Four offensive possessions into Sunday’s NFC wild-card playoff game at Washington, the Green Bay Packers had three punts, one safety allowed and a pitiable first-quarter total of 11 yards.
Five possessions after that, they had 32 points, had overcome a double-digit deficit en route to a 35-18 victory over Washington and were making millions wonder: Oh shit, are the Packers good again?
You’ll have to decide where you stand on that heading into Saturday’s rematch with the Cardinals in Arizona. For many of us, the Packers’ season-long ride has been too confusing to sort out the good-and-meaningful from the good-but-meaningless.
This is a team that went 6-0 in September and October only to upchuck all over itself with a 1-4 November; a team that seemed to clean itself up with three straight victories to get to 10-4, only to be beaten to within an inch of its life – 38-8 – in a Week 16 defeat at Arizona. The loss that followed at home against Minnesota, with the NFC North title in the balance, seemed to firm up the notion that the Packers had all along been wasting our time.
Because it wasn’t just about wins and losses with this team. It was about an uncharacteristically impotent offense, a superstar quarterback who often appeared to be going it alone and even a never-say-die fanbase that seemed to inch closer and closer to waving the white flag.
But now? Now, the word “maybe” comes to mind. Maybe the Packers, in comparison with the higher-seeded teams in the NFC, don’t suck. Maybe Aaron Rodgers – the best quarterback in the world? – is as any-given-Sunday (or Saturday) as ever. Maybe, as the Packers themselves indicated following their stomping of the ‘Skins, what happened in Weeks 1-17 is utterly beside the point.
“When you get into the playoffs,” coach Mike McCarthy said, “you don’t have to talk about the regular season anymore.”
So let’s talk about the playoffs. Let’s talk about Green Bay’s in-game transformation on Sunday from overlooked to – again, only maybe –underrated.
It looked bad when Redskins tight end Jordan Reed got behind defensive back Micah Hyde for a 24-yard touchdown that put the Packers down 11-0 in the second quarter – a drive on which Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins completed four-of-five passes for 61 yards. Yet Rodgers began to pull a Rodgers straight away after that. He scrambled and found James Jones for 34 yards over the middle. Then he spied a 12th Redskins player trying to get off the field, rushed to the line for a free play and drilled a 12-yard touchdown pass to Randall Cobb.
All the Packers turned up from there. The defense hounded Cousins; it finished with six sacks and at least twice as many knockdowns. After the Redskins took an 18-17 lead on their opening drive of the third quarter, Green Bay unleashed its often-dormant running game. The ensuing drive climaxed with five consecutive running plays, the last a four-yarder by James Starks for a lead the Packers wouldn’t surrender. Starks, Eddie Lacy and the Packers rushed for 17 yards in the first half and 124 in the runaway second.
Meanwhile, Rodgers kept the Redskins off-balance with quick counts and varying tempos.
“We became a snowball,” said Rodgers, “kind of going downhill, and it was tough for us to stop.”
Yet toppling the Redskins, who have all of two postseason victories in the 2000s, is a different matter from returning to Arizona and gaining revenge against the 13-3 Cardinals. With all due respect to Cousins, who played well over the final 10 regular-season games and entered the playoffs on an undeniable tear, Rodgers has a far more worthy foe in Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer. And – as if anyone forgot – Arizona’s defense nearly swallowed the Packers whole two days after Christmas.
But that didn’t stop Rodgers, who felt the wave of doubt from Packers fans, the media who cover the team and pretty much the rest of the free world, from daring to posit in recent days that his team just might get hotter than hell.
“A lot of you probably thought that was lip service,” he said in Washington. “But we just needed a game like this to get our mojo back and get our confidence going.
“It just takes one performance to get us going back in the right direction and believing we can make a run.”
Again, it’s on you to decide whether or not you believe it. The Packers might find their second visit to the desert even ghastlier than their first. Yet who knows? The Cardinals’ postseason history is, at best, shoddy. The 36-year-old Palmer’s is almost incredibly bad; that is to say, he has zero playoff wins under his belt.
And did anybody notice Arizona’s 36-6 loss at home to Seattle to cap the regular season?
Look, that Week 17 game didn’t happen to mean much as far as playoff seeding and all that. But the Packers’ victory in Washington meant a ton. It is to be taken under advisement. The Green and Gold – led by the best quarterback in the world? – are for real. You know: Maybe.