SEATTLE — They were the two best teams in the second half of the regular season, but the Green Bay Packers want there to be no doubt about who is number one, jumping to a 16-0 second quarter lead against the Seattle Seahawks on January 19.
Eventually, the paths of Green Bay and Seattle were going to cross again.
After they opened the 2014 NFL season in early September, it seemed inevitable that Aaron Rodgers would get a second chance to throw at Richard Sherman — if he wanted to. That Russell Wilson would have to avoid Clay Matthews trying to chase him down. And that the Packers would get another opportunity to topple Seattle and be the elite of the NFC.
As the hottest teams in the second half, it’s only fitting the Packers and Seahawks meet Sunday for the NFC championship and a trip to the Super Bowl.
“It’s just the way it should be. It should be just like that right now,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said.
Don’t be mistaken by their recent prowess, this wasn’t a smooth ride for either franchise. Whether it was Rodgers telling Packers‘ fans to “R-E-L-A-X” early in the season, or Seattle dealing with the expectations of being a Super Bowl champion, along with the stunning midseason trade of Percy Harvin, this was no cruise.
“It was a process throughout the year,” Green Bay linebacker Julius Peppers said. “You get better and better each week. That is the main thing you want to do each week, get better than you were before, and I think we accomplished that over the season.”
Green Bay has added one more obstacle in the postseason: Rodgers’ left calf injury that has limited his mobility. But Rodgers showed in last week’s divisional-round win over Dallas he can manage just fine, throwing for 316 yards and three touchdowns in the 26-21 victory.
Now All-Pro Rodgers gets his first shot at an NFC title since winning at Chicago in January 2011. A Super Bowl victory over Pittsburgh followed.
“It’s a different team,” Rodgers said. “I think it’s less than 20 guys still here from that team. It’s only four years ago. But we have confidence that we can win on the road.”
Here’s what else to watch for as Seattle tries to become the first defending champion in a decade to reach consecutive Super Bowls:
CALF WATCH: Rodgers’ injury is slowing him from scrambling before throwing, one of his strengths. His right arm is just fine. Rodgers got hurt during the Dec. 21 game against Tampa Bay. He still completed 74 percent of his passes in his last three games, including the win over Dallas. Coach Mike McCarthy has had Rodgers operating out of shotgun formations to help limit his movement.
Perhaps just as importantly for the Packers has been the solid work of the offensive line much of the year. All-Pro fullback John Kuhn, an excellent blocker, has also seen more time of late. Rodgers will need top-notch protection against Seattle’s tough defense.
SILENT SHERM: Sherman, another All-Pro, was bored when Green Bay visited in the season opener. Through the entire game, Rodgers refused to throw at the cornerback, instead turning to the other side of the field. Sherman took Rodgers’ approach as a sign of respect. It also left him frustrated. He described it as being a “12” on a 1-10 scale.
“Everybody’s like, ‘Man, that’s cool, nobody threw to your side,’” Sherman said. “But if you’re a player, you want to make plays in the game, you feel you can help your team, you want the ball coming your way more.”
Sherman doesn’t expect it the same this time.
“I’m not surprised either way,” Sherman said. “But I expect them to execute their game plan, whatever that may be. Not sure what they’re going to do.”
ATTITUDE: Linebackers Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers draw the headlines and make big plays on the Packers‘ defense. Lineman Mike Daniels supplies the attitude. A mainstay up front, Daniels’ demeanor sets a stern tone on game day.
They’ll need Daniels and fellow lineman Letroy Guion to slow down bullish running back Marshawn Lynch just enough to allow linebackers Matthews and Sam Barrington, and safety Morgan Burnett to try to finish off tackles up the middle. Daniels has 14 tackles and two sacks over his last four games.
COMING OF AGE: When Green Bay visited in Week 1, center Corey Linsley, wide receiver Davante Adams and tight end Richard Rodgers were all making their NFL debuts. Now they’re integral parts of the offense. Adams was the star of Green Bay’s win over Dallas last week with seven catches for 117 yards and a touchdown.
“You expect those guys to hit some sort of lull during the year, as the college season is usually 12 or 13 games,” Aaron Rodgers said. “After the preseason, you’re looking at midway through the season, that’s a normal college season for these guys, and you haven’t seen it.”
THANKS BUFFALO: Seattle ultimately owes thanks to Buffalo for Sunday’s title game being played at CenturyLink Field. The Bills’ victory over Green Bay in Week 15 was the difference in Seattle winning the tiebreaker for the No. 1 seed in the NFC. Instead of Seattle being forced to deal with the freezing temperatures of Wisconsin, the Packers are about to enter the Seahawks’ cauldron of noise — certain to be even more amped than when Green Bay visited to open the season.
“Any time we get the home games, especially the NFC championship at home, and we get to play in front of the 12s, it’s exciting,” Seattle safety Kam Chancellor said of the team’s fan base. “It’s exciting for us, exciting for them, and I think we deserve it and they deserve it, as well.”
TIM BOOTH, AP Sports Writer