The Green Bay Packers will have waited 242 days between January's playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers and Thursday night's regular season opener against the Seattle Seahawks. The next 150 days—or the duration separating Thursday and Super Bowl XLIX—will determine whether the Packers can return to the biggest game in the sport for the second time in five years.
Green Bay's journey begins with a trip to the Pacific Northwest, where the defending champions and the most intimidating venue in professional football await the Packers in the league's annual kickoff game.
Green Bay hasn't won a season opener since 2011. To break the two-game slide, the Packers will need to become just the third road team to win the kickoff game since 2002. And winning in Seattle has become arguably the toughest task in the NFL: Since 2012, the Seahawks are 17-1 at CenturyLink Field, including playoffs.
Here are some other things to watch and a prediction for Thursday:
1. Broken Plays
This game may very well be won by the quarterback that creates the greatest number of opportunities outside the pocket. Aaron Rodgers is the most deadly thrower in the game on the run, regardless of whether he's escaping the pocket to his left or right. He'll be facing arguably the NFL's best pass rush, and in a raucous environment that favors the defense getting off the ball.
Russell Wilson has improved in the pocket every season, but he's still the most dangerous when creating space and puncturing outside containment. He's creative in eluding pressure and his eyes always remain down field. If Rodgers is the best when a play breaks down, Wilson is probably a close second. He'll face a Packers defense that is rightfully more confident in its ability to create pressure, both off the edge (with Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers and a host of outside 'backers) and on the interior, where Mike Daniels creates constant havoc.
Neither of these offensive lines can be supremely confident in its ability to keep the opposing pass rush off the quarterback, so expect Rodgers and Wilson to be creating on the move. Making the most of broken opportunities is especially important to the Packers offense, given how adhesive the Seattle secondary can be against the passing game.
2. Stopping the Run
Neither head coach has been (nor needs to be) secretive about the importance of the Seattle run game. Mike McCarthy and the Packers know the Seahawks want to pound their workhorse running back as often as possible. "It all starts with run defense," McCarthy said, before stating the obvious. "They are going to give the ball to Marshawn Lynch." Pete Carroll said Monday that the Seahawks will "run the football like crazy, if we're fortunate (enough) to."
Seattle has finished first or second in rushing attempts each of the last two seasons. The Seahawks do not possess a dominant run-blocking offensive line, but Darrell Bevel sticks with it and Lynch—like Eddie Lacy—can demoralize a front late in games. The Packers' new-look defensive line fit the run well during the preseason, but this is now an undersized unit that will start Letroy Guion, who played all of nine preseason snaps, at nose tackle. The Seahawks will likely feel good about their chances to beat the Packers up the middle, where Guion and Josh Boyd man the nose and Brad Jones and A.J. Hawk patrol the second level. Green Bay's interior defense needs to play well.
3. Russell's Muscle
When the Packers traveled to Seattle in 2012, Wilson was still nothing more than a caretaker of the offense. The Seahawks didn't put a lot on his plate in terms of throwing the football, instead relying on a running game and defense to wear out opponents. He threw just 21 passes.
Now, Wilson is less game manager and more playmaker, and he's perfectly capable of winning a game on his own. All his decisions are coming faster as the game slows down. The preseason generally means nothing, but no quarterback was better during August, when Wilson led 13 drives that netted 11 scores and nine touchdowns. He completed almost 79 percent of his passes and had a 133.8 passer rating. Credit Wilson for winning a Super Bowl and then still making a noticeable jump the very next offseason.
And don't forget about his home splits; Wilson has a 112.8 rating over 16 regular-season home games, with 31 touchdowns, seven interceptions and just a single loss. He'll be overflowing with confidence Thursday. A much bigger test awaits the Packers pass defense Thursday than two years ago.
4. Offensive Line
The Packers know how quickly things can get out of hand up front against Seattle. Eight sacks allowed over just thirty minutes of football back in 2012 standout as one of the lowest points for the Green Bay offensive line in recent memory. The task of staying in front of the Seattle pass rushers will be no easier Thursday.
Maybe no defensive line in the game is more flexible and versatile in terms of creating pressure. Michael Bennett moves all over the line. Cliff Avril has speed off the edge. Brandon Mebane is an underrated pocket collapser on the interior. Seattle can even rush Bruce Irvin (who gave Bryan Bulaga nightmares in 2012) from the linebacker position or bring on O'Brien Schofield, another versatile rusher who had a strong preseason. The Seahawks will mix and match personnel groupings until they find one that gives the right matchup.
Can the Packers offensive line rise to the occasion? Even with rookie Corey Linsley at center, Green Bay is likely putting its best front-five on the field in some time. No set of circumstances—both in opposing personnel and noise environment—will provide the offensive line a bigger challenge this season.
5. Lacy's Impact
Rodgers needs to play well for the Packers to win, but no player will have a bigger say in Green Bay's fortunes against Seattle than Lacy. There's no arbitrary number of carries or yards needed from Lacy to ensure a win. But if the Seahawks take him away, it's probably game over, good night.
Seattle allowed an average of 137 rushing yards in its three losses last season. The Packers finally settled down back in 2012 when McCarthy stopped spreading the field and instead went power football with Cedric Benson. The young, powerful Lacy is light years better than an over-the-hill Benson. "He's a hammer," Carroll said. "We have a lot of respect for him."
The Seahawks will be ready for his physicality because they tackle Lynch in practice every day. Yet Lacy's vision and patience ensures he doesn't need to break tackles to be effective. Then again, he broke six tackles on just 11 carries this preseason. Green Bay can give the Seahawks a big dose of their own medicine by pounding Lacy Thursday night.
Prediction: Seahawks 30, Packers 22 (Last season: 11-6)
The continued progression of Russell Wilson makes the Seahawks as complete a football team as the NFL can offer. CenturyLink Field should welcome home the defending champs with an electric atmosphere. Few teams will face a task as steep as this one. The Packers come up short in the opener, but a rematch in January—potentially with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line—feels like a very real possibility for two of the elite teams in the NFC.
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