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NFC Championship Preview: Packers vs. Seahawks
By Matt Horkman

For the second consecutive season, the NFC Championship runs through Seattle. The Seahawks, who are looking to become the first team since the 2003-04 New England Patriots to repeat as Super Bowl champions, will host the Green Bay Packers.

Week 1 Rematch

The NFL season opened with Green Bay and Seattle on September 4. The Seahawks, playing in their first game since Super Bowl XLIX, throttled the Packers 36-16 in front of a sold-out crowd at CenturyLink Field.

Despite receiving a lot of coverage on television and radio this week, that game will have little impact on the outcome of this weekend’s rematch. If a couple of weeks are a lifetime in an NFL season, then what does that make four months? I suspect the Seahawks watched more film on the Packers from last week than they did from the season opener. Simply put, the Packers are a much better today than they were in September.

Green Bay entered week one with an inexperienced center. JC Tretter suffered a knee injury in the third preseason game, forcing rookie center Corey Linsley into action. The opener was baptism by fire for Linsley, who has now become one of the best interior offensive linemen in the NFC, and played more snaps (1,072) than any other Packer this season. The Ohio State product is a solid pass protector, and even better run blocker. He finishes blocks, and embodies the nastiness that has defined a Green Bay offensive line that also features all-pro guard Josh Sitton. At this point in his career, Linsley is a seasoned veteran.

The same applies to rookie receiver Davante Adams, who had his coming out party against the New England Patriots the first Sunday after Thanksgiving. Adams caught six passes for 121 yards against the Patriots. He was even better against Dallas last week, catching seven passes for 117 yards and a touchdown. Now the unquestioned No. 3 receiver in Green Bay’s passing attack, Adams played just nine snaps against Seattle.

The running game has been perhaps the biggest improvement in Green Bay’s arsenal since the last time these teams played. Eddie Lacy has totaled at least 100 yards in 10 consecutive games. As he did in 2013, Lacy has gotten better as the season progressed. He also runs well out of the shotgun, which the Packers used on every single play against the Cowboys last weekend. Without defensive tackle Brandon Mebane or his replacement Jordan Hill, the Seahawks could be susceptible to the run.

Extending Plays

By now, you know of the slight tear in Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ left calf. The injury clearly limited him against the Cowboys, as I counted just twice he got outside the pocket. While he still carved Dallas up for 316 yards and three touchdowns, he’ll face an uphill climb against Seattle’s No. 1 pass defense.

Richard Sherman

Unlike Dallas, Seattle has multiple talented pass rushers. The trio of Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril, and Bruce Irvin combined for 18.5 sacks this season. They will attack Rodgers from all angles, making him even less comfortable than he already is. The Packers went out of their way to avoid cornerback Richard Sherman in the first meeting. Expect them to test him a few times this Sunday, but don’t expect them to deviate too far from their game plan. Rodgers is going to identify the favorable matchup at the line of scrimmage, and that’s going to be where he wants to go with the football. If he doesn’t get enough time in the pocket, he’ll need to extend plays to exploit any favorable matchup. Based on last weekend’s game, he doesn’t appear to have the strength in his calf to extend plays. Even if he gets sufficient protection, his receiving corps is going up against Seattle’s “Legion of Boom”, which hasn’t allowed a 100-yard receiver in eight games.

Extending plays won’t be an issue for Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson. Other than a healthy Rodgers, there is no one better outside the pocket than Wilson is. He senses pressure, and uses his athleticism to maneuver out of harms way. He also keeps his eyes downfield, looking for the open receiver. This is what makes him special, separating him from other scrambling quarterbacks.

And the Winner Is…

Look for the Packers to setoff a different vibe this weekend than they did in week one. September was a bigger game for the Seahawks than it was the Packers. They were playing at home for the first time since winning the franchise’s first Super Bowl. For them, week one was an extension of the previous seasons playoffs. It was just one of 16 for the Packers.

Motivation alone isn’t going to lead Green Bay to victory, though. They’ll need a valiant effort from their defense. Dallas rushed for 145 yards against them last week, but that’s not as bad as it looks on paper. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers calculated that he’d rather lose to DeMarco Murray than Dez Bryant, so he opted to have an extra defender -- usually safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix -- shadow Bryant for much of the game. The Packers won’t have to contend with Seattle’s receivers as they did Bryant. They have the talent in their defensive secondary to matchup with Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse. As a result, they can use an extra defender in the box to help defend the run. This could make things interesting early, especially if the Packers can get an early score. The more this game becomes about Wilson and Rodgers, the better for the Packers. However, the Seahawks are a methodical team. Running back Marshawn Lynch consistently improves as the game progresses. Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell is a discipline play caller, so in the event of an early Packers lead, it’s unlikely he’ll depart from the game plan.

The Packers will make this game interesting, and despite what the mainstream media is preaching, the Seahawks are beatable in CenturyLink Field. They just won’t lose this Sunday, though. Seattle is notorious for finishing strong and whether it’s their defense, Lynch, or Wilson, somebody will make the critical fourth quarter play needed to send the Seahawks back to the Super Bowl.

Seahawks 26 Packers 16

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