The reigning Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks will kick off the 2014 NFL season on Thursday when they host Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in a rematch of the famed "Fail Mary" game of 2012.
Things have changed dramatically since that contest, however. The Seahawks are now the big bullies on the block, a group champing at the bit to build on the franchise's first championship season in what has become the NFL's most difficult place to play, CenturyLink Field.
Seattle is an imposing 17-1 on its home field since third-year quarterback Russell Wilson took over the team and the club's fans, known as the 12th Man, create the loudest environment in all of pro football.
"We've all been waiting to get this thing started," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said.
"The stage will be great," Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson added. "You always like playing on national TV because everyone is watching you. It is a great opportunity for all of us. It will be a good time."
Last time the Pack made the trip out to the Pacific Northwest, Wilson found ex-teammate Golden Tate for a 24-yard touchdown on the final play of the contest to give the Seahawks a 14-12 win. Tate's TD was hardly the story, though, as the contest proved to be the impetus for the NFL to make up with its full-time officials, who were locked out at the time due to a labor dispute.
Then-Packer M.D. Jennings and Tate both got their hands on the ball on the game-winning play with the replacement zebras ruling simultaneous possession, therefore awarding the TD and the game to Seattle. Prior to the catch, though, Tate clearly shoved a defender with both hands, which the NFL later acknowledged should have drawn an offensive pass interference penalty, an outcome that would have negated the touchdown and resulted in a Packers victory.
This time around the "real officials" will certainly be on hand but they will bring with them a directive to put an "enhanced emphasis" on certain penalties, including illegal contact and defensive holding.
That could affect the Seahawks, who are fresh off a 43-8 drubbing of Denver in Super Bowl XLVIII against a Broncos team which just happened to be the first NFL in history to score over 600 points in a season.
That meant little to Seattle's physical defense, however, which helped build a 22-0 halftime lead, and a humbling 36-0 advantage before finally allowing the Broncos' first score on the final play of the third quarter.
The Seahawks' stingy stop unit scored a safety on the first play from scrimmage -- the quickest score in Super Bowl history -- before tacking on an interception return for a score from linebacker Malcolm Smith, who also recovered a fumble and made nine tackles en route to being named Super Bowl MVP.
When the carnage was finally over the Broncos were held to nearly 30 points below their scoring average and five-time NFL MVP Peyton Manning had thrown two picks.
Fast forward to the 2014 preseason and the NFL reacted to Seattle's dominance by cracking down on penalties believed to be "under-officiated," including the aforementioned illegal contact and defensive holding calls.
Many believe that directive was a nod to the Seahawks' success last season, almost a warning to "The Legion of Boom," the ultra-physical defensive backfield which consistently beat up on opposing receivers en route to the Lombardi Trophy.
Despite being the most penalized team in the league in 2013 the Seahawks reached the pinnacle by forcing officials to throw the flag in key moments, something Carroll correctly surmised most wouldn't be willing to do.
Penalties, however, were up to a ludicrous degree at times during the preseason, something the Seahawks' coach hopes changes when the regular season gets underway.
"I hope that the league office will be open to the conversation," Carroll said earlier this preseason. "It doesn't seem quite right. It seems like there are too many calls being made and too many incidental calls that seem to be affecting the game. So, we'll see -- It's obviously different. So, the question is: Is it better? I don't know."
For now, the league insists that the renewed emphasis on these particular penalties will continue throughout the regular season.
"We're not going to change how we're calling the games once the regular season starts," NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino told MMQB.com.
Blandino's belief, however, is that teams will adjust to the stricter rules and play accordingly, meaning the extra flags will disappear, a scenario the league has tried to sell from the beginning of this process.
"Coaches adjust, and players adjust," Blandino said. "They have to, and they know it. And we'll correct our officials when we feel they're being overzealous with certain calls."
As for the Packers, they will enter the 2014 season understanding what life was like without Rodgers for an extended period of time. And the results were hardly pretty.
A broken collarbone sidelined the Green Bay superstar for seven straight weeks in 2013 as the Pack floundered before A-Rod returned with his Superman cape in tow to lead Green Bay to a season-ending victory over Chicago, a triumph which secured the team's third straight division title despite a pedestrian 8-7-1 record in the downtrodden NFC North.
The Pack was 5-2 and likely on the way to 6-2 when the Bears' Shea McClellin sent Rodgers to the MASH unit, a play which literally slammed the brakes on the club's campaign last year.
Things completely fell apart with Scott Tolzien and Matt Flynn at the helm as Mike McCarthy's team failed to win again until Week 14 when they barely squeaked by an injury-riddled Falcons club that had already tapped out of what was a dismal season for them.
These two clubs have met 16 times, including the regular season and playoffs. Green Bay leads the regular-season series 9-6 and took both playoff meetings (2007 Divisional, 2003 Wild Card) at Lambeau Field.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Perhaps no one in the history of the game throws the back-shoulder fade better than Rodgers which will put the league's intent to pay closer attention to illegal contact and defensive holding -- as well as offensive pass interference for that matter -- under the spotlight immediately.
Rodgers is also the rare pocket passer who excels when extending plays with his feet and throwing on the run.
In his last healthy season Rodgers led the league in passer rating (108.0) for the second consecutive year, becoming the first QB to do so since Manning led the NFL in the category in three straight seasons (2004-06). Meanwhile, his combined passer rating of 114.9 from 2011-12 was the best two-season passer rating in NFL history. Rodgers was "slumping" a bit before going down last season and finished the campaign with a sterling 104.9 rating.
Rodgers' top target is Nelson, a big, physical receiver who can snap the football out of the air.
"He's a fantastic play maker," Carroll said when discussing Nelson. "You put the ball anywhere near him and he's likely to come up with a way to make the catch."
It's strength against strength, however, as the Seahawks' defensive backfield, led by star cornerback Richard Sherman and all-everything safety Earl Thomas, is by far the best in all of football and spearheaded a unit which led the NFL in scoring defense (14.4 points per game) and average yards allowed (273.6).
Sherman matched his career high with eight interceptions and became the first Seahawks player to lead NFL in interceptions since 1993 a season ago, while Thomas set a career high with 100 tackles and tied his career high with five interceptions.
The other Pro Bowl-type in the defensive backfield is massive strong safety Kam Chancellor, who is regarded as one of the hardest-hitting safeties in the NFL, amassing 278 tackles since 2011. The runt of the litter so to speak is CB Byron Maxwell, who took over for the suspended Brandon Browner last year, starting the last five games. If anything Maxwell has better coverage skills over Browner, who is now in New England, but he is not as physical and far more likely to bail out into coverage at the line of scrimmage.
"They play with a lot of confidence, have a little swagger about them," Rodgers said. "And it's a tough place to play."
A-Rod will be helped by the fact his offense is much more balanced now because of second-year running back Eddie Lacy, a powerful one-cut, downhill runner. The former Alabama star was dominant at times as a rookie, gaining 1,178 yards on the ground and adding 35 receptions and 11 touchdowns.
"He's an obvious element now," Carroll said of Lacy. "He's a big deal now. He can get tough yards, he can break tackles, he makes long runs, he does not go down easily."
Offensively, Seattle's Wilson mirrors Rodgers in at least one way -- the third-year pro plays with an uncommon self-assuredness, fueled by an innate ability to keep his eyes up and always looking downfield.
Wilson has the requisite speed and elusiveness, along with the arm strength to be a dangerous dual-threat under center. His feel and natural instincts for the game leave him well-prepared for any adjustments opposing defensive coordinators make. Wilson already has 28 wins in two years (regular season and postseason), the most in NFL history for a starter through two campaigns, and became the third-youngest QB to win the NFL title last year.
"The sky is the limit for that guy," Seahawks receiver Percy Harvin said when discussing his QB. "Anybody that has been watching the preseason, he's been lights out."
"I'm thrilled about what we are seeing," Carroll added when addressing question on Wilson. "I didn't know how much farther he would go from that year to this year. It seems like he is really, really in control of what is happening."
A hip injury limited the explosive Harvin to one regular-season game in 2013, but he recovered from that and was perhaps the best player on the field in the Super Bowl, rushing twice for 45 yards and returning the second-half kickoff 87 yards for a TD. Having him for an entire season makes the Seattle offense that much more formidable.
"I think you have to be very impressed with their offense," McCarthy said. "On Russell Wilson and their ability to stay in favorable down and distance and keep the mix of the run and the pass. They've always been outstanding running the football (with Marshawn Lynch), but they look like they're a lot more balanced now."
The Packers' defense, meanwhile, is not nearly as formidable as their offense, especially after nose tackle B.J. Raji went down with a torn biceps in the preseason.
The hope is veteran edge player Julius Peppers recaptures his Pro Bowl form to give Green Bay a mirror to star pass rusher Clay Matthews on the edge.
Forget about Fail Mary II, this is a different Seattle team than the Packers saw in their last visit to the Pacific Northwest. This Seahawks group is probably the most talented in football from one through 53 and Green Bay won't be grousing at any officials this time, In fact the Packers will be looking for any assistance they can get.
The Seahawks have a 17-1 record at CenturyLink Field over the past two seasons (including the playoffs) and that trend will continue on Thursday.
"There's a challenge every game, particularly the opening game," Carroll said. "After coming off the offseason and all that, there's always a big challenge. We are really tuned in right now and excited to play the Packers."
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Seahawks 27, Packers 20