The Green Bay Packers (13-4) return to a familiar venue Sunday when they visit the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks (13-4) in the NFC championship game at CenturyLink Field.
The site has served as the backdrop for two memorable matchups between the Packers and Seahawks. The first came Sept. 24, 2012, on "Monday Night Football," the infamous Fail Mary game. Green Bay and Seattle also kicked off the 2014 regular season. The Packers lost both games.
They haven't met the Seahawks in the playoffs since the 2008 divisional round, which they won. Green Bay's only other postseason game against Seattle was the 2004 wild card, won in overtime on cornerback Al Harris' interception returned for a touchdown.
This will be the first time Green Bay plays a postseason game in Seattle, arguably the NFL's toughest road environment. The Seahawks are 25-2 at home in the past three years, counting the playoffs.
Sunday's game matches MVP frontrunner Aaron Rodgers against the league's top-ranked defense, with the winner advancing to Super Bowl XLIX. The following is a Seahawks scouting report based on interviews with players, coaches and scouts.
Last week, Green Bay faced the NFL's most productive running back in Dallas' DeMarco Murray. Now, the challenge for its run defense increases.
Seattle led the league with 172.6 rushing yards per game, 25.5 more than the No. 2 Cowboys. The Seahawks were the only NFL team to average more than 5 yards per carry this season (5.3), remarkable considering their 525 rushing attempts were second in the league.
Running back Marshawn Lynch and quarterback Russell Wilson are the engine to Seattle's offense. Lynch had one of his most productive seasons, tied for the league lead with 13 touchdowns and fourth with 1,306 rushing yards.
Lynch had 757 rushing yards and nine touchdowns in the final eight games. Most impressively, he averaged 5.1 yards per carry in the season's second half.
Backup tailbacks Robert Turbin and Michael Christine are hard, physical runners, tough and quick, but they are not dynamic like Lynch. He was a second-team All-Pro this season behind Murray and Pittsburgh's Le'Veon Bell, but he has a rare combination of power, balance and physicality. Lynch also plays his best games on the biggest stages.
Seattle's offensive line was plagued with injuries in 2014. Max Unger, an All-Pro center in 2012, missed all of his team's season-ending six-game winning streak with a high-ankle sprain. Left guard James Carpenter also missed three games with an ankle sprain. Left tackle Russell Okung missed one game in December with a bruised lung.
The right side of Seattle's line stayed healthy. Right tackle Justin Britt and right guard J.R. Sweezy started all 17 games. They have been solid, their consistency providing much-needed lineup stability. But Lynch is the biggest reason the Seahawks led the NFL in rushing. He is one of the few backs who can make an average offensive line look good.
Three seasons after leaving the University of Wisconsin, Wilson has proven to be one of the NFL's smartest quarterbacks. He has the total package of intangibles — intelligence, composure, well-mannered. He shows a natural ability to lead, rare for a young player.
Aside from Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, nobody is more dangerous extending plays and making something out of nothing when protection breaks down. Wilson is not a dynamic runner, but he knows when to run. His 849 rushing yards led all quarterbacks, and he's especially dangerous moving the chains with his legs on third down.
When Wilson scrambles, he's almost always looking downfield, preferring to throw. His passing numbers won't blow anyone away. He finished with 3,475 yards, 20 touchdowns and a 95 rating, outside the league leaders. Wilson's most impressive passing stat is his seven interceptions.
What makes Wilson dangerous is his mixture of speed, arm strength and ability to read a defense. The most important thing for Green Bay's defense will be keeping him contained in the pocket.
Doug Baldwin emerged as the Seahawks' top receiver after losing Golden Tate to free agency in the offseason and Percy Harvin in a midseason trade. His numbers won't wow anyone either — Baldwin led Seattle with 66 catches, 825 yards and had just three touchdowns — but he shouldn't be overlooked. Baldwin makes big plays, as does second-year tight end Luke Willson (22 catches, 362 yards, three touchdowns). Willson ran a 4.5-second, 40-yard dash at the NFL combine two years ago and can stretch the field.
Seattle's offensive line isn't the only group hit by injuries. The Seahawks lost rookie receiver Paul Richardson to a torn ACL in the divisional round against Carolina. Richardson was Wilson's third option with just 29 catches for 271 yards and a touchdown, but the injury hurt because the youngster was coming along as a deep threat. Jermaine Kearse, the No. 2 option, had three catches for 129 yards and a touchdown against the Panthers.
The key to Seattle's passing attack is its ground game, both the frequency of carries and Wilson's mobility. These are not dynamic receivers, but they get open by running crisp, sophisticated routes. The Seahawks take chances at opportune times. Their receivers make plays when you don't expect them to.
The numbers for the NFL's top-ranked defense are dominant. The secondary — the famed Legion of Boom — gets the majority of praise as the best collection of defensive backs in football.
Their rush defense isn't far behind.
Seattle ranked third in the NFL with 81.5 rushing yards allowed per game. It was one of two defenses to allow fewer than 3.5 yards per rush attempt, joining Detroit. It was tied for fifth with eight rushing touchdowns allowed, tied for fourth with 10 rushing fumbles.
The Seahawks rely on team speed. Offenses won't have success running laterally. They attack the ballcarrier like a pack of hyenas. Each player is fast. Each is athletic. Each is brash, confident. Each thinks alike.
But a good offensive line can find success running downhill. Creases can be found between the tackles. For yards to be gained on the ground, those small openings need to be hit.
The longest run Seattle allowed all season was 47 yards, which also ranks in the top 10. It's difficult to break long runs against the Seahawks because there are no weaknesses on the second level. Seattle's linebackers, anchored by Bobby Wagner, are among the best groups in the league.
Wagner was an All-Pro — one of four on this defense — despite missing five games with a torn ligament in his right foot. He returned following Seattle's loss at Kansas City in November, and the Seahawks won their next six games to close the season. Wagner's speed, quickness and intelligence make him one of the NFL's better middle linebackers.
Outside linebackers Bruce Irvin and K.J. Wright also are fast, solid players.
Here is where Seattle is special. Of the four starting members in the secondary, three are All-Pros. The fourth, cornerback Byron Maxwell, was the first to pick off Rodgers this season.
The secondary's accolades are well deserved, but Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor and Maxwell can only play their style because the defensive line allows them. Seattle's secondary trusts its defensive front will pressure the quarterback. Thus, corners and safeties press receivers, trying to jump routes.
Seattle doesn't always get to the quarterback — their 37 sacks rank 20th in the league — but the defensive line does enough to make the passer uncomfortable. Michael Bennett is the Seahawks' best pass rusher, and he led the team with seven sacks. Irvin often rushes from linebacker, and he finished second on the team with 61/2 sacks.
Sherman, the brash and outspoken two-time All-Pro, has played like the best cornerback in football this season. He has all the traits required for an elite cornerback, including instincts, smarts and good hands. In the Packers' opener, Rodgers neglected to challenge Sherman with a single pass, effectively shutting down half the field.
Maxwell is almost a carbon copy of Sherman, only not as talented. He replaced Brandon Browner when the original Legion of Boom member left for New England in free agency. Maxwell will be one of the top cornerbacks on the market when he becomes a free agent this offseason.
Thomas is the best safety in football. Along with Chancellor, the duo also is the best pair of safeties in the league. Their similarities complement each other well — both are tough, smart and play with high energy — but there are also stark contrasts. Thomas has tremendous range, and he's very active. Chancellor is the enforcer. He's very physical and will knock receivers off their routes underneath.
Jeremy Lane and rookie Tharold Simon see the field on nickel and dime packages. Simon is the secondary's weak link. His movements are stiff, and he can be beat.
The Seahawks aren't dynamic on special teams, but they're mostly solid.
Seattle kicker Steven Hauschka ranked fifth in the league with 31 (of 37) field goals, an 83.8 percentage. He was 9-of-13 beyond 40 yards and 2-of-4 beyond 50.
Punter Jon Ryan ranked 25th in the league with 44.1 yards per boot. Ryan did tie for ninth in the league with 28 punts inside the 20-yard line and only six touchbacks. He also tied for 10th with 22 fair catches forced. Seattle will take those numbers with its defense.
The midseason departure of Harvin to the New York Jets was viewed as addition by subtraction. But there is no denying his absence has diminished Seattle's big-play ability on special teams. The Seahawks rank 30th with 21 yards per kickoff return and 25th with 7.1 yards per punt return.
On coverage, their 11.5 yards allowed per punt return is third-highest in the league, while their 24.1 yards allowed per kickoff return ranks middle of the pack.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood