One year ago at this time, Wisconsin sports fans were rooting for quarterback Russell Wilson, as he was leading the Badgers to a Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl berth. While most of those same fans hope he succeeds in his starting role with the Seattle Seahawks, they'll be rooting against him when the Green Bay Packers roll into Seattle on Monday night.
Here are three keys to the game:
1. Can Seattle's secondary break up the Packers' rhythm?
Last season, a 13-0 Green Bay team went into Kansas City and lost 19-14, mostly because of the Chiefs' physical defense. In that game, 2011 NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers went 17-for-35 for just 235 yards and one touchdown due to Kansas City's pressure (Tamba Hali had three sacks) and the inability of Packers receivers to shake physical cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Brandon Flowers. Look for Pete Carroll's defense to follow that same formula. Defensive ends Chris Clemons and Bruce Irvin will bring the heat against an average Packers offensive line, with corners Richard Sherman, Brandon Browner and Marcus Trufant knocking Packers receivers off their routes at the line and challenging every catch downfield. Another similarity between this game and last year's loss to the Chiefs could be the inactivity of Pro Bowl receiver Greg Jennings; he didn't play in Kansas City due to a knee ailment and is questionable for Monday night's game with a groin injury.
2. Marshawn Lynch must carry the team
Wilson's rise to the starting QB job as a rookie, ahead of veteran free-agent acquisition (and former Packers backup) Matt Flynn, has been a great story. But the Seahawks actually have more rushing yards (297) than passing yards (272) over their first two games, with Marshawn Lynch carrying the mail 47 times for 207 of those yards. Playing defense and controlling the clock are key parts to Carroll's game plan, so Lynch and rookie Robert Turbin will be asked to churn clock behind an offensive line that is considered tougher than it is purely athletic. Running the ball well also will help make sure NFL sacks leader Clay Matthews isn't chasing Wilson all over the field -- though Wilson's ability to make yards with his feet also will test the discipline of a Packers defense giving up 140 yards a game on the ground. The health of Seattle's most reliable receiver, Doug Baldwin, is also in doubt because of a shoulder problem; if he's unable to go, the run game becomes even more crucial.
3. If you win the crowd, you'll win the game
In the movie "Gladiator," former champion Proximo tells Maximus that he needs to "win the crowd" to win his freedom. Green Bay should pay heed to his maxim, playing well early to prevent the raucous "12th Man" from getting involved. The surest way to feed the faithful's frenzy is to turn the ball over -- just ask Dallas. The Cowboys fumbled the opening kickoff, and then had a punt blocked to find themselves 10 points down in the first five minutes of last week's game. Any special teams foibles, Cedric Benson fumbles or Rodgers interceptions not only will aid the Seahawks' offense, but also bring the noise in one of the loudest stadiums in the league.
I suspect both defenses to control this game early, resulting in yet another ugly start to a Monday night contest. But as long as Jennings is healthy enough to compete, his sheer presence forces Seattle to handle receiving threats Randall Cobb, James Jones and Jermichael Finley with nickel and dime defenders, resulting in just enough mismatches for Rodgers to exploit as the game progresses.