GREEN BAY, Wisc. -- For all the high expectations that are swirling around the Green Bay Packers' offense this season, the biggest question in their championship hopes was answered in their first game. The Packers learned that their defense actually can frustrate and flabbergast a quality opponent when it's desperately needed. That's exactly what that unit did in Sunday's 17-9 win over Seattle. It's also what that defense will have to do if Green Bay is going to be everything they hope to become.
This wasn't the same defense that struggled to stop opponents in 2016. It definitely wasn't the unit that surrendered 44 points to the Atlanta Falcons in last year's NFC Championship Game. This group had more confidence, more swagger and a deeper faith in how they might affect the outcome. As Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said, "The key to the game was our defense. If they play like that (for the rest of the season), we'll be tough to beat."
It's important to note here that Rodgers made this point as soon as he opened his post-game news conference. He had thrown for 311 yards and his 32-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Jordy Nelson -- which came in the third quarter -- proved to be the deciding points of the game. It would've been easy for Rodgers to celebrate the way the offense kept grinding against a Seattle defense that gave the Packers plenty of fits of their own. Instead, he went right to the most important topic of the day.
These Packers aren't going to have as hard a time scoring points as they did on Sunday. What's more critical is that they keep finding ways to shut opponents down. There's been plenty of complaining in this town about the lack of weapons Rodgers has enjoyed in recent years. That frustration also has resulted from the lack of defensive help he's received lately.
Last year the Packers ranked 21st in the NFL in points allowed per game (24.3). You'd also have to go back seven years to find a Green Bay team that actually finished in the top 10 in that category. There's a revealing fact about the Packers when you look at that team that had the league's second-best scoring defense in that 2010 season. That also happens to be the last Green Bay squad to win the Super Bowl.
This explains the obvious significance of what happened in the Packers' win over Seattle. The Seahawks generated only 225 total yards, with only 135 coming through the air. The three sacks they registered on Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson only partly told the story of the havoc they wreaked on the Pro Bowl signal-caller. "They did what they needed to do," said Seahawks wide receiver Tyler Lockett. "Their front seven put pressure on us and when you put pressure on, it makes it tough for Russell to be able to throw the ball. He didn't have time."
"We have a lot of people of front," said Packers inside linebacker Jake Ryan. "We have (defensive lineman) Mike Daniels, (outside linebacker) Clay Matthews, (outside linebacker) Nick Perry. We have guys who are fast as hell and can get off the ball. Having (Wilson) running around not knowing what to do was huge for us. We definitely made them one dimensional."
A big factor in the Packers' success was their ability to stifle the Seahawks' running game. They knew they were facing a familiar face in Seattle running back Eddie Lacy -- who spent the first four years of his career in Green Bay -- and they ruined that homecoming in a hurry. Lacy wound up gaining just three yards on five carries. Seattle's leading rusher ultimately was rookie Chris Carson, who gained all of 39 yards.
Of course, it is fair to point out that Seattle does have problems on their offensive line. They've spent the last few years trying to build a cohesive unit and the chemistry this season is a long way from what this team needs. However, this is still a team that is dangerous enough to reach the Super Bowl. The Seahawks have proved in the past that they can thrive even when the talent in the trenches isn't overly imposing.
The good news for the Packers is that they don't need to worry about the issues of other teams. They had to find something to build upon on the defensive side of the football, something that told them this won't be another year where Rodgers will have to carry them from start to finish. The most memorable bit of evidence they received on Sunday came when Daniels shot past a blocker, sacked Wilson and forced a fumble that Packers linebacker Kyler Fackrell recovered at the Seattle 6-yard line early in the third quarter. That play set up a six-yard touchdown run by Packers running back Ty Montgomery that put Green Bay ahead 7-3 and swung the momentum for good.
Daniels finished the game with 1.5 sacks, while Perry added 1.5 of his own. Every time the Seahawks seemed on the verge of making a rally, they were swarming around Wilson along with their teammate. "Everybody just came together and gave everything that they had," Daniels said. "Everybody hustled. We do it every week but this time we were just determined to get it done."
Sometimes it's hard to know exactly when a team's fortunes start changing for the better. As good as the Packers' defense looked on Sunday, their improvement might have started last fall, when they were giving up 47 points to the Tennessee Titans and 42 to the Washington Redskins. Back then, the storyline was the decline of Rodgers, how he was forcing plays and failing to live up to his future Hall-of-Fame status. The truth was that the defense knew it had to play better, that it had to find some way to make a bigger difference in games.
That defense did show signs of progress in the second half of last season, as it held three of its last six opponents to 13 points or fewer. That improvement helped the Packers reach the playoffs, where their season ended in that blowout loss to Atlanta. As it so happens, the next team Green Bay will face is that same Falcons squad that demolished them in January. The Packers look like they will be a lot more formidable this time around, even though they weren't interested in revisiting the past.
"I don't talk about anything except what's happening today," said Packers head coach Mike McCarthy. "Our defense got challenged and they clearly played at a high level. You are what you are and we've got some things on film. But I know our defense definitely got off on the right foot today."
There's little to argue there. This game was supposed to be a clash of titans, the first real opportunity to see how two of the best teams in the NFC measured up against one another. We knew one defense was going to come in looking to make plenty of things happen. What we couldn't foresee was how much the other one would grow up right before our eyes.