Different Team, Plus Defensive Leader, To Face Seattle This Time

The most recent Green Bay-Seattle meeting was the last of a handful of winnable games in 2006 that got away. And it showed just how valuable Nick Barnett is to this defense. - More Audio | Video | Packers-Seahawks Game Center Notebook: Packers Recapture Home-Field Edge


The film of last year's Monday Night Football game between the Packers and Seahawks may not be worth much X's-and-O's-wise as the two teams prepare for their NFC Divisional playoff game Saturday.

Both offenses are decidedly different from a year ago. Seattle relies more on the pass and less on running back Shaun Alexander in 2007, while Green Bay spreads defenses out with more four- and five-wide receiver sets and leaves the offensive line to pass protect on its own.

But that game on Nov. 27, 2006, at Seattle's Qwest Field revealed two key elements to this Packers team as it made the transition from up-and-comer last year to playoff contender this year.

First, it was the last of a handful of games in 2006 that the Packers were in position to win, but let get away - the very games they began winning in 2007. And second, it showed just how valuable middle linebacker Nick Barnett is to this defense.

To illustrate the first point, the 34-24 loss to the Seahawks last year was frustrating, but by no means the most frustrating in an 8-8 season.

Earlier in the year, the Packers had let New Orleans out of a 13-0 hole and lost 34-27. They were down three points to St. Louis and on the Rams' 11-yard line in the final minute, only to squander the tying or potential game-winning score with a sack and fumble. And they were 1 yard from the tying touchdown in the fourth quarter in Buffalo when an interception thwarted the comeback.

If any one of those turns into a win, or if the Packers turn four first-half turnovers in Seattle into more than a 14-12 halftime advantage, Green Bay likely makes the playoffs in Mike McCarthy's first season as head coach.

But those were the close ones, with make-or-break plays at critical times, that the Packers simply couldn't pull out. In Seattle, the Packers didn't fully take advantage of Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck's early turnovers and then turned it over twice themselves when trying to rally late in the fourth quarter.

"It was a game we felt like we could have had, and those were the type of games last year where we weren't coming away with them," linebacker A.J. Hawk said. "This year, we've been coming away with games like that, so we feel our team has grown, at least in that area."

It started perhaps with the late field goal against Minnesota for a 9-7 win in the final regular-season home game last year. Then this year, tight wins over Philadelphia, San Diego, Minnesota and Washington by either a field goal or touchdown each, all within the season's first six weeks, got the team on a roll.

McCarthy has made reference repeatedly to the confidence his team developed by emerging victorious in those close, early-season games. It carried all the way through to a 10-1 start that essentially left the Packers jockeying for playoff positioning the final five weeks.

"This locker room is pretty confident," cornerback Frank Walker said. "We're confident in each other. It's not an over-confidence where we feel like we're on top of the world. We're just confident in what we can do and we believe in each other.

"In a sense, confidence is like a sense of dependability and accountability."

And one of those team's most dependable and accountable players has been Barnett, which the Packers came to know better than ever in Seattle last year. Barnett was out with a broken hand, missing just the second game of his now five-year career.

While no one was laying the blame for the loss on his replacement Abdul Hodge (who did return a fumble for a touchdown in the first half), a rookie making his first-ever start on less-than-full-strength knees had an awfully tough assignment against a veteran Seattle offense with then-reigning league MVP Alexander.

Alexander rushed 40 times for 201 yards in that game, a snow-filled affair in prime time. That marked the first time in 17 years an opposing back topped 200 yards against the Packers.

"It was just agonizing every play for me, no matter if we were doing good or bad, just because I wanted to be out there with my guys and playing in that game," said Barnett, who proved his durability by playing the rest of the season after that with a club cast on his broken hand. "It looked fun with all the snow and crazy weather on that Monday night game, so it was disappointing. I'm glad that we have an opportunity to play them again."

{sportsad300}Barnett's presence will be the biggest change in Green Bay's defense from last year's game, and his teammates are certainly glad he'll be out there. Barnett led the team with 165 total tackles (109 solo), with 3 1/2 sacks and two interceptions, this season and was named a Pro Bowl alternate, though everyone to a man in the Green Bay locker room and on the coaching staff feels he deserves the trip to Hawaii.

"He's the kind of guy that really gets it all started - setting the front, making the call, and getting us going," defensive coordinator Bob Sanders said. "So he's a valuable member of what we do and we ask him to do a lot of things that maybe some of the other linebackers in the league might not be able to do."

Fellow linebacker Hawk said Barnett is "playing better than any middle linebacker I've seen in the league this year," while the corps' third linebacker, Brady Poppinga, called Barnett "a difference-maker."

He played like it in two of those close, early-season wins. Against San Diego, Barnett's interception and 38-yard return to the 2-yard line with just over a minute left set up the score that sealed the win. And his pursuit and tackle of Washington running back Ladell Betts on a short pass stopped a critical fourth down midway through the fourth quarter of that 17-14 win.

How big an impact can Barnett make against Hasselbeck, Alexander and Co.? Four quarters Saturday will tell the story, but it's safe to say this is a new match-up with a different Green Bay team.

"He brings a lot of speed to the middle linebacker position, which rubs down to all the other members of our defense and even to our team," Poppinga said. "So I think it's big having him out there flying around leading our defense, and it's going to make a difference."

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