LANDOVER, Md. – There was certainly nothing about the start that portended the finish. For the first quarter-plus of Sunday’s NFC wild-card round playoff game at FedEx Field, the Green Bay Packers offense remained missing in action. And Aaron Rodgers looked like any other frustrated quarterback who couldn’t quite get a grip on a season that appeared to be slipping away.
The Packers first four drives ended with three punts and a safety, and Washington seized what seemed a commanding 11-0 just 1:53 into the second quarter. Then something of a ‘Throwback Sunday’ unfolded here for Green Bay, washing away about 10 weeks worth of questions, concerns and worries. Not to mention any shot the home team had of eliminating the playoff-tested Packers and advancing to next weekend’s NFC Divisional round.
With the Packers once-proud offense as on the ropes as we’ve seen them in quite some time, Green Bay responded and returned to relevancy in dramatic fashion, blowing out Washington 35-18 with the kind of balanced and efficient performance that many of us no longer thought them capable of this season. It’s amazing what a game-ending 35-7 run can do for a team’s confidence and its frame of mind moving forward.
And moving forward is exactly what fifth-seeded Green Bay (11-6) has done yet again in the NFL playoffs, earning their way back to another final eight with next Saturday night’s rematch with the No. 2-seeded Arizona Cardinals (13-3) in Glendale.
“It’s huge for us, it really is,” said Rodgers, who survived a shaky start and wound up leading Green Bay to four touchdowns and a field goal on five drives that spanned from the early in the second quarter to early in the fourth. “I talked a lot the last couple weeks about being able to turn it on. A lot of you [the media] probably thought it was lip service. But we just needed a game like this to get our mojo back and our confidence going. I said this week it just takes one, it just takes one performance to get us going back in the right direction and believing we can make a run.
“The playoffs brings that out of all of us. It’s a one-and-done mentality, the focus goes up and the intensity goes up, and there’s nothing like a road playoff win. It’s exciting.”
It is a wildly encouraging development for Rodgers and the Packers, who hadn’t scored at least 35 points in a game since way back in Week 3 at home against Kansas City, and had only once before in their illustrious postseason history overcome a playoff deficit of at least 11 points, that coming in 2007 at home against Seattle in the Divisional round (trailing 14-0 before winning 42-20).
“We’ve won these games before,” Rodgers said. “We’ve been there and done that. When you go on the road, you’re galvanized together. It’s you and your loyal fans there against the entire stadium. We came together today and we played for each other. There was a time there, down 11-0, where people could have started to have that doubt creep in, but it didn’t happen today.”
Those doubts have been obviously creeping in for weeks now in Green Bay, with the Packers starting their season 6-0 and then staggering to six losses in their final 10 games, including their last two, costing them a chance to win their fifth consecutive NFC North title. Nobody incurred more public skepticism than Rodgers, who has been very good but seldom great in the past two-plus months, and even had to hear some media pundits last week debate whether Washington had a brighter future with Kirk Cousins at quarterback than Green Bay did with him.
Oh, the indignity.
“He balled out,” Packers receiver Davante Adams said of his Rodgers, who finished 21 of 36 passing, for 210 yards, with two touchdowns, a 93.5 rating and connections with seven different pass-catchers. “That’s 12 being 12. To be able to keep making plays and keep pushing through adversity when things aren’t going that great, it says a lot about our offense. We’re a powerhouse. I tell everybody that and I’ll say it a million times. Once we start clicking and executing, it’s hard to stop us. It’s about guys knowing it’s playoff football and it’s time to step up.”
Once the Packers got their up-tempo offense humming against Washington’s defense, the game decisively swung their way, and it served notice that Green Bay may just be able to stay on the field with the three heavyweights that remain in the NFC playoffs: Carolina, Arizona and Seattle.
The Packers looked in rhythm again on offense in the final three quarters, with Rodgers feeding the ball to James Jones (7 catches for 81 yards), Adams (4 for 48 yards and a touchdown), and Randall Cobb (3 for 38 yards with a touchdown, five rushes for 24 yards). In the backfield, Eddie Lacy and James Starks combined for 116 yards rushing on 24 carries, and a touchdown each.
Where has this Green Bay attack been since mid-October?
“Davante is turning into Mr. January around here,” Rodgers said. “He obviously had a couple really nice catches. James had some nice catches. Randall had a great game, moving him around a lot, catching the ball and also running the ball out of the backfield. But tempo was key though. We got the tempo up and they couldn’t keep up. It’s like a snowball going downhill and tough to stop.”
After Sunday, these Packers are going to head for Arizona with a surprising amount of confidence, especially given the Cardinals throttled them 38-8 at University of Phoenix Stadium in Week 16, a humiliating defeat that inspired a host of questions about Green Bay’s offensive issues. It suddenly no longer seems laughable to think the Packers might truly compete with the Cardinals on the road.
But while Green Bay just hung up its sharpest offensive performance since September by some measurements, keep this in mind: Washington’s defense and Arizona’s defense have not been mistaken for one another at any point this season. Washington’s entered Sunday ranked 28th overall, 26th against the run and 25th against the pass. The Cardinals defense meanwhile ranks in the league’s top eight in points, passing yards, rushing yards and overall yardage.
Still Rodgers has his swagger back, and who knows where that might lead as January unfolds?
“We kind of felt like this was a possibility, to be able to go back there (Arizona) after that loss,” Rodgers said. “We’re coming off obviously a big win and their last game they got beat by a lot (by visiting Seattle). So it’s going to be a more competitive game I bet.”
That’s a fairly low bar after that 30-point blowout of two weeks ago, but Green Bay does have Rodgers, and suddenly a longer playoff run looks possible for the Packers. And just imagine what they might accomplish if their offense doesn’t take the entire first quarter off?
“Anything’s possible,” Cobb said. “Our ultimate goal is to get to the Super Bowl and win the Super Bowl. We got it done tonight, and gave ourselves another opportunity for next week. We’ve got a chance. Now we just have to make the most of it.”
For a week at least, the Pack was definitely back. How long it stays is a far trickier question that's still to be answered.