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NFC Championship preview: Packers-Seahawks

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The backstory


We labeled the Packers a "pretender masquerading as a contender to the NFL throne" after Green Bay's ugly 36-16 loss to the Seattle Seahawks in the 2014 NFL Kickoff.

Aaron Rodgers and friends were overwhelmed from the start, averaging just 3.5 yards per play entering the fourth quarter against the Legion of Boom. A second defeat in Week 3 to the Detroit Lions sent Packers fans into a dark place, until Rodgers -- the game's finest quarterback -- cast his spell over Green Bay with one five-letter word: "R-E-L-A-X."

It was sound advice for a Packers squad that went 11-2 down the stretch behind the power of the NFL's No. 1 scoring offense, an attack that rained down points on a league-best 46.7 percent of their drives this season.

That said, all is not well.

Rodgers is still fighting a painful calf strain that made him look human for three-plus quarters against the Cowboys. His Packers, meanwhile, haven't been the same team on the road, putting up 17.2 fewer points per tilt in enemy territory -- the largest differential between home and away points per game totals of any team in 2014.

The Packers aren't the same squad we saw at CenturyLink Field in September, but the Seahawks have undergone a metamorphosis of their own. Playing their best football of the year, Seattle's smothering defense against Green Bay's high-octane air attack has the makings of a January classic.

Under pressure


Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers:

How is the greatest signal-caller of our day under the gun?

Simple. If that calf acts up, we're in for another dose of Rodgers looking like a shell of himself against the NFL's most powerful secondary.

"It's good. No better. It's doing OK," Rodgers said Tuesday of the injury, adding: "Any time you move and feel the pain, you're going to stop doing what you're doing."

The Packers game-planned around his limited mobility against Dallas, lining up Rodgers in the pistol or shotgun for every snap outside of Green Bay's three victory formation kneel-downs to seal the win. For much of the game, we saw a passer who couldn't plant his feet, leading to Rodgers sailing throws high for three-plus quarters.

Rodgers bounced back against the Cowboys to complete three passes -- with two touchdowns -- outside the pocket. Watch him drill this ball into the hands of tight end Richard Rodgers off one foot:

If Rodgers can operate the way he did over the final quarter against Dallas, hope remains. The neutralizer, of course, is Seattle's No. 1 defense, destined to put pressure on Rodgers behind a Richard Sherman-led secondary holding opposing passers to a Total QBR of 53.1 since Week 7 -- third lowest in the NFL.

Matchup to watch:


Green Bay's front seven vs. Seattle's ground attack:

The Seahawks aren't looking to fall into a shootout with Green Bay's offense.

After watching DeMarco Murray slow down the game and pound the Packers for 123 yards on the ground last Sunday, offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell will lean on Marshawn Lynch. All the talk about Lynch leaving Seattle after the season seems ridiculous when you consider how this offense has channeled through its workhorse back since parting ways with Percy Harvin.

With a league- and franchise-best 172.6 rushing yards per game in 2014, the 'Hawks are pounding teams for 30 more yards per tilt than last season. Lynch led the way by accounting for 39 percent of Seattle's offensive touches this season alongside an NFL-best 17 touchdowns.

It's not just Lynch, though, with Russell Wilson operating as a major factor outside the pocket. Seattle's third-year passer has crossed the 100-yard barrier three times this year while averaging 53.1 rushing yards per outing since Week 10.

Green Bay's Julius Peppers was used all over the field against Dallas, but this 23rd-ranked run defense is in for another tough test on the ground. The Packers have struggled in three matchups against top-five rushers, allowing Lynch (110 yards in Week 1), LeSean McCoy (88 yards in Week 14) and Murray (123 yards on Sunday) to have their way.

Are we in store for another dose of this madness:

Mind-blowing stats:


There have been six instances of the same teams meeting in Week 1 and then again in the conference championship. All six times, the team that won in Week 1 also won the conference title game. ... Seattle's defense allowed 159 receptions, 1,587 yards and five touchdowns to wide receivers in 2014 -- all totals stood as the lowest in the NFL. ... The Seahawks are 16-0 at home since 2012 when scoring 24-plus points. Green Bay's defense has allowed 24-plus points just once in their last nine games.

How good are these quarterbacks? Last week, Rodgers and Tony Romo faced off in a playoff matchup of the two highest-rated passers in NFL history (minimum 1,500 attempts). If the attempts minimum is lowered to 1,000, though, Rodgers and Russell Wilson are the two highest-rated signal-callers ever. ... Lynch has been outstanding, but don't forget about Eddie Lacy. His 72.9 yards per game are close to Beast Mode (80.3), while Lacy leads in yards per carry (4.7 to 4.6).

Prediction:


We've come a long way since Week 1. Winning in Seattle remains close to impossible, but Green Bay's offense has the firepower to test this secondary. It will be fascinating to watch wideouts Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb square off against Sherman and fellow Seattle corner Byron Maxwell. Packers rookie pass-catcher Davante Adams -- who shredded Dallas for 117 yards -- looms as a juicy third target.

The clear X-factor remains the health of Rodgers. If he can't rely on his lower body, Seattle -- allowing just 8.0 points per game in their last seven tilts -- will clamp down. After the Seahawks overpowered Peyton Manning in February and Rodgers in September, I expect history to repeat itself on Sunday.

Seattle Seahawks 33, Green Bay Packers 20


The latest Around The NFL Podcast previews Championship Sunday and makes our picks for each game. Find more Around The NFL content on NFL NOW.

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