Home field key for Packers' Super Bowl hopes
Recent history suggests home-field advantage is far from necessary to win the NFC championship.
Four of the last eight road teams have won the NFC title game. In the last 15 years, the home team is 9-6, and in the last 20 years, 12-8. All in all, playing on the road to get to the Super Bowl hasn't been daunting.
But this season, for the Green Bay Packers and everyone else in the NFC hunt, home-field advantage is huge. No one wants to go to Seattle for a playoff game. And it's something the Packers know, even if they aren't mentioning the Seahawks by name.
"Yeah, why not?" quarterback Aaron Rodgers said when asked if the Packers were shooting for home field throughout the playoffs. "It's the No. 1 goal."
After the Packers improved to 10-3 with their 43-37 win over Atlanta on Monday night, it's clear they and the Seahawks (9-4) are the NFC's best teams. That's not to say no one else can win the NFC. Matchups matter. Dallas (9-4), for instance, could be a tough out in the playoffs because of its running game.
But the Packers and Seahawks have been playing the NFC's most dominant football the last few weeks, even if the Packers looked less dominant as Monday night went on and a 31-7 lead turned into a one-possession game in the final minutes. Still, with nine wins in their last 10 games and a defeat of probably the AFC's best team, New England, two weeks ago, the Packers are as hot as anyone.
But as the Packers saw in the opener in September, the Seahawks are especially hard to beat at CenturyLink Field, where the ear-bleeding, dome-like noise makes it tough on opposing offenses. Running the no-huddle is limited strictly to hand signals. More importantly, snap cadences have to be silent, which gives Seattle's dominant defense an even bigger edge rushing the passer.
As well as the Packers are playing at home — they're averaging 38.3 points and a 17.9-point margin of victory at Lambeau Field this season — their home-field edge wouldn't be as great as Seattle's. Though the Seahawks play in a temperate climate, they're built for January football in Wisconsin because of halfback Marshawn Lynch, who might the hardest running back to take to the ground in the NFL, and a defense that ranks No. 1 in yards allowed, No. 2 in points allowed and No. 3 in rushing yards allowed.
But not playing in Seattle, more than playing at home is what matters for the Packers and the rest of the NFC.
Anyone who's seen the Seahawks play recently knows they're playing more like the Super Bowl champions of last season and less like the team that went 3-3 over a six-game stretch from mid-October to mid-November.
It's no coincidence that the Seahawks' first loss in its 3-3 stretch started in the game middle linebacker Bobby Wagner tore ligaments in his toe, a surprising home loss to Dallas. Since his return after missing the next five games, they're 3-0 and have allowed 20 points combined to Arizona (three points), San Francisco (three points) and Philadelphia (14 points).
Aside from getting the Packers to 10 wins, there wasn't a lot to take away from their victory Monday night.
So winning out for the Packers (at Buffalo, at Tampa Bay and at home against Detroit) is critical. If they do, they'll have the home field over Seattle no matter what, and probably the top seed in the NFC, assuming Arizona, playing without injured quarterback Carson Palmer, loses one of its three last games, all against its NFC West Division rivals (at St. Louis, home against Seattle and at San Francisco).
The biggest issue coming out of the game is the severity of running back Eddie Lacy's hip injury, which prevented him from playing when the Packers killed the final minutes of the game. James Starks did the job, including knocking off a 41-yard run that in essence ended the game, but Lacy's health is critical to the Packers' postseason hopes, especially if they meet up with Seattle again.
The Packers' also played their worst defensive game since moving Clay Matthews to inside linebacker at their bye. The Falcons put up 304 yards and 30 points in the second half, with gifted receiver Julio Jones (11 catches for 259 yards) doing most of the damage.
"I'm excited about our team," Rodgers said. "There have been some ups and downs on both sides of the ball all season. But we're really getting this home-field advantage thing going with the crowd noise, with the footing, with the way we're playing, being really balanced on offense.
"The defense will look at the film, they'll correct things. I'm not worried about that. Maybe an injury, hope that whoever got hurt today is going to be back. But if it takes scoring 38-plus points to win, then that's what we've got to do."