Green Bay vs. Seattle: 5 keys that will decide NFC championship

The game to determine which NFC contestant will head to Super Bowl 49 features the same matchup that opened the NFL’s regular season: Green Bay vs. Seattle.

Plenty has transpired in the 19½ weeks between Sunday’s contest and the one last played between the two teams at Century Link Field. But with the Seahawks installed as 7.5-point favorites, odds makers are expecting Seattle to take care of business at home once again — just like in its 36-16 pasting of Green Bay in early September.

Here are five keys that will determine whether the Seahawks will have the chance to defend their Lombardi Trophy or Green Bay will make its first Super Bowl appearance since the 2010 season.

Injuries

Specifically, Aaron Rodgers’ health. Dr. David Chao will be the first to tell you he hasn’t examined the Packers quarterback or his MRIs first-hand. But after 17 years as the San Diego Chargers’ team physician, Chao has become adept at analyzing injuries via video analysis and personal experience. He covers such medical matters on his Twitter account and in his weekly National Football Post column. Chao’s take on how much Rodgers will be able to recover from his calf strain with a week separating last Sunday’s 26-21 playoff win over Dallas and the Seahawks game: "Calf injuries tend to linger. He will not be over this injury even if the Packers go to the Super Bowl. I expect him to be the same or a little bit better than against Dallas but certainly not all the way better. He’s still mostly going to have to operate out of the shotgun or pistol (formations). You’ve got to be careful with this one."

Rodgers was able to compensate for limited mobility last Sunday with his arm strength and an offensive line that provided ample pocket protection against a Cowboys defense that wasn’t able to generate consistent pressure. Rodgers may not have the same luxury Sunday against a unit that does a much better job bringing the heat on opposing quarterbacks. The Seahawks enter the game with minimal health issues. Head coach Pete Carroll said Monday that center Max Unger (ankle) and cornerback Byron Maxwell (chest) should play against Green Bay.

Seahawks CB Richard Sherman vs. Green Bay’s wide receivers

Sherman could have worn an all-neon Seahawks jersey and screamed "Yoo-Hoo!" at Rodgers throughout the season opener and it wouldn’t have mattered. Rodgers was going to ignore and avoid him. Packers head coach Mike McCarthy explained Monday that he expected Sherman to leave his customary spot on the right side of the field to shadow wide receiver Jordy Nelson, who was aligned primarily on the left. Sherman instead stayed put in the area where he is most comfortable. The Seahawks assigned Nelson to other cornerbacks and provided extra coverage support with free safety Earl Thomas. Nelson caught nine passes for 83 yards, but Seattle kept one of the NFL’s top big-play targets in check with no reception covering more than 16 yards.

Rodgers completed only one deep pass in total with six short completions to the right side of the field compared to 12 to the left and four down the middle. McCarthy won’t make the same mistake twice. Rodgers will assuredly challenge Sherman, but that comes with its own set of risks. Sherman is arguably the NFL’s top cornerback and seemingly plays his best in the biggest games.

Packers running back Eddie Lacy vs. Seattle’s run defense

Seattle wasn’t the only team to keep the 2014 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year bottled up. Lacy gained just 161 yards on 53 carries through the first four games, including a 12-carry, 34-yard effort against the Seahawks. But since Week 12, Lacy has rushed for at least 73 yards in each game. His 101-yard performance against Dallas helped keep the Packers from becoming one-dimensional and took some of the pressure off Rodgers. Lacy produced despite having to miss much of the first half following an asthma attack.

Rodgers won’t be 100 percent healthy again Sunday, so mounting an effective ground game is a must. That’s easier said than done against a Seahawks run defense that ranked third in the NFL in the regular season with an 81.5-yard average. Though Seattle did surrender 132 rushing yards last Saturday to Carolina, 37 were generated by Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. The Packers won’t be getting the same production from Rodgers.

Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch vs. Green Bay’s run defense

Lynch could very well enjoy another 100-yard rushing performance like in the season opener, but he will have to hit those heights in a different fashion. Lynch got a big boost running between the tackles from the strain Seahawks wide receiver Percy Harvin put on Green Bay’s edge defense with jet sweeps, screen passes and serving as a decoy. Harvin was traded to the New York Jets in October, and the Seahawks don’t have anyone who has filled the same role, leading offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell to adjust his approach.

PACK OF EXCELLENCE

Even without Harvin, Lynch remains the heartbeat of Seattle’s offense. He churned for 1,306 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns during the regular season. Lynch and Seattle’s brawny offensive line tend to fatigue defenses as the game unfolds. Two of Lynch’s best runs of the season came in the second half against Arizona (79-yard touchdown) and last Saturday against Carolina (25-yard gain). The Packers have greatly shored up their run defense in the second half of the season by leaving their cornerbacks in single coverage against wide receivers. This has allowed safeties Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Morgan Burnett to provide more support. Lynch, who battled back issues much of this season, should be well rested. He logged only 38 carries the past three games, all of which were Seahawks victories.

Seahawks QB Russell Wilson vs. Green Bay’s pass defense

As he is prone to do, Wilson didn’t just beat the Packers with his arm in Week 1. His scrambling and ability to freeze a defense with the read-option gave Green Bay fits as well. Wilson finished the season with 849 rushing yards, which helped the Seahawks lead the NFL in rushing by a wide margin with a 172.6-yard average. Wilson was sacked only once by the Packers for no loss midway through the first quarter, and he gained 29 yards on the ground. Oh yeah, he also meticulously picked apart Green Bay’s defense while spinning away from pursuit.  Wilson completed 19 of 28 passes for 191 yards and two touchdowns without an interception.

The best way for defenses to attack the 5-foot-11 Wilson is by keeping him in the pocket, limiting his mobility and creates challenges in throwing and reading defenses behind a much bigger offensive line. This is where Green Bay’s dynamic pass-rushing duo of linebackers Julius Peppers and Clay Matthews must make hay. The pair failed to sack Wilson in Week 1.