Patrick Semansky/Associated Press
In the giddy world of quarterback speculation/adulation/condemnation, where fans in our nation's capital would happily hang a 500-foot Kirk Cousins banner from the Washington Monument if they weren't still spackling over the holes from the Robert Griffin III banner they erected three years ago, Kurt Warner sounds like a voice in the wilderness.
When asked on The Dan Patrick Show whether Cousins should be given a massive new contract, Warner advised caution. "Not yet," Warner said. "I love what Kirk's done this year, especially down the stretch this year. But I just feel like in this league, we throw too much money at young guys too early because they have a good run, and then it puts your team behind, or it messes with too many things in an organization."
I…I think I am man-crushing on Warner. Again.
Cousins, like the team around him, improved considerably as the season wore on, just as the Packers entered a wicked slump in November and have not really climbed out of it yet. But the Redskins are more of a team on a "good run" than a really good team, and despite what the Cardinals did to them two weeks ago (and a limp offensive display against the Vikings in the season finale), the Packers aren't quite ready to pack it in just yet.
Cousins and the Redskins have not faced a defense ranked higher than 17th in Football Outsiders' defensive rankings since their 44-16 loss to the Panthers in Week 11. That 17th-ranked defense was the Eagles defense, which was an indifferent shadow of its former self when the Redskins trounced it in Week 16.
The Redskins faced the 30th- (Giants), 31st- (Bears) and 32nd-rated (Saints, of course) defenses in the league in the second half of the season. That doesn't mean Cousins and the offense failed to make real progress. But if it looks like they skipped some of the steps between "laughingstock" and "unstoppable juggernaut," it's because the offense kept getting better while opposing defenses got progressively worse, distorting the slope of their improvement.
The Packers face a similar distortion. Their slump started with losses to the first- and second-ranked defenses in the NFL (the Broncos and Panthers) and culminated with a beating at the hands of the third (Cardinals). The Packers faced the Vikings twice (14th overall, but trending upward whenever they were healthy), and even many of their weaker opponents fielded middle-of-the-pack defenses (the Raiders and Lions ranked 15th and 16th). The Packers offense has real problems but caught few breaks in the second half of the season, making everything look worse.
We are left aiming for two targets moving across moving backdrops. The Redskins are better than they were three months ago, the Packers worse. But have the Redskins really overtaken the Packers?
That may not matter. It's the matchups that matter.
The Packers' biggest offensive problem is that their receivers cannot get open. But the Redskins secondary ranks 28th in the NFL at stopping No. 1 receivers, according to Football Outsiders, and 30th at stopping No. 2 receivers. Randall Cobb and James Jones will get open against a defense so desperate in the secondary that it dragged Legion of Boom washout Cary Williams off the waiver wire this week.
Cousins' top offensive weapon is tight end Jordan Reed. The Packers rank fourth in the NFL at stopping tight ends.
The Redskins are one of the best third-down passing teams in the NFL; Cousins' ability to consistently convert third downs in the six-to-10-yard range is one of the strongest indicators of his growth as a quarterback. But the Packers excel at defending third-down passes. The Redskins offense ranks fifth in the NFL in third-down percentage, but the Packers rank ninth in third-down percentage allowed.
There are other breakdowns that illustrate the same point. The Redskins are excellent at a handful of very specific elements of offense, but those strengths have been maximized (and some weaknesses in the running game and secondary masked) by an easy schedule. The Packers defense will take away many of those strengths, while the Packers offense will be facing one the weakest defenses it has faced in months.
This is a great matchup for the Packers disguised as a "momentum game" for the Redskins.
It all goes back to Warner's wisdom. A short run of success is evidence of improvement, not proof of greatness. The Redskins have overreacted to seasons like this one too many times (2005, 2007, 2012). What they do with Cousins is one of the offseason's greatest riddles: There isn't really a contract template for a quarterback in his situation. But the organization must interpret this season as a step in the right direction, not an arrival. A loss Sunday might be a blessing in disguise. The last thing the Redskins need is something else to mess with the organization.
Prediction: Packers 27, Redskins 21
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.