Packers hitting the road for redemption
The Green Bay Packers are going to Washington, sputtering offense and all.
Coming off back-to-back losses to playoff-bound Arizona and Minnesota, the Packers will open the postseason on the road for the first time since winning Super Bowl XLV. Green Bay has its issues — a floundering offense and a heavy rash of injuries — but the matchup with Washington is still intriguing.
The two franchises have met only twice in the postseason — the 1936 NFL championship game when the Packers beat the Boston-based franchise and then the 1972 divisional playoff game that Washington won 16-3. It took 20 years for Green Bay to make its next postseason appearance in a non-strike-shortened year.
The aftermath of Sunday’s 20-13 loss to the Vikings left the Packers to face one of the most surprising teams to surface in the NFL playoff race. A year ago, it was uncertain whether Jay Gruden would survive his first year as Washington’s head coach amid questions about Robert Griffin III and a 4-12 campaign.
New general manager and former Packers executive Scot McCloughan exercised Griffin III’s fifth-year option, but later backed Gruden in naming Kirk Cousins the starting quarterback. The switch to Cousins, a solid draft class and low-key personnel decisions set the tone for Washington’s turnaround.
A 9-7 record was enough to win the putrid NFC East despite Washington not beating a single playoff-bound team. The division’s ineptitude already has resulted in coaching changes in Philadelphia and New York (Chip Kelly and Tom Coughlin) with front-office changes possibly on the way in both places.
Still, Washington has issues. The backfield platoon of Alfred Morris and Matt Jones registered the league’s third lowest per-carry average (3.7). One reason Cousins became the first Washington quarterback to throw for 4,000 yards and 25 touchdowns was because of the production its 28th-ranked defense allowed.
However, Washington certainly has momentum on its side, carrying a four-game winning streak into the playoffs. The offense has scored at least 34 points in each of its last three games. Meanwhile, the Packers have scored more than 34 points once all season (a 38-28 win over Kansas City in Week 3).
“I think we’re in a situation where we have to prove to ourselves, again, that we can win the big games,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “I think there’s a belief in there, but we’ve got to prove it to ourselves. We can go on a run, but it’s going to start with a good performance in Washington. And then hopefully, we’ll be able to talk about the next opportunity.”
Washington will unload Griffin III once the season is over to avoid paying him the $16 million he’s owed for 2016, which was only guaranteed for injury. Instead, McCloughan likely will wind up picking up the tab on Cousins, who’ll be an unrestricted free agent this offseason.
Cousins was a fourth-round pick in the same 2012 NFL draft class that Washington traded three first-round picks to move up and select Griffin III with the second overall pick. He made nine starts in his first three NFL seasons before Gruden finally committed to him in the summer.
Cousins has been on a tear since throwing for six touchdowns and with eight interceptions during Washington’s 2-4 start. He has been one of the top quarterbacks in the league over his last 10 starts, completing 228 of 315 passes (72.4 percent) for 23 touchdowns and three interceptions.
It’s almost the inverse of Aaron Rodgers’ season, which started with him throwing for f15 touchdowns with only two picks in the Packers’ 6-0 start. Since then, Rodgers has completed only 223 of 390 passes (57.2 percent) for 2,330 yards, 16 touchdowns and six interceptions.
Cousins’ 74.7 completion percentage at FedEx Field is the highest in NFL history in home games in a season.
“Probably the last half of the season he’s been playing like he needed to be in the Pro Bowl,” cornerback Casey Hayward said. “So we need to come prepared. They’ve been scoring a lot on offense and playing really good as a team. We’ll figure it out.”
Speedy veteran DeSean Jackson missed the first three months of the season due to shoulder and hamstring injuries, but has complemented Pierre Garcon well since his post-bye return. Cousins’ favorite target remains third-year tight end Jordan Reed, who caught 87 passes for 952 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Left tackle Trent Williams was the only player Washington had selected to the Pro Bowl, though Reed and linebacker Ryan Kerrigan were voted alternates.
Statistically, Washington has the worst defense of the 12 playoff teams and no one else is really close. Only four teams — the New York Giants, New Orleans, Philadelphia and San Francisco — gave up more yards than Washington this season.
First-year coordinator Joe Barry, who directed Detroit’s defense during its winless 2008 campaign, has installed his own version of the 3-4 defense in Washington after spending his previous three years as the linebackers coach in San Diego.
He doesn’t have many playmakers to work with outside of Kerrigan, who has started every game in his first five NFL season and led the defense with 9½ sacks this season. Injuries to Dashaun Phillips (stinger) and safety Kyshoen Jarrett (arm) forced the team to sign veteran cornerback Cary Williams on Tuesday.
Former Packers cornerback Will Blackmon has started 10 games this season with 49 tackles, two interceptions and three forced fumbles. Injuries and problems at inside linebacker have played a role in Washington giving up the seventh-most rushing yards to opposing offenses (122.6 yards per game).
“They’re doing some good things up front,” receiver Randall Cobb said. “They’re getting some pressure with their front. They have some big guys up there. The back end with DaShon Goldson, big-hitter. DeAngelo Hall has been doing it for a long time. He has a lot of experience. He knows what he’s doing.”
The matchup still could be a welcome reprieve for the Packers, who scored only 21 points in the last two games of the season. They had their work cut out for them in facing five defenses that finished in the top 10 this season and only three (Oakland, St. Louis and San Francisco) that ended the year in the bottom third.
Win or go home
The talk is over for the Packers. There won’t be any time left to figure out what’s going on with the offense if they lose Sunday. Players would retreat into their offseason with the coaching staff left to figure out what went wrong.
The Packers quickly put Sunday’s loss to Vikings behind them in an attempt to turn their focus to Washington. The locker room agrees the records in the playoffs are thrown out. The Packers made a run to the Super Bowl in 2010 after being a sixth seed and nothing is stopping them from doing it again.
Maybe Sunday’s loss to the Vikings wasn’t the worst-case scenario for the Packers. Sure, a win would’ve meant a fifth consecutive NFC North championship and a way to catapult into the postseason, but it also would have required them to beat a 10-win Minnesota team for a third time.
The Packers swung and missed badly on that opportunity. Now, they have to hope something clicks against Washington. If that happens, maybe it’ll be enough momentum to put together a better showing in either Carolina or Arizona.
“You’re in the race. You have a chance and it’s what you do with it now,” Cobb said. “So we’re all prepared for that and we’re all going to be prepared for that. Win or go home.”