By Sam Bush
Green Bay Packers’ quarterback Aaron Rodgers started slowly, but then he turned yesterday’s Wild Card game against the Washington Redskins into his own personal classroom.
Rodgers opened by going 1 for 8, and the Packers’ first four drives went: punt, safety, punt, punt. They gained all of 11 yards heading into the second period, and they trailed by double digits.
And then, spurred by using the hurry-up approach he loves, Rodgers played like a two-time NFL MVP.
Drawing defensive penalties with quick snaps, making adjustments at the line of scrimmage, and running the show the way few QBs can, Rodgers threw for a pair of TDs while Eddie Lacy and James Starks each ran for a score, and Green Bay came back to overwhelm the NFC East champion Redskins 35-18.
“We got the tempo up, and they couldn’t keep up,” said Rodgers, who finished 21 for 36 for 210 yards and no turnovers. “We became a snowball, kind of going downhill, and it was tough for us to stop.”
That was missing while the Packers were losing their final two games and six of their last 10 after a 6-0 start, letting the NFC North title slip away. And it was missing early Sunday, when Washington grabbed an 11-0 lead.
“I talked a lot the last couple weeks about being able to turn it on, and a lot of you probably thought that was lip service,” Rodgers told reporters. “But we just needed a game like this to get our mojo back and get our confidence going. I said this week that it just takes one. It just takes one performance to get us going back in the right direction and believing that we can make a run.”
Green Bay (11-6) will play at the No. 2 seed Arizona Cardinals on Saturday night. It’s a rematch of a Week 16 game that Arizona dominated 38-8.
“The main thing is everybody just needs to realize the taste they had in their mouth last time,” Packers receiver James Jones said.
In the other NFC game next weekend, the No. 1 seed Carolina Panthers will host the wild-card Seattle Seahawks on Sunday.
With the Packers and Seahawks joining the AFC’s Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs, it’s the first time road teams went 4-0 in the wild-card round under the current NFL playoff format, which started in 1990.
Washington (9-8) had won four games in a row, but its season ends without a single victory over a team that finished with a winning record.
“I mean, it’s a little sick feeling any time you lose a game at the end of the year, not matter when it is,” Washington’s Jay Gruden said after his first playoff game as an NFL head coach. “The opportunities we had out there today – it makes you ill.”
His quarterback, Kirk Cousins, made his first playoff start after a breakthrough season and was 29 for 46 for 329 yards. He threw for one touchdown, ran for another, lost one fumble and was sacked six times.
Rodgers smirked when asked about chatter in the Washington area about which QB folks would want for the next five years.
“We don’t really care about any of the expectations, whether talking about picking Kirk over myself or talking about how everybody expected us to lose this game,” Rodgers said. “We don’t care about those opinions out there.”
He spoke about his team staying confident despite being down 11-0. Asked where that self-belief came from, Rodgers replied: “‘Cause we’ve been there, done that.”
Sure have – unlike the Redskins, last-place finishers six of the past eight seasons.
“They made adjustments and we didn’t,” Washington nose tackle Terrance Knighton said. “That’s why they’ve won championships – and that’s who their quarterback is.”
Indeed, Rodgers, the 2011 Super Bowl MVP, turned things around in the second quarter, twice catching Washington with too many men on the field. He went 5 for 6 for 68 yards on a drive that ended with a 12-yard TD pass to Randall Cobb. When he hit Davante Adams for a 10-yard touchdown that gave the Packers a 17-11 halftime lead, Rodgers danced a little jig and threw some fist pumps.
In the second half, the running game took over. After 17 yards at halftime, the Packers finished with 141 yards on 32 carries.
“That’s the way you want to play offense. When you get into playoffs, you don’t have to talk about the regular season no more,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said.