NFC Championship: Something Cheesy This Way Comes

As a great Muppet philosopher once said, “It’s time to play the music. It’s time to light the lights. It’s time to get things started.” The NFC Championship is upon us. Aaron Rodgers and his Packers come to town in what will be the second straight year the NFL’s top-ranked offense (Green Bay) will face the top-ranked defense. We all know how it turned out last year.

This will be another chance for Seattle to prove their formula of defense, running and efficient quarterback play trumps the league-wide belief that teams must have volume passing games driven by elite quarterbacks to win a title. The Seahawks have already beaten Drew Brees and Peyton Manning in the playoffs. Should they complete their quest again this year, they will add Rodgers and either Tom Brady or Andrew Luck to that list. They would turn the NFL on its ear, and leave little doubt which defense was the best to ever play. Sorry Bears fans, these guys are not Tony Eason or Steve Grogan.

Quick facts worth knowing

  • The Packers are 0-3 when Rodgers has a passer rating under 90.0
  • The Seahawks have not allowed a passer rating over 87.5 in 10 games
  • Rodgers has never had a passer rating above 81.5 vs. Seattle, including game one this year
  • Over the last half of the season, the Packers led the NFL in yards per play (6.4). The Seahawks offense was third in the NFL (6.1).
  • Over the last four games of the season, the Packers averaged 6.12 yards per play. The Seahawks offense averaged 6.11.
  • Over the last four games of the season, the Seahawks defense allowed an NFL-best 3.74 yards per play. The Packers defense allowed a full yard more at 4.76.

The true narrative of this game

It is far more sexy to focus on the Rodgers vs. LOB storyline than the one that will more likely decide the outcome. There are three elite units in this game and one suspect one. It will undoubtedly be a memorable battle between the Packers offense and the Seahawks defense. The mismatch in this game, though, is the Seahawks offense versus the Packers defense. Specifically, the Seahawks run offense versus the Packers run defense.
You will read and hear a lot about the Packers run defense stiffening after moving Clay Mathews to inside linebacker. And it is true that they have greatly improved their numbers against the run. They also faced only one rushing offense that ranked in the top ten (Philadelphia). Dallas was the first elite rush offense to line up against this new Packers rush defense and they ended the day with 145 yards rushing and a 5.2 average per carry. 
The last time the Packers played the Seahawks, they gave up over 200 yards rushing and all four rushers for Seattle averaged over 4.0 yards per carry. This Seahawks team is a significantly better and more committed rushing team than that one. The Packers will need to not only have improved to hold up in this game, they will need to have metamorphosized into a completely new entity. 

Eddie Lacy and the Seahawks rush defense

Carolina put up a lot of yards on the ground against the Seahawks. They did it with some pretty unique plays that heavily relied on the quarterback being a threat to run the ball himself. Do not expect the Packers to find much from that game plan that they can use. 
This will be more old school fullback lead and Eddie Lacy pounding the middle behind him. Green Bay has a highly-rated offensive line, but that group struggled in week one against this Seahawks defense. Lacy found little room and ended with just over 30 yards on the ground. A porous Cowboys defense allowed him to rush for 101 yards and over five yards per carry. That balance made life far easier for Rodgers. The Seahawks plan starts first with taking Lacy away before considering Rodgers.

Byron Maxwell and Tharold Simon

I love Seahawks fans. I really do. But the propensity to jump ship on their cornerbacks is something we need to collectively work on. There was a time that Brandon Browner was lampooned for his play in Pittsburgh before finishing the year as a Pro Bowl corner. Walt Thurmond was said to be a waste of a roster spot due to injury issues until he played a key role in the Super Bowl run last year. 
Tharold Simon had a tough game against the Panthers. If he looked like a player in his first year, thrust into a role he had not been preparing for all week during his first playoff game, that is because he was. Simon has been a big part of a much-improved pass defense in the last half of the year, and there is no reason to assume he sucks after one subpar game. 
Outside of the final, mostly meaningless, touchdown pass to Kelvin Benjamin, none of the passes got behind Simon. He did not seem prepared to play as much as he did, and it would not surprise me if he was not as focused on studying the week leading up. Hate that if you would like, but Simon is a young player who is still learning how to be a pro. The guys in that locker room will not let him get off without learning a lesson from this game. He will be better this week.
Byron Maxwell is still a key player to watch on the injury report. The Seahawks are best when Maxwell starts and then can slide inside in nickel. They can choose to go with Jeremy Lane in nickel, who played that role against Randall Cobb in the week one win. Maxwell was picked on by Jordy Nelson and Rodgers, but he also picked on them with the lone interception in that game.
It would be nice to have a full arsenal of talent in the secondary available for this game. If Maxwell cannot go for whatever reason, expect Simon to get a full week of support from his L.O.B teammates and possibly a little more of Richard Sherman following Nelson.

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