The Seahawks and Green Bay Packers opened the 2014 NFL season at CenturyLink Field on Sept. 4. Next Sunday, the 2014 season will end there for one of them.
The Packers played their way in to the NFC Championship game on Sunday by rallying for a 26-21 victory over the Dallas Cowboys at Lambeau Field. The defending conference champion and No. 1 seed Seahawks punched their ticket on Saturday night with a 31-17 victory over the Carolina Panthers. So the Seahawks and Packers will meet again – at noon next Sunday – with a lot more on the line: A trip to the Super Bowl on Feb. 1.
The Seahawks won the regular-season opener 36-16 on that Thursday night in September. But after Saturday night's impressive win over the Panthers, the players pointed out the obvious – that was four months ago, and a lot has changed for both teams.
The Seahawks started 3-3, but then won nine of their last 10 in the regular season to win the NFC West and wrapped up the conference's No. 1 seed in the playoffs. The Packers were 1-2, before quarterback Aaron Rodgers told everyone to relax, and they went 11-2 to finish the season – including five- and four-game winning streaks.
"We beat the Packers early on in the season," Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson said after Saturday night's game – and after completing 15 of 22 passes for 268 yards and three touchdowns, including 8 of 8 for 199 yards on third downs.
"Whoever we play, it's going to one of those for the ages. You look forward to that, and you definitely look forward to playing at home. … To play in this stadium is pretty exciting. We're going to need the 12s, no matter who we play. They were phenomenal tonight, in terms of being extremely loud and tough on the Carolina Panthers. You have to give the 12s some credit, too."
After Sunday's game Rodgers told reporters, "We're playing a lot differently now that we did in Week 1."
One thing has not changed: How the Seahawks have approached every game the past few seasons, regardless of opponent, venue or significance of outcome.
"It's a great situation here," linebacker/rush-end Bruce Irvin said. "We've just got to continue to work hard and win the games during the week, because that's where you win them – in practice. So we've got to come in Monday and get ready for another tough game next."
Sunday, the calf injury that has been bothering Rodgers was obvious, as the Packers' quarterback and leading MVP candidate had to limp from play to play and did not have his usual elusiveness in the pocket or ability to run when needed.
Asked about the calf after the game, Rodgers said, "I think I've got 120 minutes left in me." That, of course, was a reference to the NFC title game and the game the winner will advance to – the Super Bowl.
Sunday, Rodgers completed 9 of 15 passes for 90 yards and TD in the first half, when the Cowboys took a 14-10 lead. But in the second half, Rodgers almost willed the Packers to Sunday's rematch with the Seahawks. He was 15 of 20 for 226 yards and two TDs in directing second-half touchdown drives of 90 and 80 yards and also taking advantage of a turnover to put up a field goal. And he was even better than that with the game – and the Packers' season – on the line, as Rodgers was 10 for 10 for 163 yards, two touchdowns and eight first downs on his final 10 pass attempts.
His supporting cast included some of the usual suspects as Eddie Lacy ran for 101 yards and Randall Cobb caught eight passes for 116 yards. But Rodgers also threw TD passes to tight ends Andrew Quarless and Richard Rodgers in the second half, and rookie wide receiver Davante Adams caught seven passes for 117 yards as the Packers rolled up 425 yards on the Cowboys in remaining unbeaten at Lambeau this season.
All of that sets up a classic rematch between the Seahawks' defenses that led the NFL in averages points, yards and passing yards allowed during the regular season – for the second consecutive season – and the Packers' offense that ranked No. 6 in the league as Green Bay went 12-4 to win the NFC North and wrap up the No. 2 seed in the postseason.
"It's exciting," Wilson said of being back in the NFC title game. "But the job's not done, though. There's still a lot more to do. We're on one mission. That's what we keep talking about, just one mission."
And the next step in that mission is a rematch with the Packers.
Photos of the 12s as they cheer the Seahawks on to a 31-17 victory.