When: 3:05 p.m. ET Sunday Where: CenturyLink Field, Seattle TV Network: Fox
It's no surprise these two teams reached the NFC Championship Game, but the way they got here was a rocky road.
The Packers were 1-2 out of the gate when quarterback Aaron Rodgers told everyone, “Relax.” The Seahawks fell to 3-3 two days after trading Percy Harvin and were 6-4 before running the table down the stretch.
So here they are, two teams that overcame adversity to play for a trip to the Super Bowl. Packers reporter Rob Demovsky and Seahawks reporter Terry Blount explain how these teams made it happen and their chances of making it to Arizona.
Blount: Rob, that first game of the season seems like a lifetime ago. The obvious first question is how different are the Packers now, compared to the team that played in Seattle back in September and lost 36-16?
Demovsky: It does seem like a long time ago, Terry, but I also think that many of us -- myself included -- thought that might have been an NFC Championship Game preview. But you might not even recognize the defense the Packers are bringing to Seattle this time. I know we'll get into Clay Matthews' role later, but his position change is a big part of what they're doing differently. They had no idea how to stop the run in Week 1 -- or really the entire first half of the season. They're a much better run-stopping outfit right now. Offensively, the team they took to Seattle was basically just Aaron Rodgers, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. Now they have rookies Davante Adams and Richard Rodgers, who have contributed at times, though not consistently. Plus, the offensive line continuity is much better after having the same group together for all but one game.
I'm sure the Seahawks are much different too. Obviously, they don't have Percy Harvin, but what else is different?
Blount: In a word, attitude. They got their swagger back after the Harvin trade and found themselves by going back to the physical, power-running offense they were last season. That offense runs the read-option to perfection with Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch. When the team was 6-4, they held a meeting and decided to throw caution to the wind, play aggressively and take chances, believing in the ability of each man to do his job and not looking over their shoulders. It worked. Their talent level started to show again, with guys consistently making big plays at key moments, such as Kam Chancellor's 90-yard pick-six last week.
Rodgers had his Willis Reed moment on Sunday, in throwing for three TDs and more than 300 yards on one good leg. It was obvious to everyone that he was limping and limited, yet he played an incredible second half. Do you think his leg situation will be the same Sunday, and can he be that effective against a much better and faster defense in the Seahawks?
Demovsky: His first Willis Reed moment -- and you'd be amazed at how many guys in the Packers' locker room had no idea who Willis Reed is -- came in the regular-season finale against the Lions, when he came out of the locker room after missing two series and led them to a victory. What he did against the Cowboys was downright gritty. You could tell he was limited and hurting, yet he still made one of the best throws he's ever made -- a 13-yard rocket for a touchdown to Richard Rodgers that was the game winner. His calf will continue to be a concern and will still limit him, but the fact that he got through the Cowboys game without experiencing a significant setback should allow him to be a bit more mobile and in less pain against the Seahawks.
I remember asking you before the opener how much more you thought the Seahawks would put on Wilson's shoulders this season. Did that happen?
Blount: Absolutely, especially after they jettisoned Harvin. The Seahawks had revamped the offense to center around Harvin, and it didn't work. His attitude was a big issue. Once he left, it became more about Wilson utilizing Lynch and improvising on the run when he needed to. Wilson has full authority to change any play at the line when he recognizes a defensive scheme he can exploit, which happens more than most people realize. Make no mistake, this is Wilson's offense now. His uncanny ability to make the right decision at key moments is something you can't teach. And he does it better than any QB I've ever seen.
The Packers made a decision to move linebacker Clay Matthews inside most of the time. That isn't a move I would have expected for one of the game's best edge rushers, but it certainly seemed to work. Why did they do it, and how effective has he been?
Demovsky: All you had to do was look at their defensive rankings to see they needed to do something. They were dead last in the NFL in rushing defense through eight games. They had just come off a 21-point blowout loss at the New Orleans Saints, and they allowed Mark Ingram -- yes, Mark Ingram -- to rush for 172 yards. Part of the solution was moving Matthews. You could tell he wasn't crazy about it at first -- and he still might not be because he loves to pile up sacks -- but he's always been an underrated run defender. It's still probably a short-term solution, but it's one that has worked.
There are so many reasons there hasn't been a repeat Super Bowl champion since the Patriots did it a decade ago. Why might the Seahawks be able to break that drought?
Blount: Three main reasons. First is that most of their key players from the past season were very young (Wilson, Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman, Doug Baldwin, Bobby Wagner, Jermaine Kearse, Bruce Irvin, etc.), one of the youngest Super Bowl teams ever. Of course those guys were only going to get better. Second, they lost 11 players who had a total of 58 years of experience, but young players stepped up in the second half of the season -- defensive tackle Jordan Hill, cornerback Tharold Simon, rookie receiver Paul Richardson, center Patrick Lewis, to name a few. Hill and Richardson are out now, but they made a difference. And third, they rallied around each other after the Harvin trade and took an us-against-the-world attitude when almost everyone wrote them off. This team is at its best when it feels people doubt it.
Other than Rodgers, who would you say is the one player who must step up for the Packers to win this game?
Demovsky: If they can get a performance like they did from Adams (seven catches for 117 yards against the Cowboys), it would certainly help their chances. It doesn't have to be Adams, but they can't go into this game counting on Cobb and Nelson to carry the load. If Eddie Lacy can run for 100 yards, they have a better chance to win. If their tight ends can catch a touchdown pass or make some big third-down conversions, they have a better chance to win. Defensively, if they can get someone to do what Julius Peppers did (two forced fumbles against the Cowboys), they have a better chance to win.
What about for the Seahawks -- other than Marshawn Lynch, whom we all expect to have a big game?
Blount: I'll stay away from the obvious one in Wilson, of course, and pick some guys people outside of Seattle might not expect. One is linebacker Bruce Irvin, who is having his best season. He might be the best all-around athlete on the team, but now he has learned the linebacker spot to the point that he can utilize his athletic skills to perfection. On offense, I would say tight end Luke Willson, who really has come into his own the past few weeks and is playing at a level worthy of the top tight ends in the league.
Rob, the quickest way to get any of the Seahawks to roll their eyes is to ask them about the “Fail Mary” pass of three seasons ago. They couldn't care less about that now, but do Packers fans still talk about it and hope for a get-even moment?
Demovsky: People around here don't seem to like Pete Carroll much because of it. Most of those who don't like him think he didn't handle it with great sportsmanship. But as far as the players and coaches go, I don't think it still stings much. When I was reporting on it this past summer for our “Moment in Time” piece that ran before the opener, I was surprised by how openly and matter-of-factly most of them talked about it. They know they were a part of history, even if it was bad history, as far as they were concerned. But I'm sure fans want the Seahawks to lose a little bit more because of it.
Plenty of people back here wonder if someday Seahawks general manager John Schneider might want to come back to his hometown and run the Packers' personnel department. What do you think would prevent him from doing so?
Blount: This is a great question. I know John and his wife, Traci, love it here and have become a big part of the community. They started Ben's Fund here, the charity in their son's name that raises money for families with autistic children. Ben, who now is 12, was diagnosed with autism before he was 2. I'm sure returning to the Packers has sentimental appeal to John, but I don't see that happening anytime soon. For one thing, he is going to ride this wave of success and enjoy it. I don't think he would consider leaving as long as Pete Carroll remains the head coach. They are extremely close and truly believe they wouldn't be where they are without each other. However, when the day comes that Carroll retires, John might consider a new challenge back where it all started for him.