LANDOVER, Md. - The Green Bay Packers have a playoff life.
It’s not just that they won their wild-card round game at Washington on Sunday. It’s that they put up 35 points and for the first time in a couple months looked like an offense that can strike some fear in defensive coordinators.
There’s still reason to temper judgments and not yet declare that Lazarus has risen. The win was over the NFC’s worst playoff team and a defense that finished the regular season ranked No. 28 in yards allowed and No. 17 in points allowed.
Still, this was a playoff game on the road. Both teams’ seasons were on the line. There was no holding back anyone or anything. It’s the NFL’s ultimate measure. And after a couple months of looking like a team that wasn’t going anywhere in the postseason, the Packers on Sunday gave reason to think they at least have a chance.
That’s mainly because of Aaron Rodgers and his receiving corps. Coordinator Dom Capers’ defense has been fine all season, but the Packers’ offense since the bye in late October had been mostly disjointed and inert.
Then on Sunday with everything on the line Rodgers and his playoff-experienced offense played up to the moment. Even with left tackle David Bakhtiari missing his third straight game, they up big points and made more plays in one day than they had in the last month combined.
“It’s huge for us, really,” Rodgers said of the Packers’ 35-point day. “I talked a lot the last couple weeks about being able to turn it on, and a lot of you probably thought that was lip service. But we just needed a game like this to get our mojo back and get our confidence going. I said that it just takes one. It just takes one performance to get us going in the right direction and believing that we can make a run.”
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact difference Sunday. Rodgers’ stats (93.5 rating, 210 yards passing), for instance, weren’t appreciably better than what he’s been putting up recently.
But Rodgers talked this week about letting it fly more, and though he didn’t look like a drastically different decision maker, he did seem to get the ball out faster and make a few more quick-rhythm throws that have been a reliable fallback in Mike McCarthy’s offense in his 10 years as Packers coach.
“I got the ball out of my hand pretty quickly as often as I could,” Rodgers said, “and when I had to hold it (the offensive line) did a good job of hanging onto their blocks.”
Washington played the same defense everyone else has against the Packers: A single safety high, the other crowding the line of scrimmage while four or five rushers do their best to keep Rodgers contained in the pocket.
But this time, the Packers made a defensive coordinator pay for daring them to throw. After a troubling first quarter (11 total yards), Rodgers consistently found the good one-on-one matchups and exploited Washington’s undermanned secondary.
Often times that meant finding the receiver matched with cornerback Will Blackmon, the 31-year old former Packers draft pick who’s had two knee reconstruction surgeries in his career. On one second-quarter drive, Rodgers hit James Jones for a big play (34 yards) and found Cobb on a free play for a 12-yard touchdown. Both were against Blackmon.
Second-year receiver Davante Adams (four catches for 48 yards) came out of a season-long hibernation for a big day before a knee injury knocked him out of the game in the third quarter. And Cobb had three catches for 38 yards.
The Packers’ best chance for making any kind of a run in the postseason was and is for Rodgers to take this offense on his shoulder even more than in the past and find a way to make some plays with a receiving corps that he hadn’t shown a lot of trust in for most of the season. Sunday he did it better than he has since the first month of the season, and that included flashing several smiles as the game wore on, an expression we haven’t seen that much of the second half of the season.
“This is what playoff football is all about,” McCarthy said. “We’re in the tournament. (Rodgers) has a lot of experience in these games and it’s important for him to go out there and ignite us. Just particularly, just not how he plays, but the way he plays. And I thought he definitely did that today.”
So now the Packers (11-6) will head to No. 2 seeded Arizona next Saturday for a matchup against a team that blew them out 38-8 only two weeks ago. Carolina is the NFC’s top seed, but for my money Arizona is its best team. The Cardinals' offense is maybe the NFL's most dynamic (No. 1 in yards, No. 2 in scoring), and they have a far superior secondary to Washington. This is will be the real test of where the Packers stand.
“We kind of felt like this was a possibility to be able to go back there after that loss,” Rodgers said. “We’re coming off obviously a big win, and their last game they got beat by a lot. It’s going to be a more competitive game, I’ll bet.”