Ryan, Wes and Pete discuss the Packers' 35-18 victory at Washington in the wild-card round. (Jan. 10, 2016) Weston Hodkiewicz, Pete Dougherty and Ryan Wood | Press-Gazette Media
LANDOVER, Md. - Maybe there’s reason to believe in the Green Bay Packers’ offense, after all.
With their season on the line, the Packers stepped onto FedEx Field on Sunday and put forth one of the most atrocious first quarters you’ll see ever. Green Bay managed a whopping 11 yards and one first down on their first four series in its wild-card showdown in Washington.
Instead of plummeting, however, the Packers’ struggling offense pulled itself together en route to a 35-18 wild-card win over Washington in front of 81,367 to set up a rematch with the Arizona Cardinals this Saturday.
Aaron Rodgers acknowledged earlier this week he needed to let the ball fly more. It didn’t happen right away – he completed only one of his first eight passes – but once the momentum started Washington could do little to stop it.
After falling behind 11-0 in the first 17 minutes, the Packers reeled off five consecutive scoring series and looked like the offense of old. Receivers James Jones (seven catches for 81 yards), Davante Adams (four catches, 48 yards) and Randall Cobb (62 total yards) found separation and all got involved.
Cobb’s insertion in the backfield in the second quarter forced Washington out of its base defense. Green Bay’s commitment to running the ball paid off with Eddie Lacy (12 carries for 63 yards) and James Starks (12 carries for 53 yards) getting better as the game wore on.
After months of pulling teeth to move the chains, the Packers’ offense looked unstoppable again.
“We’ve been in that situation,” left guard Josh Sitton said. “We just kept saying on the sideline, ‘Let’s not wait until the second half to respond. Let’s not wait until the fourth quarter to respond.’ That’s what we’ve been doing. We haven’t been playing good football in the first half lately. The tempo was what really helped us out. We just executed. Once you start rolling, it just builds momentum.”
The early deficit could have easily sent the Packers into their offseason, but Rodgers trusted his receivers to make plays. Like earlier this season, he made Washington pay for 12-men-on-the-field penalties. His first on Ricky Jean-Francois came at a critical point in the second quarter on third-and-4.
On the next play, Rodgers connected with Jones on a 34-yard completion over former Packers cornerback Will Blackmon in the middle of the field. It set the table for Green Bay’s first touchdown off a 12-yard pass to Cobb.
The more passes Green Bay completed, the greater the tempo increased. By the middle of the second quarter, the Packers seemed to regain their traditional swagger. The offensive line, which was again without David Bakhtiari, gelled and receivers were finding holes in Washington’s 28th-ranked defense.
Adams, who struggled with drops during the regular season, made a magnificent 20-yard catch along the sidelines at the end of the second quarter. Two plays later, he came free in Washington’s end zone for a 10-yard touchdown that gave Green Bay a 17-11 lead at halftime despite the woeful start.
“They’re a resilient bunch,” Adams said of the offense. “To be able to keep making plays and pushing through adversity when things aren’t going that great, it says a lot about our offense. We’re a powerhouse and tell everybody that and I’ll say it a million times. Once we start clicking and executing, it’s hard to stop us.”
The Packers rushed for only 17 yards on nine carries in the first half, but kept going back to the ground game. With Cobb and the passing game forcing Washington into its nickel, Lacy and Starks slowly began to wear down its front.
The Packers took the lead for good with 4:18 left in the third quarter when Starks scored on a four-yard toss one play after Lacy uncorked a season-long carry of 30 yards. In the end, Green Bay’s 35 points were the most the offense has produced since a Week 3 win over Kansas City.
The performance was one of the Packers’ most complete showings this season. The defense, which has carried Green Bay at times this season, was stout when the offense struggled early and destructive when it grabbed the lead late.
The Packers hit Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins 13 times and recorded six sacks. Outside linebackers Nick Perry (shoulder) and Mike Neal (hip) put lingering ailments behind them to record two sacks apiece. Neal’s strip sack of Cousins in the first quarter occurred on the series after the Packers’ first score.
“We just said it’s about making plays,” James Jones said. “You come on the sidelines, everybody knows it’s win or go home and we were like, ‘we’ve got to make some plays.’ The defense is out there playing lights out right and we’re leaving them out to hang, so we’ve got to make some plays. That’s what we did.”
Even more important than receivers getting open or linemen holding their blocks was the difference Aaron Rodgers made in controlling the tempo of the game. His numbers weren’t astounding (21-of-36 for 210 yards and two touchdowns), but his improved rhythm and timing were reflected in the overall efficiency of the offense.
A master of pre-snap mind games, Rodgers kept the Packers’ offense a step ahead by baiting Washington into two 12-men-on-the-field penalties and two offside calls. His production in the second quarter, which came with a sharp wind at his back, was the impetus for the comeback.
“When he’s at his best, everybody seems to follow suit and play their best,” right guard T.J. Lang said. “He’s our leader. The team goes as he goes. To see the urgency that he had and the confidence that he had making some great throws, that’s the Aaron we’re used to and that’s the guy we’re going to need going forward. He knows that.”
The jury is still out on whether the offense’s breakout is sustainable against better defenses. The second-seeded Cardinals (13-3) feature a top-10 unit that’s equally skilled against the run and pass. Regardless, Sunday proved there’s more to Green Bay’s offense that the abysmal showing it had last month (38-8 loss) in Arizona.
Early lines have the Packers as seven-point underdogs against the Cardinals, but you might not want to write off them quite yet.
“Honestly, I don’t think we deserved anybody’s faith coming into this game by the way we finished the regular season,” Lang said. “We knew the type of team we had. We knew what we had to do to get the job done. We knew there was going to be adversity in this game. It was going to be how we responded to that.”