Breaking down the wild-card playoff game: Packers at Redskins

The Green Bay Packers have reached the postseason seven years in a row, winning the Super Bowl once. During that same period, the Washington Redskins have made the playoffs twice, won 10 games once, and lost double-digit games five times. Yet entering Sunday’s wild-card game, it’s the Redskins who are hot and the Packers who are stumbling.

Washington has won four straight; Green Bay has lost two in a row. But to advance, the Redskins must do something they haven’t done this season: beat a team with a winning record. In fact, they only played three teams that ended the season above .500. For the Packers to advance, they must reverse a trend, as they’re 4-6 in their past 10 games.

Redskins reporter John Keim and Packers reporter Rob Demovsky break down the game:

John Keim: Rob, I see Aaron Rodgers’ numbers, and most quarterbacks would take them. But there’s clearly something wrong with Green Bay’s offense and the passing game. How much of this is on Rodgers, and how much of it is on the receivers -- losing Jordy Nelson in particular -- and Rodgers' protection? The common belief in the past was that he made everyone around him better; is that still the case?

Rob Demovsky: You mean finishing 23rd in total offense and 25th in passing yards isn’t good? I’m not totally absolving Rodgers here because he’s missed too many throws that you’d expect him to make, but I think the burden is on the receivers -- and not just the ones who have played the most, either. James Jones, for as nice of a story as he’s been in returning to Green Bay, just doesn’t have the speed to get open consistently on the outside, especially when a team like the Cardinals decides to put a corner like Patrick Peterson on him. For as productive as Randall Cobb has been, it’s a lot easier for a defense to take a 5-foot-10 slot receiver out of the game than, say, a 6-foot-3 perimeter receiver. And Davante Adams has been flat-out disappointing. But it goes beyond that. You really thought rookie Ty Montgomery would help right away, but he never bounced back from his Week 6 ankle injury, and the coaches never found a way to get speedy receiver Jeff Janis involved. I know the sack numbers are high, but I don’t think you can put that all on the O-line. Rodgers has held the ball a lot -- in part because he can’t find anyone open, and in part because he won’t risk an interception by forcing it.

I’m intrigued by Kirk Cousins -- not necessarily the player, because we see what he does on film, but the person. How did he get to this point mentally after sitting behind Robert Griffin III?

Keim: Cousins has conducted business the same way since he arrived, and I think that’s the single biggest reason he’s doing what he's doing now. When he was a rookie, knowing he was firmly behind Griffin and probably would be for a few years, he was always watching film on his iPad during lunch hour. He constantly studied and worked on his game. So mentally his approach was simply to get better, and I think it helped him stay on this path. I know the past couple years it became harder, because it was clear Griffin wasn’t developing for whatever reason and the gap between the two had shrunk. Even as Cousins made it clear he wanted to be somewhere where he had a chance to start, his approach never changed. That’s why teammates respected him even before he became the starter. Also, he’s someone who plots out his day in 15-minute increments on a chart -- seriously -- so he’s always been able to keep a short-term focus on what he must do, preventing him from caving mentally.

You wrote an article on how the Packers' defense must now help out a struggling offense. So how good is that defense, and where are some weak spots?

Demovsky: It’s good, John. Not great, but good enough that in a normal Aaron Rodgers year we’d be talking about the Packers as a Super Bowl contender. Actually, you and I probably wouldn’t be talking about them because the Packers would be one of the top seeds in the NFC, and the Redskins would be playing someone else while the Packers took this week off. It’s the first time since the Super Bowl season of 2010 that this defense isn’t a liability. If there’s a weak spot, it’s probably tackling. They’re pretty good in coverage, pretty good at getting pressure on quarterbacks, and decent against the run, but they missed more than their fair share of tackles.

Two seasons into his coaching tenure, what is a Jay Gruden team all about?

Keim: Right now they’re a lot about resiliency. I also think that stems from the type of players they have on the roster, including many who were acquired in the offseason. Every time the Redskins have been in a position where they faced a must-win game this season, they’ve won. Players have talked about how Gruden does a better job selling his plan each week; that was an early knock on him in 2014 when he first arrived. That matters. They like that he doesn’t just cater to the stars, that he is just as likely to talk or joke around with the 53rd man on the roster as he is with the first. But I’m sure you also meant in terms of style on the field. Gruden says he wants to have a run-first team, though in the past he was criticized for abandoning the run too early. Not this season, though. But with this group, there’s more talent in the pass game, and he wanted to be a power-based run team to set up play-action and bootlegs. It took much of the season for him to go the other way and become a team that uses the pass to set up the run.

At what point in the season did you have doubts about what the Packers could do, and do you see any reason for optimism entering the postseason?

Demovsky: Probably the first sign for me was Week 4 in San Francisco, and then it was reinforced a week later against St. Louis. The Packers won ugly in California, 17-3, and then the next week they managed just 17 points on offense (they got a defensive touchdown as well) in a home win over the Rams. I just don’t see anything changing on offense at this point, which would make a long playoff run unlikely. Even if they beat the Redskins, I can’t see them winning at Arizona or Carolina, two places they’ve already lost this year.

What about the Redskins? Can they do anything?

Keim: They can make a little noise because their offense -- the pass game in particular -- has played real well down the stretch and the team has a ton of confidence right now. I can see them beating Green Bay, but it's a big leap to think they could win at Carolina or Arizona. I do think there’s less of a fear factor if they face the Panthers. Even though they lost to Carolina by 28 points earlier this season, they felt a few calls turned that game the wrong way. I’m quite sure they’d welcome a rematch. But the Redskins keep having their depth tested, especially defensively, and eventually that will make a difference. Are they good enough now to beat good teams? The NFC East played into their success, but it wasn’t the only factor. It’s real tough to see them making a long run, but it was tough at the beginning of the season to see them winning nine games.