The Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks were about on equal footing at the end of the 2014 season. You know, that NFC title game that the Packers led by 12 points with four minutes to play.
Less than two seasons later, both remain playoff contenders but are in much different circumstances as they prepare for their matchup Sunday at Lambeau Field.
The Seahawks are far better positioned to make a Super Bowl run this season. They have the conference’s second-best record (8-3-1) and more importantly their quarterback, Russell Wilson, finally is healthy after playing through ankle, knee and pectoral injuries that held back his team for most of the season.
The Packers, to be fair, still are in the running for the playoffs even after taking unusually costly injury hits. But they’ve shown little to suggest they’ll still be playing in late January or February. They can change that outlook Sunday, but for now, the oddsmakers say it all: Seattle has the NFL’s third-best chances of winning the Super Bowl at 21-4; the Packers are 11th at 25-1.
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So why are the Seahawks in better shape than the Packers? They’re healthier, to be sure, and you can’t dismiss that. But they’ve also better weathered the personnel losses that NFL teams have to withstand, in large part because coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider have used select free-agent signings and a major trade to augment a roster that nevertheless has been built primarily through the draft.
In the simplest terms, the Seahawks have done a couple big things right.
First, they stockpiled enough quality players on defense to remain among the league’s best even though they’ve had to let some good players walk in free agency. Second, they’ve done enough via the draft and trade market to make up for the retirement of running back Marshawn Lynch, even if he was something of an irreplaceable player.
On the other hand, Packers GM Ted Thompson's draft-only approach hasn’t developed a similar quality of roster depth to prevent two major losses — season-ending injuries to cornerback Sam Shields and running back Eddie Lacy — from drastically changing his team.
Carroll’s Seahawks have been a title contender for five years because of their dominant defense. They first led the league in scoring defense in 2012 and remain dominant to this day — they head into the final quarter of the 2016 season with the fewest points allowed in the NFL. That’s an exceptional run.
They’ve stayed near the top even though in the last two years they’ve let several good defensive players walk in free agency: outside linebacker/defensive end Bruce Irvin, a former first-round pick; defensive tackle Brandon Mebane and linebacker Malcolm Smith.
They’ve weathered those losses because they used multiple avenues to acquire and then keep an uncommonly large core of excellent defensive players.
Two of their best defensive players, ends Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, were signed as free agents and are playing now on contract extensions.
Five others were draft picks who subsequently signed extensions, too: linebacker Bobby Wagner (second round 2012), cornerback Richard Sherman (fifth round ‘11), safety Earl Thomas (first round ‘10); safety Kam Chancellor (fifth round ‘10); and linebacker K.J. Wright (fourth round ‘11).
That’s seven core players who have been with them for at least four years and make them the defense that they are. Five have been perennially Pro Bowl caliber: Bennett, Wagner, Sherman, Thomas and Chancellor.
The Seahawks decided they couldn’t afford Irvin, a talented pass rusher who left for Oakland in free agency, and have let several other lesser players walk as well. Yet, they still have the top-scoring defense in the league.
And salary-cap constraints forced them to cut costs drastically elsewhere. They chose the offensive line, where they have five new starters from that title game against the Packers. Yet, while their rebuilt line is a glaring weakness, the Seahawks still look every bit the part of a Super Bowl contender. You can’t pay everyone in this league.
Still, when Lynch retired last year, I for one wondered whether that would be the blow that knocked Seattle from the elite. Most of what they did on offense worked off him.
But the Seahawks at least mitigated the damage with their previous trade for tight end Jimmy Graham and by finding OK replacements at running back in Thomas Rawls and C.J. Prosise.
Seattle sent a first-round pick and center Max Unger to New Orleans for Graham in 2015, when Lynch was still on the team. But the Seahawks didn’t use him as they should have — more like a receiver than a traditional tight end — until this season. And now he’s a bona fide weapon as their second-leading receiver (57 receptions for 769 yards).
Also, while no one is arguing that either Rawls or Prosise is as good as Lynch, they’ve been better than anyone the Packers have used to replace Lacy. After Rawls returned from a broken leg a few weeks ago the Seahawks cut their leading rusher, Christine Michael, who’s now with the Packers. Rawls, incidentally, was an undrafted rookie in 2015, and Prosise a third-round draft pick this year.
“When Rawls is healthy and can play, he’s a good player, there’s no question about that,” said a scout for one of Seattle’s rivals in the NFC West.
The Packers, on the other hand, haven’t been able to maintain the high level of play on their strong side of the ball, offense.
Lacy’s injury cost them a key cog, and Thompson didn’t provide the depth behind Lacy to make up enough of the difference. James Starks at age 30 is regressing; Ty Montgomery is a hybrid receiver/back; and now the Packers are mixing into their rotation Michael, a player the Seahawks rejected.
And the Packers’ receiving corps has slipped a notch since that matchup in the title game two seasons ago. Jordy Nelson is 31 and coming back from a torn ACL, Randall Cobb’s big-play production has diminished and Davante Adams, even with his recent jump in play, hasn’t made up the difference.
While Thompson’s rare foray into free agency to sign tight end Jared Cook was worth the shot, Cook has been hurt more often than not. At least he’s finally healthy enough to show whether he can help this team down the stretch.
The lesson here is that staying on top is tough in the NFL, and you better explore all avenues to augment your roster with as many good players as possible.
And two years really is a long time. Seattle had the manpower to take one big hit — Lynch’s retirement — and keep on winning. Now that Thomas’ season is finished because of a broken leg, we’ll see if the Seahawks can take another. They’ve got enough good players on that side of the ball to think they at least have a chance.
The Packers, on the other hand, lose Lacy and Shields and look like a different team. They’re running out of time to show it ain’t so.