Green Bay Packers see slide into playoffs as opportunity

By The Sports Xchange  |  Jan. 7, 2016 at 2:02 AM
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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The Green Bay Packers will not allow recent history to dictate their team-record seventh straight appearance in the playoffs.

Only five years ago, they became the first No. 6 seed in the NFC to advance to the Super Bowl and completed their arduous journey on the road that January by outlasting the Pittsburgh Steelers 31-25 in Super Bowl XLV the first Sunday of February.

That team is one of only nine that won the Super Bowl coming out of the wild-card round and part of a promising recent track record in which at least one Super Bowl participant has been a wild-card team seven of the last 10 years.

Fast forward to January 2016, the Packers are in an unusual spot of having to play the first weekend of the postseason. They had the luxury of an opening-round bye the previous four seasons because they were NFC North champions.

When their division reign ended meekly Sunday night at Lambeau Field with a lackluster seven-point loss to their successors, the Minnesota Vikings, the quest to try to get back to the Super Bowl became potentially that much tougher -- and longer.

Green Bay will play at the Washington Redskins late Sunday afternoon, the concluding game to the league's four wild-card matchups this weekend.

Whether the Packers as a No. 5 seed can replicate the script of their 2010 champions, who had to win three straight playoff games on the road simply to get to the Super Bowl, is irrelevant to those affiliated with both teams.

For quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the Super Bowl MVP in that 2011 game, the focus is on whether a team that took on a Jekyll-and-Hyde persona during the regular season can forge an identity that keeps them around in the so-called tournament for a while.

"I think we'll find out on Sunday," Rodgers said Wednesday. "Hopefully, it's a team that's moving on."

Although the Packers wouldn't appear cut out for a long stay after losing six of their last 10 games, Rodgers is OK with giving up a week off as well as a game at Lambeau.

"It's tough, but I think it can galvanize a team when you're going in a hostile environment," Rodgers said. "I know we're going to have a great crowd that's going to follow us there. But, those are the fun wins.

"Obviously, we're spoiled to play in Lambeau, but the feeling you have (after) a road win (in the playoffs) and that flight back is a pretty special feeling that any former player would tell you is right at the top of the football mountain."

Just like during that momentous wild-card run in the 2010 season, when they first knocked out the Philadelphia Eagles, the Packers are opening these playoffs against the NFC East champion.

Despite his team's well-chronicled struggles the last two months, head coach Mike McCarthy has no doubt about Green Bay's readiness for the matchup with the fourth-seeded Redskins (9-7) at FedExField.

As well as Washington played down the stretch by winning four straight games and riding the accurate arm of quarterback Kirk Cousins, the Packers like their chances of prevailing against an opponent in the playoffs for the first time in three years.

"High," blurted McCarthy, when asked to assess his team's confidence level. "We're going to Washington to win. We're in the playoffs. We're fully aware of what people (on the outside) maybe think about us. That, frankly, was the message" to the team Wednesday.

"We like our opportunity," McCarthy added. "We've earned the opportunity."

To advance and earn another trip against either the top-seeded Carolina Panthers or the second-seeded Arizona Cardinals, veteran receiver James Jones knows what must be accomplished outside the nation's capital Sunday.

"We've got to pull our weight," said Jones, referring to an offense that has scored all of 21 points the last two weeks and averaged barely 20 points the last 10 games.

"We've got to score some points ... and get this thing rolling if we want to get to where we've got to go."

SERIES HISTORY: 35th meeting. Packers lead the series, 19-14-1. The teams have split two playoff games. Green Bay won the fourth of its record 13 NFL titles with a 21-6 victory over the then-Boston Redskins in the 1936 title game at the Polo Grounds in New York. The host Redskins prevailed 16-3 in an NFC divisional playoff matchup in 1972 at RFK Stadium. The Packers have won five of the last six meetings going back to 2001. The teams last met in 2013, a 38-20 Packers rout at Lambeau Field. Washington pulled out a 16-13 overtime win in the teams' most recent meeting at FedExField in Maryland in 2010.

GAME PLAN: The wild card that could tilt this wild-card road matchup against the Washington Redskins in Green Bay's favor is Dom Capers. The Packers' distinguished defensive coordinator relishes opportunities to go against a quarterback for the first time. That will happen with Washington's Kirk Cousins, who also will be making his first postseason start Sunday.

As spot-on and mistake-free Cousins has been down the stretch for the Redskins, Capers figures to dial up plenty of pressure for the Packers to create havoc in the pocket, disrupt timing on pass routes and try to become an opportunistic bunch in coming up with a critical takeaway or two. Green Bay has two of the league's premier pass rushers in Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers. They must be unleashed for the Packers to have success in slowing down Washington's prolific downfield passing, especially with the prospect of Green Bay being short-handed on the back end if veteran cornerback Sam Shields can't play again because of a concussion. Still, nose tackle B.J. Raji said stopping the run will be a priority, never mind the Redskins' underwhelming rushing attack led by Alfred Morris.

More than ever, the Packers need their offense to awaken from its slumber that has persisted for most of the second half of the season. The midweek talk inside the Green Bay locker room has been to establish the run with Eddie Lacy and James Starks. That would help offset the Redskins' likely mission to go hot and heavy after quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who has been heavily ambushed of late. If Green Bay's injury-riddled offensive line can finally come to the rescue, however, Rodgers is champing at the bit to carve up a porous Redskins secondary. With ease, he completed 34-of-42 passes for a career-high 480 yards and four touchdowns in Green Bay's 38-20 rout of visiting Washington early in the 2013 season. That type of success should prompt head coach/play caller Mike McCarthy to push the envelope with the pass early in an effort to get the Packers out in front with the lead on the road.


--Packers defensive backs vs. Redskins receivers and tight end Jordan Reed.

Green Bay again could be without Sam Shields. The team's top cornerback has missed the last three games because of a concussion. Head coach Mike McCarthy didn't provide even a glimmer of hope Wednesday that Shields could finally be released from the league-mandated protocol for players who have head injuries in time to allow him to play Sunday.

Having the speedy Shields available would be beneficial for Green Bay's secondary, which must contend with Washington's quick and productive receiving corps. "They've got guys who can blow it off the top," McCarthy said. "It's something that's noticeable on film. ... They definitely have a lot of speed, and the tight end (Reed) can stretch it, too. It's a good perimeter group."

Fresh off making an outstanding backhanded interception in the Sunday night loss to the Minnesota Vikings, versatile defensive back Micah Hyde figures to shadow Reed. The edge goes to the dynamic Reed, who set team records in his third pro season with 87 catches and 952 receiving yards to go with 11 touchdown receptions.

Without Shields, the Packers would go with rookies Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins on the perimeter to try to keep up with the veteran tandem of DeSean Jackson (team-best average of 17.6 yards per catch) and Pierre Garcon (72 receptions for 777 yards and six touchdowns). They have a combined four touchdown catches against Green Bay. The more daunting challenge could be in the slot, with Casey Hayward lined up across from fleet-footed Redskins rookie Jamison Crowder (59 catches for 604 yards).

--Packers offensive tackles vs. Redskins outside linebackers Ryan Kerrigan and Preston Smith.

Green Bay's offensive line has been a mess late in the season, mostly because of injuries. The absence of David Bakhtiari (ankle) the last two games of the regular season left the Packers highly vulnerable at left tackle, even when Pro Bowl left guard Josh Sitton moved over there for Sunday's matchup with the Vikings. Bakhtiari is a huge question mark to return to action this weekend.

The uncertainty leaves Green Bay in a delicate spot. Whether it's Bakhtiari, Sitton, Don Barclay or perhaps JC Tretter having to protect Aaron Rodgers' backside, the Packers might have to go in with extra protection from a second tight end or liberal use of fullback John Kuhn. Right tackle Bryan Bulaga also has been hindered by an ankle injury in recent weeks, but was able to keep playing.

The Redskins no doubt will try to capitalize with a heavy dose of Kerrigan and Smith flying in from both sides. Former first-round draft pick Kerrigan has been a beast from his weak-side spot, leading Washington with 9 1/2 sacks. Kerrigan sacked Rodgers twice in his only game against the Packers in 2013 with one at the expense of then-rookie Bakhtiari. Smith has been a potent complement as a situational pass rusher. The rookie ranks second on the team with eight sacks.

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