LANDOVER, Md. - The Green Bay Packers 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 before a crowd of 81,327 at FedEx Field.
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, in a divisional round game at 7:15 p.m. Central time. Rodgers was sacked eight times in that first game and the Cardinals returned two of his fumbles for touchdowns.
That game might have been the low point of the Packers' season, but they turned things around against Washington. Here are some quick observations on Sunday's game:
» Aaron Rodgers’ mindset: 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 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.
» Down the line: 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.
» The rundown on running game: 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). When he doesn’t, they struggle. 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.
» Defense passes the test: The Packers’ pass defense faced a major challenge Sunday in red-hot Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins and his dazzling array of receivers, featuring deep threat DeSean Jackson and tight end Reed. And minus cornerback Sam Shields (concussion), it figured to be a long day. Reed was a major factor from the outset, beating safety Micah Hyde for a 24-yard TD that put Washington ahead 11-0. But the pass rush kept up the heat, with outside linebacker Mike Neal’s strip sack and fumble recovery setting up a second-quarter Mason Crosby field goal. Cornerback Quinten Rollins was sidelined in the second quarter by a quad injury and Washington took advantage, scoring a TD on its first second-half possession. Key play of the drive was a 17-yard pass to Reed, who continued to make life miserable for Hyde. But the defense stiffened and Neal capped a strong day with a fourth-quarter sack to end a late Washington drive.
» What it all means: Can Green Bay turn the tables at Arizona after being blown out there two weeks ago? 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.