USA TODAY Sports NFL reporter Lorenzo Reyes breaks down the matchup.
SEATTLE — The Seattle Seahawks are looking to become a defense for the ages.
They won the Super Bowl last year with the league's top-rated defense in points (14.4 per game), yards (274 per game) and passer rating (63.4).
That potentially put them in a class with teams such as the 1985 Chicago Bears, 2000 Baltimore Ravens and 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, all of whom won Super Bowls because they played defense at a dominating level none of their contemporaries approach.
However, playing defense that well is extremely difficult to sustain. None of those three teams advanced past the divisional round of the playoffs the following season.
This year, the Seahawks again finished the regular season first in two of those three categories — points (15.9) and yards (267) — and in their last seven games, playoffs included, they've allowed an average of only eight points a game. And they will get the chance to do what those other teams couldn't and repeat as Super Bowl champs if they beat the Packers today in the NFC championship game.
"Twice would definitely make our résumé look a little bit sweeter," said Bobby Wagner, the Seahawks' middle linebacker, about how the Seahawks' defense stacks up with the others. "So we'll wait 'til we win another one to talk about that."
Comparing the Seahawks statistically to the Bears, Ravens and Bucs is difficult because of changes in the game over the years. Since the 1970s, the rules for pass blocking, coverage and hitting the quarterback have slowly evolved to make passing and thus scoring easier and easier by the year.
"If you watch us play now and watch a game from the '70s, you kind of wouldn't recognize it as the same game," cornerback Richard Sherman said this week.
Nevertheless, here are the numbers:
Of those teams, the '00 Ravens gave up the fewest points (10.3 a game), followed by the '02 Bucs (12.2), the '85 Bears (12.3), the '13 Seahawks (14.4) and this year's Seahawks (15.9).
The Ravens also gave up the fewest yards (248 per game), followed by the Bucs (253), Bears (258), this year's Seahawks (267) and the '13 Seahawks (273).
In defensive passer rating, the Bucs were best (48.4), followed by the Bears (51.2), Ravens (62.5), the '13 Seahawks (63.4) and this year's Seahawks (80.4).
So the Seahawks of the last two seasons rank behind all three in each of those key categories. But considering how much easier it is to pass because of the contact limitations in coverage and on the quarterback even since 2002, they stack up well. And they're aware of recent history.
"It is something that's been brought up (among the players)," linebacker K.J. Wright said. "I know (defensive lineman) Mike (Bennett) has said that we could be like the Bears, like the Ravens were back in the day. It's something that I won't realize how good we are until like 10 years from now."
The Seahawks, though, haven't been playing at this elite level all season. After six games, they were 3-3 and ranked No. 19 in the league in points allowed and No. 8 in yards allowed. Those are not the numbers of a team whose title hopes are pinned on playing stifling defense.
By that point there was reason to question if they had been eroded by offseason personnel losses — defensive linemen Chris Clemons and Red Bryant, No. 2 cornerback Brandon Browner and No. 3 cornerback Walter Thurmond all departed — or were suffering from Super Bowl complacency.
The Seahawks say the key point in their season was a meeting between coach Pete Carroll and about 10 of his most important players the week after a loss to Kansas City in mid-November dropped their record to 6-4 and threatened their playoff hopes. That's the last time the Seahawks lost.
The players reportedly talked to Carroll and each other about everything, including whether the team had lost its edge, and their mistrust of management after the stunning trade of receiver Percy Harvin to the New York Jets a month earlier.
"That was definitely the turning point of our season," Wright said.
I'm sure such meetings can make a difference and help a team, at least in the short term and maybe for longer. But I'm suspicious of putting too much into them and wonder if players and coaches talk them up because it makes a good story and puts the emphasis on the team.
You have to wonder about all the meetings we don't hear about. What players would talk about a great air-clearing meeting or night-before-the-game speech after a loss?
The bigger difference probably has been the health of two key players: middle linebacker Bobby Wagner and safety Kam Chancellor, who are difference-makers and were voted to the Pro Bowl this season.
Wagner sustained a sprained toe in the first half of the Seahawks' Game 6 loss at Dallas and missed the next five weeks. In those six games, the Seahawks went 3-3. That's no coincidence.
Also, Chancellor wasn't playing anywhere near his '13 level after undergoing hip surgery last offseason and then being slowed by a groin injury for much of this year. The Seahawks finally sat him for two games in early November. Before his two-week rest and rehabilitation, his overall season grading by Pro-Football Focus was minus-1.4; in the eight games since, including playoffs, it's plus-12.
Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn got to the heart of the matter this week when he met with reporters after Seahawks practice Thursday: "Over the last month or two we've played better, and having the guys back in when we had (Wagner) back and Kam back — it makes a big factor for us."
The Seahawks, in fact, are telling anyone who will listen that they're playing better defense now than last season despite the personnel losses. Along with the offseason departures, defensive tackle Brandon Mebane went on injured reserve in November because of a hamstring injury.
They've replaced Clemons by moving outside linebacker Bruce Irvin, their first-round pick in 2012, to an outside rusher in their nickel personnel group. Irvin has 6½ sacks and shares time with Cliff Avril (five sacks) and O'Brien Schofield (two sacks) as the two outside rushers in the nickel package.
Also, Bennett (6-4, 274) has had maybe his best of six NFL seasons even though his sacks total (seven) is lower than the last two years (nine in '13, 81/2 last year). The Seahawks move him from end to tackle in the nickel, and he's been highly disruptive rushing from the inside. His pass-rushing grade by ProFootballFocus.com is ninth-best in the league, and his 53 hurries are tied for second-most.
Two scouts from NFC West Division rivals of the Seahawks agreed to compare Seattle's defense with last season. One said the losses of Mebane and Bryant have left the Seahawks a little worse off than last year. The other rated the losses and improvements as a wash.
Either way, the Packers are in for a much different game than last week against the Dallas Cowboys, who were one of the worst pass-rushing teams in the league. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers, whose mobility again will be limited by a strained left calf, will not have the time to throw he did last week.
"(The Seahawks) are going to force him to move, they're going to chase his (butt)," one of the scouts said. "(The Packers) have to be big on first and second down. They can't get in third-and-long."
Unless Rodgers made near-miraculous improvement from last week, he'll mainly be limited to sliding around the pocket and maybe on occasion getting a step or two outside. Those limitations will allow the Seahawks to rush freely and not have to worry about containing him by holding their rush lanes.
"When you're limited with the calf like that, (Rodgers') off-schedule plays are few and far between," the other scout said. "That's always been the thing that separated him. Not just that he was throwing dimes along the sidelines (while) out of the pocket and all that stuff, but it was his ability to make big plays off schedule out of the pocket and find guys (downfield). His calf thing will have a major bearing."
The Seahawks back up their pass rush with the best secondary in the NFL. Three of their four defensive backs are going to the Pro Bowl — Sherman, Chancellor and safety Earl Thomas. Expect the Seahawks to mainly rush four and cover the Packers' receivers with seven.
The Packers' best chance is that their run game with halfback Eddie Lacy will be good enough to slow the Seahawks' pass rush, and that they can win the matchups with the Seahawks' Nos. 2 and 3 cornerbacks. Byron Maxwell is Seattle's No. 2 this year after playing as the No. 3 in the Super Bowl last year. Tharold Simon, a fifth-round pick last year who spent his rookie season on injured reserve, is the No. 3.
"(The Seahawks) are going to get to (Rodgers) with four guys," the second scout said. "Trust me, they are going to play three deep all day. They do a great job with Chancellor and Thomas. (The Packers') one chance, to me, is if Aaron is able to throw a couple sideline (go) routes and complete 40-, 50-yarders for no reason. I just don't see them picking (the Seahawks) apart."
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