Two teams heading in unexpected directions collide Sunday in the NFC Wild Card Round when the Green Bay Packers take on the Washington Redskins.
Unexpected because it's Green Bay simmering down the stretch, entering the road contest as losers in two straight—including coughing up the NFC North crown to the Minnesota Vikings—while quarterback Aaron Rodgers struggles.
Unexpected because Washington's on a roll, winning its last four games and winning the NFC East while Kirk Cousins looks more like Rodgers than Rodgers himself.
Both teams start over with a chance at a clean slate and a shot at a Lombardi Trophy on Sunday. Here's everything to know about the encounter.
When: Sunday, January 10, at 4:40 p.m. ET
Where: FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland
Spread: Green Bay (-1)
Team Injury Reports
|Sam Shields, CB||Questionable|
|Eddie Lacy, RB||Questionable|
|Matt Jones, RB||Questionable|
Injury reports courtesy of ESPN.com.
Everything that could have gone wrong for the Packers over the past two weeks simply has.
After starting the season on a six-game tear, Green Bay lost six of its final 10 games. Over the final three games of the season, running back Eddie Lacy averaged 39 rushing yards, and Rodgers took 13 sacks over his last two games while tossing a pair of touchdowns and interceptions.
Protecting Rodgers better and the star quarterback getting the ball out fast are two major points of emphasis for head coach Mike McCarthy.
"I think you have to remember, (Rodgers is) a great player. He wants the ball in his hands and when things break down he's going to make things happen," McCarthy said, according to ESPN.com. "But also the risk and exposure he's put to is unacceptable to myself. And he knows that."
It has to be the main emphasis considering Washington has 14 sacks over its last three games.
With Lacy and others perhaps struggling against Washington's defensive front, Rodgers will once again look to lean on his odd cast of receiving weapons:
Odd numbers and downward spiral or not, Rodgers and the Packers have to be able to match Washington blow for blow.
The Green Bay defense will help, but as recent weeks have shown, it might not matter much if Rodgers cannot better protect himself and the ball.
Riding the Wave
Head coach Jay Gruden's team is one of the NFL's hottest right now.
Who needs a blank slate? Washington has won four straight, scoring 34 or more points in three of those while never allowing more than 25 points.
Cousins, as odd as it sounds, has been the catalyst. He's completed 69.8 percent of his passes this year with 29 scores to 11 picks—12 and one of those coming over the four-game streak, respectively.
Maybe that doesn't do it justice. Cousins, since Week 7, as illustrated by NFL on ESPN:
So why isn't Washington, the home team, favored?
Cousins has been great, but Green Bay ranks sixth against the pass at 227.6 yards allowed per game and 12th at 20.2 points allowed. The Packers' rushing defense certainly leaves something to be desired, but Washington running backs Alfred Morris and Matt Jones have combined for four rushing scores this year—Cousins has five.
At home, Cousins shouldn't feel hesitant to go to tight end Jordan Reed, one of the game's best who has 87 catches for 952 yards and 11 scores. Don't forget wide receiver DeSean Jackson, and even Pierre Garcon has come on as of late with a touchdown in each of his past three outings.
Green Bay's defense might force Washington to alter what it likes to do, which would decide the game outright. Based on recent momentum, though, Gruden's team might be able to ride obvious strengths to another win.
Which team will win?
Rodgers just isn't himself.
Maybe it's those around him. Everyone gets a bit of the blame. The wideouts take too long to get open, which leaves Rodgers vulnerable against good rushes, and the signal-caller's running game doesn't keep defenses honest.
Washington will pounce. The defense can pin its ears back and just go at it without a semblance of fear for what Lacy and others bring to the table. It's going to force Rodgers into another miserable stat line as he attempts to do too much to compensate for everything around him—this time on the road in the cold.
Look for Cousins to outduel Rodgers late, which is quite the fitting turn of events for what has been one of the oddest seasons in recent memory.
Prediction: Washington 28, Green Bay 27