The symmetry is perfect. In a way it’s fitting that the match-up from the opening game of the 2014 NFL season would be revisited in the NFC Championship. Aaron Rodgers vs. the Legion of Boom. It makes for high ratings and 21st Century rivalry set for years to come.
The Seattle Seahawks are the monkey that the Packers have not yet shaken from their collective back. It started with that nauseating Fail Mary two years ago and carried over to this past September when the Packers were embarrassed on national television. If the Dallas Cowboys seemed to be Krytonite that stymied the Packers during the Favre era, then Seattle has taken on that role during Rodgers’ tenure.
Will the Packers finally be able to topple their arch enemies and advance to the Super Bowl, or will they go 0-3 in the most recent meetings?
After the loss in Seattle earlier this season, the Packers paled in comparison to Seattle. Criticism was deservedly harsh. The Packers couldn’t hack it. McCarthy’s team played scared. Aaron Rodgers had conceded half of the field to the Seahawks’ Richard Sherman. They weren’t ready, and they didn’t seem to be in a league as Seattle. They weren’t the contender many pundits had predicted in the preseason to march all the way to Arizona in February and take it all.
Make no mistake, the challenge that the team faces this Sunday is daunting. They aren’t a 7 point underdog for no reason. But the Green Bay Packers are not the same team that left Seattle last September with its proverbial tail between its legs. They are a different team that is better prepared and a more cohesive unit whose key player will be on the field and not the injury list.
Unlike September, the offensive line has spent the majority of the season as a single, cohesive unit. Remember that glue was threatening to come undone at the beginning of the season. Corey Linsley was still so new that he squeaked and had never played a game with the other starters on the line. JC Tretter had been named the starting center in training camp. It was supposed to be the end of the revolving door at the center position. He was supposed to provide stability on the line. Instead, Tretter was expected miss the lion’s share of the season while his injured knee healed.
As a result, the rookie Linsley took his place at center with only days before the season opener. The learning curve was, no doubt, rather steep. He was an easy target to rattle, and the Seahawks immediately tried to get into his head. The Seahawks’ Bruce Irvin wasted no time playing head games, declaring that he would pray for greehorn rookie and intimating that Linsley’s baptism by fire would be merciless.
While Linsley, for the most part, held his own, he made some truly rookie mistakes. He hiked the ball over Rodgers’ head and drew the wrath of a quarterback who did not have the time or patience for such amateur mistakes.
If that wasn’t bad enough, Bryan Bulaga, who had missed the entire previous season with an torn ACL, exited the game in the second quarter with yet another knee injury. The line took one giant step backwards when Bulaga was replaced with Derek Sherrod who had played even less than Bulaga. If Bulaga was the tackle equivalent of surf and turf, Sherrod was box of day old McNuggets.
The offensive line was porous at times, and not the stout block it became this season. Rodgers was sacked 3 times during that game. The Seahawks exploited Sherrod on the right side of the line, crashing through him on one of those sacks for a safety.
A stronger offensive line isn’t the only difference. The Packers will have Eddie Lacy this time around. Yes, he suited up for the Packers in September. He didn’t have a stellar outing, and only ran for 34 yards on 12 carries. He never got started and had to exit the game early in the fourth quarter with a concussion. Needless to say, he hasn’t had that poor of a showing in the games following that lackluster performance.
Since that time, the team has developed a broader array of dependable targets for Rodgers and his aerial game. Cobb and Nelson were the only viable targets during that game. The Packers lined up Jarrett Boykin–their weakest receiver–against Richard Sherman, and he vanished for the game along with one side of the field in the Sherman Triangle.
If that weren’t bad enough, the tight end presence was little more than a void left by Jermichael Finley and his neck injury the season before. Richard Rodgers still an untested rookie that had yet to earn Aaron Rodgers’ trust to become a consistent target.
And then there’s Davante Adams. He too was an unknown entity, a rookie that would likely be a third, fourth or fifth choice as Rodgers would go through his progressions. Sure, he suited up. He was on the field somewhere. But Davante Adams didn’t catch a single pass. Talk about a stark contrast to last week when he played a pivotal role in the Packers’ victory against the Dallas Cowboys. He went from zero receptions in game 1 to seven catches on 11 attempts this past week. He led the team in receiving yards at 117 and scored a touchdown.
During the season Adams transformed from a rookie who ran inaccurate routes and dropped passes to being an insurance policy to the Cobb/Nelson tandem. He’s earned his quarterback’s trust and respect, and he is now a deadly threat in his own right.
Finally, when comparing the Packers that faced Seattle in September to the team that will take the field this weekend, it’s important to remember that–unlike this week–Brad Jones was a starting inside linebacker in the season opener.
Quite frankly he was a hot mess. Jones couldn’t tackle. He couldn’t find himself in time and space. He got worked over time and time again like an stretched out piece of Silly Putty. When he tried to stop running back Marshawn Lynch, he was left in behind to suck the exhaust fumes. He was embarrassingly bad and was a liability.
Needless to say, the post season Green Bay Packers do not resemble the scared, tentative and out-coached team that kicked off the season in Seattle. No, they are a stronger team that has been able to gel as a cohesive unit for the entire season.They are better prepared and are stronger.
Yes, this team may rise or fall with Rodgers’ torn calf muscle this coming weekend. It’s unfortunate that the calf injury is the one thing that could truly be a liability. But like the rest of the team, Aaron Rodgers won’t be going down without a fight. He, like the others, won’t be playing scared. They are ready to give their all and face their rivals from the West Coast.
But with a stronger offensive line, a broader array of offensive targets, a healthy Eddie Lacy and a smarter, more powerful defense, the Green Bay Packers won’t be the shrinking violets that came to play in September.
They aren’t afraid this time and will be in it to win it until the last whistle.--------------