NFC Q&A: Packers face tough road

CenturyLink Field has been a house of horrors for the Green Bay Packers.

In 2012, the Packers lost the Fail Mary game in which replacement referee Lance Easley ruled a Seattle touchdown on a last-second pass caught simultaneously by Packers safety M.D. Jennings and Seahawks receiver Golden Tate. That win signaled the beginning of Pete Carroll's budding dynasty. The 2014 season opened with the Packers being blown out by the Seahawks 36-16 at CenturyLink.

Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy used the entire offseason to try pushing the Packers to the level of the defending Super Bowl champions. The Packers weren't there in September. Are they there in January? McCarthy has a week to prepare for a team playing some of the best defense in NFL history.

The NFC Championship Game will be a test for the Packers and a test for history. If the Packers pull off the upset, McCarthy will have closed a gap against Seattle that has developed since 2012. A win by the Seahawks, meanwhile, will put them in position to become the eighth franchise to win back-to-back Super Bowls.

For the Packers, this won't be easy.

Here are the key 10 questions about the NFC Championship Game.

1. What's Aaron Rodgers' injury status? He will play, but his health might not be much better than it was heading into the Packers' win over the Cowboys. In fact, Rodgers said the calf felt a little worse after the game. It's my estimation we are seeing 70 percent of Rodgers. But 70 percent of Rodgers was good enough to eke out a 26-21 victory over Dallas. Rodgers has a partially torn left calf muscle, an injury that leaves the muscle tight and makes it difficult to run. Rodgers, who first hurt his calf in the regular-season finale against the Lions, said this is an injury that takes at least two months to heal and that he probably won't practice much this week.

Expect Rodgers to work mainly out of shotgun and pistol formations, like he did in the Cowboys game. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Rodgers ran every play out of the shotgun or pistol except for the Packers' three kneel downs. He completed 24 of 35 passes for 316 yards and three touchdowns, but he clearly was limited by the injury.

2. Will Rodgers throw at Richard Sherman? You have to think Rodgers will try a couple of passes toward the Seahawks' star cornerback. In the season opener, Rodgers stayed away from Sherman's side of the field and threw for only 189 yards. One of the surprising parts of the Seahawks' divisional victory over Carolina is that Panthers quarterback Cam Newton tried three long passes on Sherman. Sherman intercepted one, and another was almost picked off. Only 34 passes were completed on Sherman this season, but it's hard to imagine Rodgers won't test him.

3. Did Seattle want to play Dallas or Green Bay? Even though the Seahawks match up better against the Packers, they may have wanted a chance to get back at the Cowboys for beating them in Seattle this year. But in end, the Seahawks really don't care. This is an extremely focused team that concentrates more on its game than worrying about opponents.

Because the Packers are light on the defensive line, a running team such as the Seahawks can take advantage of them. The Seahawks rushed for 207 yards in the opener. The Packers have an excellent running attack, but sometimes they get out of the running mindset. The fact that Rodgers' mobility will be limited also favors the Seahawks.

4. What are the injury concerns other than Rodgers? The Seahawks lost wide receiver Paul Richardson because of an ACL tear. Center Max Unger re-injured his ankle, and his status is uncertain. Unger is an important part of the Seahawks' offensive line. According to ESPN Stats & Information data, Marshawn Lynch averaged 5.1 yards per carry (2.8 before contact) when Unger was on the field and 4.4 yards (1.7 before contact) when he Unger was out. Patrick Lewis would start if Unger can't play. The Seahawks have used four different starting centers this season.

Seahawks backup safety Jeron Johnson probably won't be available because of a dislocated elbow. Seahawks starting cornerback Byron Maxwell missed the Carolina game because of a breathing problem after suffering an illness. He is expected to be back. The Packers don't have any significant injuries other than Rodgers.

5. Will the Packers be facing a different Seahawks offense? The Seahawks struggled a bit finding their offensive identity earlier in the season. They were getting away from the running offense, instead trying to placate receiver Percy Harvin with bubble screens and running plays. The situation blew up when Harvin, according to sources, didn't want to play the final series of the Dallas game. He then was traded to the New York Jets.

Since the trade, the Seahawks have gone back to relying on Lynch and trying quicker passes in the pocket from Russell Wilson. Wilson's improvements in the pocket enabled him to go 8-for-8 for 199 yards and three touchdowns on third-down passes against Carolina.

6. What matchup favors the Packers? Green Bay's cornerbacks have an advantage over Seattle's wide receivers. When Richardson went down, the Seahawks were left with four active receivers -- all undrafted. The Seahawks started Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse, who were backed up by Bryan Walters and Ricardo Lockette. The Packers start two undrafted cornerbacks -- Sam Shields and Tramon Williams -- but they now are among the highest-paid players at the position in the league. "It's not how you start a career, it's how you finish,'' Baldwin said of undrafted players.

The Richardson injury will give fellow rookie Kevin Norwood, a fourth-rounder, a chance to play. He was inactive Saturday. At 6-foot-2, Norwood is a tall target who might help Wilson, but most of the receiving work will be done by undrafted players.

7. Which player will be under the most pressure? Packers running back Eddie Lacy. Lacy finished with 12 carries for 34 yards against Seattle in the opener. He came up big against the Cowboys, finishing with 101 yards on 19 carries. He missed some time in the first half because of asthma. In the second half, he had 53 yards on 10 carries. If the Packers have any hope of winning, McCarthy can't get away from calling running plays and Lacy has to deliver.

8. When does Lynch cause the most problems? The Packers have to be wary of how Lynch can go Beast Mode in the third quarter. He was second only to Dallas' DeMarco Murray in third-quarter rushing. Including the playoffs, Lynch has 82 carries for 454 yards -- a staggering 5.5-yard average -- in the third quarter. The Seahawks usually start slowly on offense but take control in second half, in part because of the run.

9. What's the biggest key for Rodgers? Because of his limited mobility, Rodgers has to have great pass-blocking. He thanked his offensive line after Sunday's game because it saved him. He was sacked once and hit on only two other plays. According to ESPN Stats & Information tracking, the Cowboys had three pressures on five first-half blitzes, but blitzed only two times in the second half. The Seahawks usually don't blitz. Carroll goes with four-man pressures.

Even though their sack numbers are down, the Seahawks do a great job with four-man pressure. Michael Bennett is a master of pressuring the quarterback. Defensive end Cliff Avril is dangerous rushing from right end. Rodgers also has to watch for Bruce Irvin, the strongside linebacker who puts his hand on the ground and rushes from end on passing downs. When healthy, Rodgers' mobility helps him avoid sacks. In the NFC Championship Game, he will be a standing target.

10. Who will win the NFC Championship Game? The Seahawks will win and return to the Super Bowl. Over the past two years, this defense has become one of the five best in NFL history. It's slightly better than the 2000 Baltimore Ravens and is probably the best defense since the 1985 Chicago Bears. It will be interesting to see whether the Seahawks will be favored if they beat the Packers and wind up facing the Patriots in the Super Bowl. They were underdogs to Denver last year and ended up winning in a blowout.