8:30 PM EST, NBC – Line: Seattle -5.5
As has become tradition, the NFL will kick off it’s Regular Season in style, with it’s defending Super Bowl Champion in a primetime showcase as the Seattle Seahawks play host to the Green Bay Packers at CenturyLink Field. Of course, many people will remember what happened the last time that the Packers traveled to the Emerald City; in the second week of the 2012 Regular Season, the hosts won a controversial Monday Night battle on the strength of the “Fail Mary”, which ultimately led to the return of the “real” referees. Needless to say, there is some bad blood between these teams. In the meantime, Mike McCarthy’s club is looking to earn their fourth consecutive NFC North division title on the heels of last season’s improbable 8-7-1 record, which was marred by quarterback Aaron Rodgers and a broken collarbone which sidelined him for all nine contests.
With that said, the former MVP still managed to throw for 2,536 yards, 17 touchdowns and 6 interceptions in those nine starts, returning for Week Seventeen’s crucial clash with the bears that ultimately propelled the Packers back to the Playoffs. Green Bay was 6-3 with Rodgers under center, opposed to 2-4-1 with a Motley Crew of Matt Flynn, Scott Tolzien, and Seneca Wallace leading the offense. It’s a real credit to McCarthy and his system that he was able to keep his team afloat despite the revolving door at Quarterback; the Packers still managed to average 26.1 points (8th overall) on 400.3 yards of offense (3rd overall), including 283.6 yards through the air (6th overall) even with Rodgers missing nearly half of the season. A big reason for the continued success was the emergence of the rushing attack, led by Offensive Rookie of the year Eddie Lacy, who ran for 1,178 yards and 11 touchdowns, a Packers’ rookie record. McCarthy keenly transitioned his wide-open passing attack to a more balanced version as the backfield churned out an average of 133.5 yards per game (7th overall) on 4.7 yards per carry (4th overall). Now with a healthy Rodgers alongside a stellar running game, the Packers’ offense has the look of a juggernaut, particularly given the emphasis on implementing a more up-tempo approach.
Unfortunately, there isn’t quite the degree of optimism surrounding the defense, which has clearly eroded following 2010’s Super Bowl Championship. Since hoisting their Fourth Lombardi Trophy, the Packers’ defense has ranked 32nd, 11th, and 25th in Total Defense and 19th, 11th, and 24th in Points Allowed. In 2013, Green Bay shredded through the air (247.3), and trampled on the ground (125.0); they allowed as many 400 yards on seven occasions, including a 561-yard debacle in a 40-10 loss at Detroit. Management has invested heavily via the Draft in an effort to replenish this unit, but injuries ravaged them last season; top pass-rusher has missed multiple games over the past two seasons thanks to an assortment of ailments including a broken hand in 2012, and a lingering groin injury in 2013. That black cloud hasn’t showed any signs of departing as mammoth Nose Tackle B.J. Raji was lost for the year after tearing his biceps in the Preseason. The hope is that the return of a healthy Matthews coupled with the continued development of all those young draft picks, alongside offseason acquisitions Julius Peppers and first round pick Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix will put some teeth back into this defense. Peppers brings 118.5 sacks and a wealth of experience to the Front Seven, while Clinton-Dix was the top-rated Safety coming out of college.
Meanwhile, the defending champions come into the 2014 campaign looking as intimidating as ever, possessing the league’s top-ranked defense and what should be a vastly improved offense. In many regards, Seattle’s 13-3 campaign en route to crushing the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl should not have come as a surprise to anyone. Pete Carroll and Co. have slowly built a youthful roster with a wealth of depth at many positions, and stand poised to successfully defend their crown, which is something that the NFL hasn’t seen since 2004. Keep this in mind, folks; the Seahawks’ average age last season was 25.4, making them the youngest team to hoist the Lombardi Trophy, giving credence tot he notion that they are not a flash in the bottle and indeed possess the requisite staying power. After all, Russell Wilson is in just his third season as starting Quarterback, and plays like a ten-year veteran; the diminutive signal-caller completed 63.1% of his attempts for 3,357 yards, 26 touchdowns and 9 interceptions in 2013, along with an additional 539 yards on the ground. More importantly, he has a 24-8 record as a starter, including a 4-1 record in the Playoffs.
Offensively, the talent around him continues to grow. The ground game should once again be one of the best in the league with Marshawn Lynch (1,257 yards) returning with a new contract in hand rumbling behind young Offensive Line that should develop with more experience. The big guys up front have proven incredibly proficient in terms of run-blocking, as Seattle averaged 136.8 yards (4th overall) on 4.3 yards per carry (12th overall), but also allowed 44 sacks and were one of the most penalized groups in the league. In the passing game, Golden Tate left for greener pastures in Free Agency, but a healthy Percy Harvin could more than make up for his teammate’s departure. After being acquired during the 2012 NFL Draft, Harvin missed all but one game during the Regular Season with a hip injury and a concussion, but made his presence felt during the Super Bowl with a pair of 45-yard runs an 87-yard Kickoff return for a score. If he can remain healthy (which is a big if), Harvin brings a dynamic quality to this offense that will make them all the more formidable.
Speaking of formidable, that would be understating the play of Carroll’s defense last season. Simply put, the Seahawks were dominant on this side of the ball in 2013. So let’s take a moment to run down the numbers; the defending champions allowed 26.1 points (1st overall) on 273.6 total yards (1st overall), including 219.3 versus the pass (1st overall) on 4.8 net yards per attempt (1st overall), and 101.6 versus the rush (7th overall) on 3.9 yards per carry (7th overall), while forcing 39 turnovers (1st overall), 28 of which were interceptions (1st overall), and racking up 43.0 sacks (). If you weren’t paying attention, that is a lot of categories in which they led the league. And if that doesn’t do it for, just watch the tape from Super Bowl XLVIII; Seattle held Peyton Manning and the league’s most prolific offense to a mere 8 points on 306 yards. In a pass-happy era of football, Defensive Backs Richard Sherman (8 interceptions) and Earl Thomas (5 interceptions) lead arguably the best secondary in ages, while Michael Bennett (8.5 sacks) and Cliff Avril (8.0 sacks) highlight a defensive line that is littered with pass-rushers.