Don’t call it a rematch. Don’t call it a rivalry. And if you do, don’t tell Mike McCarthy or the majority of players in the Packers locker room.
It’s been downplayed all week as nothing more than the average Week 2 game in a long NFL season, but it’s a game that will play a significant factor in which team is viewed as the one to beat in the NFC.
Here are five things to watch in Sunday night’s Packers-Seahawks game.
1. Offensive line performance without Bryan Bulaga
This was an unexpected late-week addition to the list, and it’s one that could swing the game significantly. Bulaga suffered a left knee injury (reportedly a sprained MCL) during Thursday’s practice and has officially been ruled out against Seattle.
Bulaga’s history of left knee injuries is lengthy. He tore his ACL in 2013 and sprained his MCL in 2014. McCarthy wouldn’t say whether Bulaga would miss any additional games beyond Sunday, but it’s obviously a major loss for Green Bay’s offense this weekend.
On Friday, McCarthy wouldn’t publicly commit to Don Barclay as the starter at right tackle in Bulaga’s absence. Other possibilities could be Josh Walker, or moving T.J. Lang from right guard to right tackle and then starting JC Tretter or Lane Taylor at right guard.
Either way, the Seahawks’ defense must be drooling over this matchup now. With Cliff Avril (who had a sack in both games versus the Packers last season) likely to be rushing heavily from that side, Seattle just gained a significant advantage.
Green Bay will need to show that it can still run the ball in every direction and protect Aaron Rodgers without Bulaga on the right side.
2. Rodgers playing like the MVP
By Rodgers’ obviously very high standards, he didn’t play well the last time these two teams met. Rodgers’ NFC Championship Game performance consisted of completing 19 of 34 passes for 178 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. That gave him a 55.8 passer rating, which was his second-worst of last season.
Safety Kam Chancellor is still holding out, and cornerback Byron Maxwell is now in Philadelphia, but the rest of Seattle’s top-notch defense is still in place. At their respective positions, Sherman, Avril, Michael Bennett, Bobby Wagner, Earl Thomas and Bruce Irvin all present challenges for Rodgers to maintain his normal level of elite efficiency.
If star corner Richard Sherman lines up in the slot against Randall Cobb (who is still playing through pain in his right shoulder) as expected, Rodgers will need another stellar performance from James Jones and a strong game from Davante Adams to help ease the burden.
3. Containing Marshawn Lynch, unlike last season
Last season, the Packers didn’t have an answer for Lynch. Between the Week 1 game and the NFC Championship Game, Lynch had 45 carries for 267 yards (5.93 average) and three touchdowns.
Last Sunday, Green Bay couldn’t slow down Chicago’s Matt Forte. Somewhat coincidentally, Forte matched Lynch’s per-carry average of 5.9 yards on the Packers’ defense.
Losing Sam Barrington for the season isn’t going to help Green Bay stuff the run any better. Barrington specializes in that area. However, if Morgan Burnett returns from his calf injury as expected, his presence near the line of scrimmage would give the Packers another quality run defender.
Watch the time of possession in this game. The Bears controlled it Week 1. If Green Bay’s defense is worn out by the fourth quarter and the game is close, Lynch could really begin to inflict damage.
4. Disrupting Russell Wilson again
Yes, Wilson had a 35-yard pass to Doug Baldwin followed by the game-winning 35-yard touchdown pass to Jermaine Kearse to send the Packers home without a trip to the Super Bowl. But aside from overtime, Green Bay completely locked down Wilson in every phase of the game eight months ago.
Even with the success of his final two passes, Wilson finished the NFC Championship Game with a poor stat line: 14 of 29 passing, 209 yards, one touchdown, four interceptions (44.3 passer rating).
The Packers got in the backfield nearly all game, creating pressure and taking down Wilson for five sacks. That’s not easy to do against such a mobile quarterback. St. Louis sacked Wilson six times last week, so maybe Green Bay will be able to take advantage again in that regard.
5. Overcoming any possible mental hurdle
Seattle has won three consecutive games over the Packers. It’s important to note, though, that all three of those games were at CenturyLink Field. Will a change of venue and a home crowd at Lambeau Field be the difference?
With the two teams in the same division, the Seahawks stand in the way of Green Bay being able to reach the Super Bowl. Whether there is a mental hurdle, or it’s just been fluky results based on a small sample size of games and a series of improbable events, the Packers need this win. Like in 2014, it could end up being the deciding factor in which team gets home-field advantage should they meet again in January. But it would also cement Green Bay as the team to beat in the NFC and demonstrate that the Packers are capable of defeating this tough Seattle team.