5 things to watch: Packers at Seahawks

The health of Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and scrambling of Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson will be important factors in the NFC championship game Sunday.

Five things to watch for in the Sunday afternoon NFC championship game when the Green Bay Packers (No. 2 seed) face the Seattle Seahawks (No. 1 seed) at CenturyLink Field:

1. Rodgers’ mobility and pain management vs. NFL’s top defense

For Aaron Rodgers, it’s not about any expectation of being at full health. In Rodgers’ own words, it’s a matter of "just dealing with the pain, pain management. And being smart about it."  He acknowledged Friday that any explosive movements will be few and far between, just like they were in the Packers’ divisional-round win over Dallas.

That’s the reality for Rodgers as he battles through a left calf injury. It was initially injured Week 16 in Tampa Bay. He then fell to the ground untouched Week 17 just as he threw a touchdown pass, injuring a different spot of the same left calf. Rodgers noticeably hobbled on the field at different moments against the Cowboys last weekend and admitted it was "a little bit worse" after the game than it had been before kickoff.

There’s no tougher defense to face in the NFL than the Seahawks. Finishing the regular season No. 1 in points allowed and yards allowed, Seattle has given up an average of just eight points in the past seven games.

It’s obviously difficult for any quarterback to have success against the Seahawks, and even fully healthy Rodgers found that out in Week 1. In that game, Rodgers had his second-lowest passer rating and yards per pass attempt of the season.

Rodgers might not have the luxury of playing stylistically similar to how he did last weekend, when he did everything possible to stay in the pocket. Seattle has two great pass-rushers in Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett, and they lead the charge for a defense that can get pressure on quarterbacks without having to send five or more in a blitz package. Even with Rodgers enjoying the best pass protection of his career, Green Bay’s offensive line will be challenged to keep Avril and Bennett from collapsing the pocket.

Related Content

2. Lacy’s early-game effectiveness

There were of course many factors that ultimately led to the Packers beating Dallas, but one of the most important ones early in the game was Eddie Lacy’s success on the first drive. Seven of Green Bay’s 10 offensive plays in the opening series were carries for Lacy. He had gains of 19, 10, 8, 5 and 4, getting the Packers to the 4-yard line for Rodgers to throw a touchdown to Andrew Quarless.

The Seahawks gave up only 81.5 rushing yards per game in the regular season. They have the league’s best run-stopping inside linebacker in Bobby Wagner, who’s complemented well by Bennett and Bruce Irvin. Plus, Seattle’s secondary of Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas are all terrific at assisting in run defense.

Lacy was added to the injury report Thursday with a knee issue, which limited his practice involvement late in the week. Lacy is also coming off a game in which he had the second asthma attack of his two-year NFL career.

Green Bay has leaned heavily on Lacy late in the season, giving him 19.4 carries per game over the past seven weeks, in addition to an increase in receiving opportunities.

If Lacy struggles to gain significant yards early in the game, it would put more pressure on Rodgers and let the Seahawks really key in on getting to the quarterback. But if Lacy can get going in the first quarter, it would help the Packers’ offense be more multi-dimensional and keep Rodgers from having to do more than his body might allow.

3. Throwing in Sherman’s direction

Rodgers said repeatedly he’ll throw to the open receiver. It doesn’t matter if it’s Sherman in coverage, or if it’s Byron Maxwell or Tharold Simon. Rodgers’ history suggests that’s accurate, that he goes through his progressions and fires a pass accordingly.

In the much-discussed Week 1 game during which Rodgers did not target a single pass towards Sherman, it was a product of Jarrett Boykin not being open. It was the first of a few early-season showcases for Boykin that he didn’t deliver on and was soon replaced as the No. 3 wide receiver by rookie Davante Adams.

The first time around, head coach Mike McCarthy said he assumed Sherman would eventually follow Jordy Nelson to the left side of the field, which didn’t happen. This time, there’s no reason to believe Sherman would divert from his plan of being exclusively a right-side lockdown cornerback.

Packers Coverage

In what could become a fun chess match to play out, does either side blink if Nelson continually lines up to the left and Sherman stays on the right? Are the Seahawks content to let Sherman cover Adams all game? Is Rodgers content to run the offense on two-thirds of the field?

According to data from ProFootballFocus, Sherman allowed just 33 receptions and one touchdown this season (playoffs included), while intercepting five passes and knocking away eight others. The opponent passer rating on throws in Sherman’s direction was 44.2, which was the second-best mark in the NFL among cornerbacks.

Rodgers was the only quarterback in 2014 to not target Sherman at all in a game. Eli Manning went after Sherman eight times, while Peyton Manning, Tony Romo and Derek Carr each tried him six times. But Sherman got the better of the QBs in each of those encounters.

4. The Lynch / Wilson "running back" duo

Tramon Williams views Marshawn Lynch as one of the two best running backs around (the other being Adrian Peterson). But it’s not just Lynch that the Packers have to worry about on the ground. Russell Wilson finished the regular season with 849 rushing yards, giving him more yards than half of NFL teams’ leading running backs. It was the most rushing yards by a quarterback since Michael Vick in 2006.

That’s why Green Bay decided during its game preparation to treat Wilson like a running back.

Between Lynch and Wilson, the Seahawks were by far the best running team in the league this season. Seattle had 408 more rushing yards than the second-place team; Dallas.

Though Percy Harvin contributed out of the backfield, the Packers couldn’t stop the Seahawks’ rushing attack in Week 1. Lynch had 110 yards on 20 carries (5.5 average) and, excluding three end-of-game kneel-downs, Wilson rushed four times for 32 yards (8.0 average).

Lynch broke nine tackles in the first matchup and went on to lead all NFL running backs in that category this season by forcing 101 missed tackles. Lynch also tied for the league lead in rushing touchdowns.

Green Bay’s past two postseasons have concluded against mobile quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who had 181 rushing yards two years ago and 98 yards last year against the Packers. But this playoff test won’t just be about a great running quarterback like Wilson, given Lynch’s talent level and skill set alongside him.

Packers Mailbag

5. One-on-one outside: Shields and Williams vs. Baldwin and Kearse

Cornerbacks and wide receivers are usually positions that NFL teams invest early-round draft picks in. But in the case of the two NFC teams battling for a chance to go to the Super Bowl, it’s going to be two undrafted wide receivers starting for the Seahawks and two undrafted cornerbacks starting for Green Bay.

Seattle certainly isn’t known for its passing game, ranking 27th in the NFL in yards through the air during the regular season. Doug Baldwin led the Seahawks in every key receiving category, but his totals of 98 targets, 66 catches, 825 yards and three touchdowns were only good enough to rank him 42nd, 42nd, 53rd and 81st league-wide in those statistical areas.

With the Seahawks’ ability to run the ball, Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse often find themselves matched up one-on-one on the outside. The Packers will show their trust level in Sam Shields and Williams if they let them cover Baldwin and Kearse without any help.

Whether it’s Baldwin versus Williams and Kearse versus Shields, or vice versa, it’ll be four players completely overlooked in their draft classes going head-to-head.

Follow Paul Imig on Twitter