The Packers have stumbled into these playoffs, losing their last two games, ceding the NFC North division title for the first time in five years and looking like a team in disarray.
While Green Bay doesn’t seem to possess the same united identity and galvanized momentum, the "hot-at-the-right-time je ne sais quoi," that defined the 2010 squad – which entered as a Wild Card team but stormed through the playoffs to win the Super Bowl – the echo-chamber refrain that emanated from Lambeau this week was that the postseason is a new season.
Indeed. Green Bay fans should hope so.
As head coach Mike McCarthy said in the lead up to Sunday’s Wild Card road game against Washington, the Packers know how to win. Or, at least, having gone 2-4 in the postseason since 2010, they remember what it’s like.
In facing a Washington team that hasn’t had a playoff win in a decade, Green Bay has the advantage in experience, MVP-winning quarterbacks and, one still would think, overall talent. Washington has been playing better of late – winners of four in a row – and is the healthier team.
So what will happen on Sunday in the nation’s capital? Here are five Packers predictions:
1. At least 30 carries for Lacy and Starks
Last week, the Packers started out running the ball against the Vikings early on, rushing on 10 of their first 15 plays and getting a field goal on the opening drive. After that, though, they ran only 16 more times the rest of the game, leading to vocal offensive lineman Josh Sitton saying the coaches needed to call more ground plays.
In Green Bay’s two best offensive games – the Week 11 win at Minnesota and the Week 14 victory against Dallas – running backs Eddie Lacy and James Starks rushed a combined 30 times for 114 yards and 35 for 195, respectively. Look for the Packers to commit to the run and stick with it against Washington, which surrendered the seventh-most rushing yards per game in the NFL this year.
2. Enhanced, unconventional protection packages
The Packers have allowed 14 sacks in the past two games, including 13 on Aaron Rodgers. The offensive line is a wreck – most of the linemen are battling significant injuries, and multiple have played out of ideal position – and it’s led to Rodgers gifting opponents three defensive touchdowns the past couple weeks. Green Bay kept reliable fullback John Kuhn in often to pass block against Minnesota and also could use multiple tight ends Sunday – or even an extra lineman, as it did with the jumbo run packages of years past. They'll also probably roll Rodgers out a lot against Washington, as the mobile quarterback still throws very well on the run.
3. Aggressive, ambitious play-calling
Late in last week’s loss to the Vikings, there was indecision, or at least miscommunication, between McCarthy and Rodgers on a fourth-and-goal situation, leading to the latter burning a timeout. It also led to renewed rumblings that coach and quarterback are at odds about playcalling, especially after McCarthy relinquished those duties for the first time before the season and then took them back late in the campaign, as the offense swooned.
In last year’s epic NFC Championship Game collapse in Seattle, McCarthy was conservative in calling for field goals when Rodgers reportedly wanted to be aggressive and go for touchdowns. Look for the head coach to put his foot on the gas pedal against Washington, even if Green Bay’s current offense is less proficient, if only to shake things up and appease his QB.
4. Big plays and costly mistakes in the secondary
Overall, rookie cornerbacks Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins have been revelations in the defensive backfield. In their initial seasons, the first- and second-rounder have made huge plays – they’ve combined for five interceptions, and both have returned a pick for a touchdown – but also have committed gaffes. With opposing teams picking on him, Randall has been called for five penalties, while the steadier Rollins has been flagged just once but in fewer snaps. With speedy, savvy veteran cornerback Sam Shields out with a concussion, both rookies will play major roles again – for better and for worse – against Washington, which has the league’s third-best passer rating (102.0).
5. Crosby’s kicks will be decisive
Washington’s defense is far from elite, but Green Bay’s offense has been sputtering. That could mean several field-goal opportunities for Crosby when the Packers stall out on drives in the opposing third of the field. Crosby’s had an excellent season, converting 24 of 28 attempts (85.7), and expressed a lot of confidence in himself this week. If the game is close, as it’s expected to be, the kicker’s importance will be amplified. He’s come up big in clutch playoff situations in the past – think last year’s overtime-forcing kick in the NFC Championship Game, during which he was 5 for 5 on field goals – and could be the difference on Sunday.
Born in Milwaukee but a product of Shorewood High School (go ‘Hounds!) and Northwestern University (go ‘Cats!), Jimmy never knew the schoolboy bliss of cheering for a winning football, basketball or baseball team. So he ditched being a fan in order to cover sports professionally - occasionally objectively, always passionately. He's lived in Chicago, New York and Dallas, but now resides again in his beloved Brew City and is an ardent attacker of the notorious Milwaukee Inferiority Complex.
After interning at print publications like Birds and Blooms (official motto: "America's #1 backyard birding and gardening magazine!"), Sports Illustrated (unofficial motto: "Subscribe and save up to 90% off the cover price!") and The Dallas Morning News (a newspaper!), Jimmy worked for web outlets like CBSSports.com, where he was a Packers beat reporter, and FOX Sports Wisconsin, where he managed digital content. He's a proponent and frequent user of em dashes, parenthetical asides, descriptive appositives and, really, anything that makes his sentences longer and more needlessly complex.
Jimmy appreciates references to late '90s Brewers and Bucks players and is the curator of the unofficial John Jaha Hall of Fame. He also enjoys running, biking and soccer, but isn't too annoying about them. He writes about sports - both mainstream and unconventional - and non-sports, including history, music, food, art and even golf (just kidding!), and welcomes reader suggestions for off-the-beaten-path story ideas.