The Surprise Shootout
Turns out it's not so bad, assuming things. Because several widely held assumptions get validated Sunday. Like that Aaron Rodgers is in fact the best living quarterback, as we watch him make a dozen pinpoint throws into tight coverage, even beating Richard Sherman twice for touchdowns. The Packers sell out to stop Marshawn Lynch but can't contain Russell Wilson, not even a little. He 2012-playoff-Kaepernicks his way to a 300-150 with two throwing scores and two more on the ground.
But Eddie Lacy makes just enough hay on the ground to keep the Seattle D honest (nothing special, maybe 20-70-1). He breaks a nice run on the final drive, setting up Mason Crosby's cold-blooded 52-yarder as time expires. Green Bay 37, Seattle 34. The Hawks lose only because of the sustained brilliance of a suddenly-not-quite-so-gimpy Rodgers, and not because of any giant failings of their own on defense. Playmakers gonna playmake.
Statistical Supporting Evidence
- Aaron Rodgers is getting protection these days. His line is 13th in pass pro via Footballoutsiders, Advancedfootballanalytics has them middle-of-the-pack with 54 QB hits, and they won the PFF cumulative pass-blocking grades by 30 points over the Browns. Rodgers' rookie center now has 17 games of NFL experience and is playing at the CLink for the second time.
- Also, Aaron Rodgers is the best. Tops this year in WPA and EPA and AYPA. He leads the league in interception percentage at 1.0, which helps explain the otherworldly 38-5 TD/INT. He sits atop the leaderboard in AY/A and ANY/A, which is harder to do than it sounds. He is the NFL's all time leader in passer rating. By 8.4 points.
- Lacy didn't get a complete game against Seattle in the opener -- 34 yards on 12 carries before suffering a concussion. So instead, he just went on a tear to close the season. In his last eight games: 165 touches for 912 yards and eight total touchdowns. That's an average day of 21-113-1. Probably his worst recent effort, statistically, came against Detroit's D-Line, when his 26 rushes netted 100 yards but no touchdowns and he only caught three passes. Yes, that's his worst one.
- Meanwhile, the Hawks scored 36 in the opener. Shootout capabilities are unlocked.
- Rodgers threw zero times at Sherman in the opener. That can't happen again, right?
- The Packers' decision-makers probably know that conceding a third of the field will not work. They're more likely to embrace the riskier -- but rewardier -- option of throwing everywhere. If Rodgers avoids the long arms of Sherman's law, then the Packers will move the ball. And who is better equipped than him?
Holy crap Aaron. Who cares about that YAC, it's the Vikings. Just look at where that throw is, and its velocity, delivered off his back foot.
The Special Teams Snafu
Kinda easy to see this one coming. Hawks are not the special teams juggernaut they've been in previous seasons.
So, Sunday, backup KR Doug Baldwin fumbles a kickoff; steady PR Walters muffs his first punt of the season. Horrid timing. 10 points right there for Green Bay. They're not welcome.
Micah Hyde returns one Ryan punt to the house. 17 points have now been gifted to the visitors, who can't move the ball except for one measly FG drive to end the half. Packers lead 20-17 at intermission.
Steven Hauschka opens the door wider by missing a gimme late in the third quarter that would've put Seattle up 27-20. Green Bay seizes the opportunity and drives for its only offensive touchdown of the day, aided by a couple questionable flags. With the Pack up three, the teams trade punts, then Russell gets us into GB territory in the final minute, but the would-be-game-tying field goal is blocked.
Statistical Supporting Evidence
- Hawks are on their backup kick returner. Seattle's 19th this year in ST DVOA (21st in wDVOA) after three straight years in the top 5.
- Jon Ryan has butterfingered two snaps this season. (Made up for by this play. You know what it is.)
- Steven Hauschka missed three field goals -- in one game, last month. He'd never before missed as many as two in a game. He missed six kicks this year -- one more than in 2012 and 2013 combined.
- Bryan Walters is still that thing that doesn't conduct electricity. Out of 50 punts, he's fair caught almost half (23). The others, he's managed to return them for an average of 7.7 yards. When you take a look at the league, you find out that 83 percent of punt returners who've logged 20+ returns have a fumble on their record.
- Packers are actually good at the returning part of ST. Hyde returned the last punt he fielded for a touchdown -- against Detroit in Week 17. He has 14 returns this year for an average of 15.8 yards, with two touchdowns. Yes, those last two numbers lead the league. Cobb just started doing kickoffs again and hes a 25.9-average guy for his career.
The Defensive Duel
In this path to defeat, the Hawks are their usual selves... on defense. But it turns out the Packers find just enough defensive prowess to survive.
Seattle's offense shoots itself in the red zone more than usual. Twice with boneheaded penalties, once with a drive-killing fumble on fourth-and-inches at the 11, and twice the energized Packers secondary just makes a nice play. So it's three field goals and a touchdown in five trips -- adding up to a meager 16 points. Meanwhile, Green Bay converts a turnover into seven on a short field, manages one impressive TD drive a la Panthers, and Crosby boots a long field goal. Just 178 yards of offense for GB; 356 for Seattle. Hawks win the yardage battle 2-1 but lose the turnover battle 2-1.
Final score: GB 17, Sea 16.
Statistical Supporting Evidence
- Red zone efficiency is not what keep Seattle's offense in business. Hawks are 21st this year with a 50.8 TD rate. This on the heels of a meh 2013, when they were 14th with 53.0; one can expect them to stall at the goal line. It burned them in Atlanta, it almost cost them last year's NFCCG. Could easily bite them, fatally.
- Back in September, Percy Harvin, Zach Miller and Derrick Coleman combined for 157 yards on 15 touches. They're not playing tomorrow.
- Also not playing tomorrow: the Packers' terrible 2013 defense, which finished next-to-last in defensive DVOA. This time around they're 16th by wDVOA. They've risen from 24th in scoring defense last year to a better-than-respectable 13th this season. They're not bad.
- And GB's secondary is why. Footballoutsiders has them 11th in pass defense, so should Mike McCarthy decide to sell out to contain Marshawn, he's putting his faith in a capable secondary.
Speaking of, hell of a play by Shields last Sunday. Don't watch Dez. He doesn't catch the ball. Watch the DB instead. He's on an island on the biggest play of the game, and keeps up with the bigger receiver, turns his head, swipes at the ball, maybe even dislodges it a tad on the way down. It's an LOB-level play.
From the reverse angle, a still:
You don't have to like it, but you have to respect it.
Redirect, Your Honor
Seattle wins this game, most days. Four out of five times, I'd say. It's a playoff game at home. It's a game at home. It's a team with an immobile quarterback they've beaten twice already at the CLink. Again, 34-20. It's in the subhead of the story. But the Packers can earn their way to XLIX. A billion stranger things have happened, are currently happening, and will happen.