Packers players talk about next week's matchup at the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks with the NFC title on the line. (Jan. 11, 2015)
The Seattle Seahawks had to feel OK about how Sunday's divisional round playoff game turned out in the NFC.
Given the choice, if you were the Seahawks, who would you rather face in the NFC championship game next week? The Dallas Cowboys, who have one of the league's two best running games and beat you on your own field in Week 6? Or the wounded Green Bay Packers, whose quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, is diminished by a calf injury that isn't going to heal anytime soon?
It would have to be the Packers, wouldn't it?
With a healthy Rodgers, it's a different story of course. But it became clearer than ever Sunday, even while he was leading a come-from-behind 26-21 win over the Cowboys in the divisional round of the playoffs at Lambeau Field, that Rodgers' calf injury is serious, and seriously limiting.
It's a six-week injury, at least, and that's with nothing but rest and rehabilitation. By the end of the game Sunday, he looked no better off than he did hobbling through the second half in the Packers' win over Detroit in the regular-season finale two weeks ago.
When asked how much worse his calf was after the game Sunday as opposed to the start of the day, Rodgers said: "A little bit worse, yeah. Hard to say, see how it feels in the morning. But, yeah, probably go through the week similar as far as practice goes and just kind of see how it feels as the week goes on."
Yes, the Packers have to feel great about beating the Cowboys. They got past the divisional round of the playoffs for the first time since 2010, and they're playing for the NFC championship for the third time in Mike McCarthy's nine seasons as their coach. These are heady times, with a chance to get back to the Super Bowl again, wounded or not.
Anything can happen in one game, this week, at Seattle.
But it's hard to be bullish on the Packers because of Rodgers' injury, even though he played a great second half – he threw for 226 of his 316 yards after intermission. The early betting line according to the Westgate sportsbook has the Seahawks as 7-point favorites, and I'm guessing that's more likely to go up than down as the week goes on, because of Rodgers' injury.
Sunday showed that Rodgers isn't close to being able to scramble. After completing a pass to Randall Cobb in the hurry-up offense near the end of the first half, Rodgers hustled downfield and limped as badly as he did after first injuring the calf against Tampa Bay three weeks ago and again against the Lions.
It's clear now that after each game, Rodgers is back to square one.
So for as long as the Packers are playing, he'll be limited to sliding around in the pocket. He's had to play this way for parts or all of the last three games, so the Packers' greatest hope is that he's learning how to function better given his new limitations.
"The touchdown to Andrew (Quarless in the first quarter) was a great example of that," Rodgers said of his four-yard pass that came with an open running lane. "I feel like with my mobility, normal mobility, I would just have been able to run that one in. But as I moved forward in the pocket, I realized that I couldn't do a whole lot."
The Packers' offensive line protected Rodgers extremely well on Sunday – he was sacked only once – as it has been doing throughout the second half of the season. But this was the Dallas Cowboys' defense, not Seattle's.
The Cowboys have one of the league's weakest pass rushes (No. 28 in sacks percentage) and rarely blitzed – smartly so in my opinion, because that would have opened things for Rodgers on hot reads and against one-on-one coverage. Those are mainly pocket throws, so his injured calf probably wouldn't have been an issue.
But the Cowboys couldn't get home rushing four, and Rodgers often had almost as much time as he wanted to throw.
Seattle will be different, especially playing in crowd noise that will prevent the Packers' offensive linemen from anticipating the snap count.
The Seahawks are the NFL's one shutdown defense. They lead the league in fewest points and yards allowed. They're probably not quite at the level of last season after losing defensive end Chris Clemons and cornerback Walter Thurmond -- who finished last season as a starter because of injury to Brandon Browner, who also departed the team in free agency in the offseason. But they're still the only team in the NFL with anything approaching a dominant defense.
"They take away just about everything you like to do," Rodgers said. "They're No. 1 in passing yards per game and points per game, I believe, bare minimum. There's probably other categories that they're No. 1. It's a great defense. They've got Pro Bowlers all over the place."
The question is what kind of game plan McCarthy will go with to best help his quarterback. Against the Cowboys, the Packers were two different offenses – run oriented with Eddie Lacy in the first half, then spread for the second half, with Randall Cobb often lining up at halfback and no true running back on the field.
That latter grouping actually produced best against Dallas. But whether that has as much chance working against the Seahawks is another matter. When Dallas won at Seattle, they did it mainly by controlling the ball, and clock, on the ground: halfback DeMarco Murray rushed for 115 yards (4.1-yard average) and backup Joseph Randle ran for 52 yards on five carries.
The Packers might try to pound Lacy again and again, but Seattle's run defense ranks No. 3 in the NFL. Yards could be hard to come by. At some point it's going to come down to whether Rodgers can make some plays with a bad leg.
"I think I've got 120 minutes left in me," Rodgers said. "So I'm going to do everything I can to make sure I can play all those minutes."