This game was proof of why it’s important just to get into the postseason. Based on everything the Green Bay Packers had put on film for the past two-plus months prior to Sunday’s kickoff, they looked like a team that had no business winning a playoff game on the road. But over the course of three hours on Sunday, Green Bay showed signs of being a team that could make a serious run.
Here are the five biggest takeaways from the Packers’ 35-18 win over Washington:
1. Slow start, excellent finish
It sure didn’t begin well for Green Bay. The early returns of JC Tretter starting at left tackle were not good. David Bakhtiari’s ankle injury has produced a turnstile at the key position responsible for protecting Aaron Rodgers’ blindside, with Tretter being the third starter at that spot in the past three games (following the failures of Don Barclay and Josh Sitton). Tretter gave up a sack in the end zone that gave Washington an early 2-0 lead, and it seemed like Rodgers could be in for another long day of getting hit in the pocket.
An early turning point of the game was DeSean Jackson not reaching the ball across the goal line, and his called touchdown being overturned upon replay. The Packers made a defensive stand at the goal line following that call, and Washington had to settle for three points.
But the early struggles weren’t yet over, as Kirk Cousins led a touchdown drive on the next series, connecting with Jordan Reed to go up, 11-0.
Over the final 43 minutes of the game, though, Green Bay went on a 35-7 run and left the nation’s capital with not only a victory, but a decisive one.
From midway through the second quarter until early in the fourth quarter, every one of the Packers’ series concluded with points – including four touchdown drives. With everything on the line, Green Bay’s offense woke up just in time.
2. Rodgers not perfect, but smiling and leading
This still wasn’t an MVP-caliber performance. It wasn’t the type of game that had Rodgers drawing Michael Jordan comparisons and nearing the top of the "best quarterback ever" lists earlier in the year. As has been somewhat common this season, Rodgers missed throws that the 2011-14 versions of him seemed to hit 99 percent of the time. He finished with a 93.5 passer rating, marking the 11th consecutive game in which he’s failed to go over 100.0 in that all-important statistical category.
But that’s where the negatives end about Rodgers in this game.
The quarterback, whose facial expressions and on-field demeanor recently have suggested feelings of frustration, was smiling, chest-bumping and leading the offense at the most critical moments.
Rodgers’ favorite target was James Jones, throwing it to the veteran receiver on nearly 33 percent of his pass attempts. Jones was solid, catching seven passes for 81 yards and once again easily earning the minimum-salary contract that he signed in September. But Rodgers also distributed the action around. Davante Adams, before his ill-timed injury, had arguably his best game all season, with four receptions on four targets for 48 yards and a touchdown.
In the playoffs, a team can often only go as far as its starting quarterback takes them. The Packers can be thankful that their man behind center is Rodgers, and he showed up in a big way Sunday.
3. Running game displays balance, execution
- Eddie Lacy: 12 carries, 63 yards (5.3 average), one touchdown
- James Starks: 12 carries, 53 yards (4.4 average), one touchdown
- Randall Cobb: 5 carries, 24 yards (4.8 average)
Mike McCarthy kept Washington’s defense off-balance with the varied running styles of Lacy, Starks and Cobb. The numbers show that no matter which of these players lined up in the backfield, they were beneficial to Green Bay’s offense.
Even the overall run-pass balance was good: 36 passing attempts, 32 running plays.
Trailing early in the game, McCarthy could have abandoned the run like he has at times in the past. Fortunately for the Packers, they kept going to the run, despite it not working early in the game (Green Bay’s first three runs, all to Lacy, netted a total of four yards).
4. Making Kirk Cousins uncomfortable in the pocket
Cousins was the NFC’s offensive player of the month in December. All five of his starts in that span produced passer ratings over 100.0. Cousins was feeling great heading into this game and had clearly found a rhythm offensively.
The Packers’ defense disrupted Cousins’ rhythm by hurrying him and hitting him often. Green Bay officially finished with 13 QB hurries, led by the trio of Clay Matthews, Mike Neal and Nick Perry – each of whom had three.
Cousins was not only hit 13 times, he was sacked six times (Perry and Neal each with two) and had the ball stripped out of his hands on three occasions. One of those fumbles was recovered by the Packers at a time in the game when Washington led, 11-7. Green Bay turned that turnover into three points.
Dom Capers called a great game, and several of his players delivered big-time performances.
5. Chance for a "re-do" in Arizona
Everyone remembers how badly the Packers were beaten by the Cardinals in the regular season. After all, that game just happened two weeks ago, ending in a 38-8 Arizona victory in which Green Bay seemed like a team that didn’t even belong in the same league as the NFC’s No. 2 seed.
In a postgame speech to his team that was played on FOX Sports, Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians warned his team that day to not say anything negative about the Packers. Arians’ reasoning was simple: He knew Green Bay could soon be right back in their house, and no one will care who won the regular-season matchup if the Packers come back to Arizona and win the rematch in the playoffs.
After winning in Washington, McCarthy referred to this as an opportunity for a "re-do" against the Cardinals. Arizona will enter the game as heavy favorites, but with Green Bay displaying its best performance in months, the Packers will certainly have a shot to win as underdogs. And, hey, if that happens and Seattle wins its match-up in Carolina, the Packers would host the Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game. How fitting would that be?