THE BIG PICTURE
The Green Bay Packers blew the NFC North title but took the first step on their road to redemption Sunday. A bigger test awaits Saturday in the Arizona desert. Aaron Rodgers threw for 210 yards and two touchdowns in directing a ball-control offense and Green Bay beat Washington 35-18 in the first round of the NFC playoffs. Next up comes a rematch against the second-seeded Cardinals (13-3), who drubbed the Packers 38-8 during Week 16 of the regular season. Rodgers was sacked eight times in that first game and the Cardinals returned two of his fumbles for touchdowns. Can Green Bay turn the tables? There were hopeful signs Sunday, including a resurgent performance by the Rodgers-led offense. The defense did the job against red-hot quarterback Kirk Cousins, but Carson Palmer looms as an even bigger threat. Green Bay again must play on the road, but the visiting teams won all four playoff games this weekend. The Cardinals will be clear favorites, but don't count the Packers out.
Trailing 11-0, the Packers finally scored a touchdown early in the second quarter after going punt, safety, punt and punt in their first four possessions. With Washington’s offense on the move in Green Bay territory, Packers outside linebacker Mike Neal took the ball away from quarterback Cousins with a strip sack and fumble recovery. The Packers quickly drove for a field goal to pull within 11-10 and you could feel the momentum shift. Washington went three-and-out on its next series and Rodgers led a touchdown march that gave Green Bay a 17-11 halftime lead.
Rodgers spoke last week about the need to “adjust my mindset and kind of let it fly a little more” in an effort to revive the Packers’ passing attack. Against Washington, the Packers elected to receive the opening kickoff in a show of offensive confidence. But they went nowhere in the first quarter, with Rodgers going 1 for 8 for 11 yards while battling a stiff wind and being sacked in the end zone for a safety. The offense showed its first signs of life in the second quarter when Rodgers hit James Jones down the middle for 34 yards, the big gainer in a nine-play, 80-yard drive that resulted in a touchdown. Rodgers found Randall Cobb in the end zone on a free play when Washington was both offsides and had 12 men on the field. He then looked like the Rodgers of old in directing a nine-play, 60-yard TD drive just before halftime that gave Green Bay its first lead at 17-11. The 17-point second quarter was Green Bay's highest-scoring quarter of the season. Rodgers kept a ball-control offense in gear in the second half and finished 21 for 36 with no interceptions and a passer rating of 93.5.
The Packers knew they would have their hands full against Washington’s Jordan Reed, and the talented tight end gave them fits early. Safety Micah Hyde in particular had a tough time matching up, getting beaten on a 24-yard TD pass that put Washington ahead 11-0. Green Bay was more successful at containing Reed after intermission but he still finished with nine catches for 120 yards and a touchdown.
RANTS AND RAVES
RAVE: With left tackle David Bakhtiari (ankle) inactive for the third straight game, the Packers again were in desperate need of stability on the offensive line after yielding nine sacks at Arizona and five against Minnesota. Backup center JC Tretter got the start in place of Bakhtiari and the result was disastrous right off the bat. After committing a false start that backed up the Packers on their 5, Tretter was beaten by Preston Smith for a sack and safety. Washington received the ball and tacked on a field goal for an early 5-0 lead. But Tretter settled into the demanding assignment, and Rodgers wasn’t sacked again the rest of the way. Tretter also helped pave the way for a resurgent Packers ground game.
RAVE: It seemed so simple: When Eddie Lacy gets fed the football and rushes for 100 yards or more, the Packers usually find a way to win (8-2-1 entering Sunday). On Sunday in Washington, the ground game again spun its wheels early, gaining only 17 first-half yards. But on the Packers’ first drive of the second half, Lacy ran for 11 yards on a fourth-and-one and then ripped off a season-high 30-yard run. James Starks ran it in from four yards out on the next play to put Green Bay back ahead, 24-18. On their next possession, it was Starks leading the way with runs of 11, seven and 22 yards and Lacy punching it in from the two to make it 32-18 after a two-point conversion. Lacy finished with 63 yards, Starks with 53 and Cobb with 24 to keep the chains moving.
RAVE: The Packers’ wide receivers undoubtedly were on notice that Rodgers was ready to air the ball out Sunday, because he couldn’t do it without plenty of help. James Jones responded, making seven catches for 81 yards, including a 34-yarder that got the offense rolling. And Davante Adams finally showed up, with four catches for 48 yards and a TD before leaving with a knee injury that he didn’t think was serious. Cobb contributed three catches for 38 yards and a score and also carried five times for 24 yards.
RAVE: With top cornerback Sam Shields (concussion) missing his fourth straight game and rookie Quinten Rollins (quad) going out in the second quarter, the depleted Packers secondary was in need of some major help from the pass rush. Asked and answered: Green Bay brought the heat against Cousins and delivered with six sacks, including two by outside linebackers Neal and Nick Perry. The Packers also produced 11 quarterback hits, led by Perry’s three.
DID YOU NOTICE?
» With the victory Sunday, the Packers improved to 3-2 in wild-card playoff games under coach Mike McCarthy and have won an NFL-record nine wild-card games (the others: 1982, ’93, ’94, ’95, 2001, ’03, ’10, ’12).
» The Packers’ 17 points in the second quarter was the most they’ve scored in any quarter this season.
» Both the Packers and Redskins scored 13 touchdowns in the first quarter during the regular season, tied for second-most in the NFL behind the Saints’ 16. On Sunday, neither team could reach the end zone in the first 15 minutes as Washington scored a safety and then settled for a field goal to lead 5-0.
» Tim Masthay finished the regular season with a net punting average of 40.25, best in franchise history (since 1976). Against Washington, Masthay was kept busy in the first quarter as the Packers punted three times in their first for possessions. He then got some rest till midway through the fourth quarter, when his 55-yard boot pinned Washington inside its 10-yard line trailing 32-18 .