SEATTLE — The NFL has shown time and again that it has no sense of humor. But the No Fun League isn’t diabolical, either.
Instead, the NFL is money-driven, which is why it sent the Green Bay Packers back to the scene of the crime — CenturyLink Field — Thursday night for the opening game of the 2014 regular season.
Controversy equals television ratings, and there was no more controversial ending in NFL history than the infamous “Fail Mary” pass in the third game of the 2012 season. That game ended with a stunning 14-12 Seattle victory that served as a coming-out party for the Seahawks and cost the Packers dearly in terms of playoff positioning.
The teams that met in the rematch Thursday night were dramatically different from the ones that went at it two years ago.
That first game was notable for two things: Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was sacked eight times in the first half and Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, then a rookie, lobbed a disputed — to this day — last-second pass to Golden Tate that the Packers appeared to intercept but instead was ruled a touchdown by a replacement official who was in over his head.
Since then, the Packers have added a viable running game and altered their defense in both approach and personnel, all built around the signing of free agent pass rusher Julius Peppers. Coach Mike McCarthy abandoned the run in the first half two years ago, but since then has made such a commitment to the run that the Packers might have the NFL’s most balanced offense.
The Seahawks took flight after that gift victory and didn’t land until they embarrassed Denver in the Super Bowl last season, a stunning two-year rise that has made them a strong favorite to become the first NFL champion to repeat since New England in 2003 and 2004. Seattle built the NFL’s most suffocating defense, added premier playmaker Percy Harvin and grew on offense as Wilson, the former University of Wisconsin star, developed into an elite quarterback.
So which team advanced the most in two years?
The answer was loud and clear Thursday night. This time, the Seahawks didn’t need any last-minute help from the officials as they schooled the confident Packers en route to a 36-16 victory.
The Packers supposedly have their most talented team since the 2011 team that went 15-1, but the Seahawks physically dominated them on both sides of the ball. Including playoffs, Seattle is now 18-1 at home over the past two seasons and the gap between it and the teams chasing it appears to be growing.
“As far as coming in here and playing the style of football game that we (sought), we did not accomplish that by any means,” McCarthy said. “Really starting with running the football, we weren’t quite where we needed to be there, and we definitely did not stop the run.”
Green Bay’s offense had looked masterful during the preseason, blending Rodgers’ passing, Eddie Lacy’s running and an up-tempo, no-huddle offense into a unit that was unstoppable. That offense hadn’t faced Seattle’s physical defense, however.
If the new NFL rules limiting defensive contact were a problem for Seattle, it didn’t show. Lacy had some success early, but the Seahawks quickly shut him down and at the same time prevented Rodgers from throwing the ball downfield.
“This is the Seattle Seahawks,” Rodgers said. “They’re a great defense. You don’t expect to be able to move the ball effectively every down and every drive. But you’ve got to make the most of your opportunities.”
The only thing more disappointing than the Packers offense was the Packers defense. Seattle’s offensive performance in exhibition games had been even better than the Packers’ showing, with Wilson making quicker decisions and Harvin becoming an explosive factor in an expanded playbook. Once halfback Marshawn Lynch got rolling, Green Bay’s defense looked much like it did last year, with the line getting moved off the ball consistently and the linebackers and defensive backs missing tackles.
The Packers came out in a 4-3 defense they had practiced only behind closed doors but, like the no-huddle offense, it didn’t fool the Seahawks. And while McCarthy had talked about grit in his first training camp address to the team and defensive end Mike Daniels had stated emphatically that the defense needed to get meaner, the Packers were not a match for the physical Seahawks. Especially Lynch, who rushed for 110 yards on 20 carries.
“They broke a lot of tackles; we broke some, probably not enough,” McCarthy said. “I just didn’t like the way we started the game. I didn’t like our substitution patterns, burning of the timeouts on special teams and defense. You come up into this environment and you have to carry your preparation forward.”
This time, there was no fuming over having a game stolen from them. The Packers didn’t get robbed by the Seahawks, they got rolled.
It was only the opener, so there’s no reason to panic. However, the Packers will have to get much better if they want to win a Super Bowl this season because, if they make the playoffs, the NFL is probably going to send them right back to CenturyLink Field.