a team record. Sunday's win over Dallas marked the first playoff game in franchise history in which the Packers had a 300-yard passer, a 100-yard rusher and two 100-yard receivers.
But there's still work to be done.
"We understand the job's not done," Packers guard T.J. Lang said. "Our expectation is to win a championship. Our goal is to go a lot deeper than the NFC Championship Game. Going up to Seattle, it's going to be a good matchup and we're excited about it. It's going to be a tough one, we understand that, but we'll be ready for the challenge."
With how well both defenses have been playing, look for the special teams units to put the offense in the best position to win. FBS champion Ohio State proved Monday that turning the ball over doesn't necessarily signify a death knell, but that usually doesn't translate at the NFL level.
It's only fitting Seattle and Green Bay kicked off the regular season and will cross paths again with a trip to Super Bowl XLIX on the line.
Rodgers may have 120 minutes left in that balky left calf and won't have to worry about the remaining 60 because Seattle's going back to the Super Bowl.
"We've had the opportunity to really experience the best of the NFL," Carroll said. "Our guys are really getting a full experience of it and it's wonderful to see these guys grow up and find out what this thing is all about. It's about the hard work and the sacrifice and the giving to one another and what you can get out of that when you really give of yourself.
"This has been a wonderful experience for all of us. I'm thrilled to be part of it."
Seattle's 12th man, the defense and Wilson are ready to do their part and help this wonderful experience reach new heights. Raising the George Halas Trophy as NFC champions will put the Seahawks that much closer.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Seahawks 27, Packers 20
01/18 10:46:45 ET