The Seahawks and Packers face off at Lambeau Field Sunday with a trip to the NFC championship game on the line, the first postseason meeting between these teams since a memorable NFC championship game five years ago. The Seahawks are coming off of a wild-card win in Philadelphia that made them 8-1 on the road this season, while the Packers (13-3) are coming off of a bye as the NFC's No. 2 seed.
If the Seahawks are going to continue their winning ways on the road and keep their season going, these are three key matchups that could make the difference in Sunday's game:
1. "The Smith Brothers" vs. Seattle's pass protection.
First off, no, Za'Darius Smith and Preston Smith aren't actually brothers, but the two 2019 free agent additions have become close enough since joining the Packers that they're frequently referred to as "The Smith Brothers" and they even do joint press conferences together. The other thing those two Smiths have done a lot of together this season is get to opposing quarterbacks, with Za'Darius recording 13.5 sacks and Preston recording 12, career-highs for both of them.
"They're really good," Seahawks offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said. "Both the Smith brothers are excellent, both putting together great years. The things that they do with Za'Darius, they move him around. He goes everywhere, so he's hard to find where he's going to go and where they're going to put him. They come out of the two-point stance, which means they can see things a little bit different. They're really good. Then (Kenny) Clark inside pushed the pocket. It'll be quite the challenge for us. Our guys played really well last week. Good week of practice this week. Hopefully, it carries over to Sunday night."
As Schottenheimer notes, the Seahawks pass protection held up pretty well last week against an aggressive Eagles pass rush, especially considering the absences of left tackle Duane Brown and left guard Mike Iupati. After getting sacked five or more times four times in a six-game stretch late in the season, Russell Wilson was sacked only once in Week 17, then once again last week. Part of that has been the offensive line doing its job, but Wilson has also been really good of late working with his pass protection as he moves in the pocket to buy extra time.
"I think his confidence and his sense is really obvious," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said of Wilson's pocket movement. "He is feeling the consistency of the protection and he's moving consistently; the plays look a lot like the same—his drift, his step-up, and when he pops back out of it, it's looking very consistent. He's dangerous when that happens."
As for this week's game, the Seahawks won't know until gameday the status of Brown or his backup, George Fant, who are both listed questionable, and Iupati is doubtful, so the Seahawks will likely be short-handed up front to some degree once again. But Wilson's ability to move in the pocket will be needed again this weekend against Green Bay regardless of who is playing on the line thanks to the talent of the "The Smith Brothers" and the rest of the Packers pass rush.
2. Packers running back Aaron Jones vs. Seattle's run D.
Running back Aaron Jones isn't new to the Packers, but his importance to Green Bay's offense has changed this season under first-year head coach Matt LaFleur. Aaron Rodgers remains one of the NFL's best quarterbacks, but the Packers have been more balanced this year, and perhaps for the first time in Rodgers' prolific career, he might not be the MVP of that offense thanks to Jones, who rushed for 1,084 yards, had 474 receiving yards and scored 19 total touchdowns, tied for the most in the NFL.
Jones had six 100-yard rushing games this season and one 100-yard receiving game, and the Packers went 7-0 in those games. He had only 125 total yards from scrimmage in Green Bay's three losses.
"I think the thing that looks the most obvious is the way the running back is playing," Carroll said when asked how the Packers look different this year under a new coach. "Aaron Jones has just been a huge factor for them. He's taken the pressure off the quarterback spot. The guy has rushed for 1,000 yards, caught almost 50 passes, and has been elusive. Scored 19 touchdowns or something like that. He's been a huge, huge factor. I think that has changed them as much as everything."
Said linebacker Bobby Wagner, "They have a great back, back there. They're able to rally off games where he's able to rush for 100 yards. I feel like that really sets up their play-action game, their boot game and things of that nature. The run game really complements what they do well already passing-wise. I would say that's the biggest difference that I see on film."
3. One battle tested, strong finishing team vs. another.
A big reason why the Seahawks went 11-5 this season and wound up back in the playoffs was the way that they were able to find a way to persevere in close games. The same can be said of the Green Bay Packers, who won the NFC North and finished 13-3 in no small part because they won a lot of close games.
The Seahawks went 10-2 in games decided by eight or fewer points during the regular season, making them the second team to win 10 one-score games in a season along with the 1978 Houston Oilers. The Seahawks added another one-score win last week when they beat the Eagles 17-9 in the wild-card round.
The Packers, meanwhile, went 8-1 in once-score games, including a comeback from a two-touchdown deficit in Week 17 to preserve a first-round bye. Considering how close playoff games tend to be—two of last week's wild-card games went to overtime, Tennessee beat New England by seven points and the Seahawks won by eight—there's a very good chance Sunday's game could go down to the wire, and no two teams are better prepared for those situations based off of their regular seasons than Green Bay and Seattle.
"It's playoff football," Packers coach Matt LaFleur said on a conference call. "It's going to be tight. The games are going to be close typically. Every play is so important."
Carroll joked last month that "it would really be OK if we could win by a lot sometimes," but he also believes there's value in those stressful finishes.
"I love close games," Carroll said in December. "I think they help you. They make you stronger. They keep you in the game longer. They make you have to focus farther, and it prepares you for more kinds of things that can happen that you need background and experience in."
With the playoff here, now is when that background can pay off.
And it's hardly a coincidence that two of the best teams in close games this year are teams led by two of the NFL's best quarterbacks. No player has more effect on the game, especially late, than a quarterback, and over the years Rodgers and Wilson have been two of the league's best when it comes to late-game heroics. Wilson has led the Seahawks to 32 fourth quarter or overtime game-winning drives in his career, postseason included, the most in the NFL since 2012, including five game-winning drives this season. Rodgers, meanwhile, has three this season and 25 in his career, including 19 since 2019.
In other words, there's a real chance this game could come down to which team executes better in the game's final moments, and after a season full of close games, both teams are as well prepared for that type of finish as any could be.