The Seattle Seahawks begin their title defense Thursday against the Green Bay Packers in a rematch of the fabled "Fail Mary" encounter from two seasons ago.
Like that shocking result, Thursday's contest seems to be all about the officials rather than the game itself thanks to new rules imposed on defensive backs in response to Seattle's play last year. Coach Pete Carroll touched on this topic earlier in the preseason, saying, “It doesn’t seem quite right,” per Gregg Bell of The News Tribune.
The men in stripes seem to be the focal point, which is a disappointment. The defending champs, arguably the league's best quarterback and a wealth of superstars who can turn a contest on its head in a moment's notice will be in action to officially kick off the 2014 season.
Let's put the focal point there rather than the rules drama. Below is everything fans need to know about the game, including a few storylines and a prediction to boot.
When: Thursday, Sept. 4, at 8:30 p.m. ET
Where: CenturyLink Field, Seattle, WA
Live Stream NBC Sports Live Extra
Betting Info: (via Odds Shark)
Spread: Seattle (-3.5)
Team Injury Reports
Injury info via ESPN.
The Marshawn Lynch Effect
After an offseason holdout and some other distractions, Marshawn Lynch remains the most important offensive player for Seattle—especially against Green Bay.
Now 28 years old and with some serious wear on his body thanks to the usage rates over the course of the past three seasons alone, it is hard to know how Lynch will look this season. Barring a total face-plant, Lynch figures to be in the area code of that same production:
When Lynch gains that many yards per carry, the chains continue to move, and the pressure is alleviated from Russell Wilson's arm. This is especially important now that the Seahawks front office allowed wideout Golden Tate to walk this past offseason, meaning the current crop of players must replace 64 receptions, 898 yards and five touchdowns.
In the infamous Fail Mary game, Green Bay actually did much to bottle up Lynch and limit him to a 3.9 average for 98 yards. Seattle's leading receiver was Tate, who had 68 yards and two touchdowns (officially, at least).
The point is, Lynch's ability to pound the rock effectively will keep Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay offense off the field and open up passing lanes. He is easily the most important player on the field come Thursday, especially with talented backup Christine Michael potentially on the shelf with an injury, per Liz Mathews of 710 ESPN.
Health and Explosiveness
One of Thursday night's major themes happens to concern returning stars who are very much worth the price of admission thanks to their game-breaking ability. NBC's Cris Collinsworth put it best:
For the home team, the name to know in this regard is Percy Harvin. Yes, he was healthy for the postseason last year and personally stuck the dagger in Denver to win the title, but it was but a small sampling of what he is truly capable of if he can remain healthy.
We already know that Harvin will return kicks for the Seahawks this season, but the real focus should be on his abilities as a receiver. In the only 16-game season of his career, Harvin brought in 87 receptions for 967 yards and six touchdowns.
It makes sense that Carroll is locked in on getting him as many touches as possible while also walking the health tightrope, as illustrated by Tyler Dunne of jsonline.com:
Carroll on Harvin: A unique football player. He's going to have a significant role. ... Will be very important to keep him healthy.— Tyler Dunne (@TyDunne) September 1, 2014
On the flip side is one Randall Cobb, who played 10 games last season. Cobb will not only act as the primary punt returner for Green Bay but as the No. 1 wideout while lining up in a variety of slots just one season removed from 80 receptions for 954 yards and eight touchdowns in 15 games.
The point is, both teams are much more than just a great quarterback. Outside of the two listed above, underrated names such as Davante Adams for Green Bay and Paul Richardson for the home team are one reception and dash to the end zone away from changing the complexion of the game.
There is a reason the two teams were picked to kick off the season besides those who reside under center.
Which team wins?
As great as Green Bay will surely be this year—Rodgers is arguably the league's top quarterback and is finally backed by an every-down back in Eddie Lacy who will take full advantage of wide running lanes—it is simply hard to see the Packers going to Seattle and getting a win.
The Packers are not going to be just the second team to beat the Seahawks at home in the past two years, especially when Rodgers has to overcome the 12th man and taking snaps from a new center, Corey Linsley.
While the Green Bay offense will struggle at times, Lynch and Seattle certainly will not against a front seven whose biggest addition in the offseason was 34-year-old Julius Peppers, who has to now take his hand out of the dirt and play linebacker.
So while Green Bay has won six of the last eight against Seattle, starting the season while breaking in new players in the NFL's most hostile environment is a recipe for disaster.
Prediction: Seahawks 24, Packers 16
Note: Stats courtesy of NFL.com.