Dismissed as a team positioned to once again finish as among the worst teams in the NFC, the division champion Washington Redskins (9-7) exceeded all reasonable expectations in 2015. On Sunday, the Redskins hope to continue proving doubters wrong when they host the injury-plagued Green Bay Packers (10-6) in a wild-card game at FedEx Field.
The Redskins ascended back into the NFC’s elite with their first winning season since 2012, but are hoping to wipe away two consecutive postseason losses for their first victory since 2005’s sprint to the divisional round.
The Packers posted their seventh-straight winning season, but injuries to quarterback Aaron Rodgers, as well as to his offensive line, receiving corps, and No. 1 running back dashed any chances of a fifth consecutive NFC North title. Green Bay especially labored down the stretch, enduring a 30-point blowout loss to Arizona and a harrowing 20-13 letdown to rival Minnesota at the expense of the division crown in the final week of the regular season.
Still, due to Rodgers typically stellar postseason play, the Packers rose from one-point underdogs to one-point favorites this week despite Washington going 6-2 at home this season.
The Packers remain one of the most dangerous teams in the league, and to maintain that status they will have to find a way to slow Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins.
The Redskins benefited from the improved play of Cousins, a controversial opening day starter by second-year head coach Jay Gruden. The perceived gamble paid off for 4,166 passing yards, 29 touchdowns, a 101.6 passer rating, and the NFL’s best completion percentage of 69.8. Cousins’ rise becomes all the more unfathomable given Washington’s struggles running the ball, ranking 20th in the league with 97.9 yards per game and last season’s leading rusher Alfred Morris experiencing a down year.
Cousins led Washington on a four-game winning streak to end the regular season, firing off 12 touchdowns to one interception and eclipsing the 300-yard mark three times. Washington, and Cousins especially, opened up the league’s 10th highest-scoring offense by heavily deploying at-long-last healthy tight end Jordan Reed, who caught five of his 11 touchdowns during the Redskins season-ending streak.
Washington’s defense, which finished just No. 28 overall in the league, made its living by forcing turnovers. The Redskins generated 26 takeaways, tied for ninth-best in the NFL, and more than half came from stripping opponents and recovering 15 fumbles, a total equaled only by 15-1 Carolina.
Unfortunately, the Redskins will face a Packers squad that committed 17 turnovers all season, the second-best number among the NFC’s playoff squads. Rodgers, whose eight interceptions were his highest total since 2012, holds steady as one of the NFL’s most meticulous and careful passers despite heaving three picks in Green Bay’s last three regular season games.
Instead, Rodgers requires more from his top pass catchers against a Redskins secondary that ranked No. 25 in the league with 258 passing yards allowed per game and 30 total touchdowns surrendered.
Veteran receiver James Jones was at first a revelation to a Packers offense reeling from the season-ending knee injury suffered by Jordy Nelson, hauling in six touchdowns in the first six games of the season, but he has since caught a mere two scores. Jones regained some of his early season form on Sunday with four receptions for 102 yards against Minnesota.
Green Bay will also need signs of life from receiver Randall Cobb, who was supposed to benefit from Nelson’s injury with a bounty of extra targets. Cobb hasn’t reached pay dirt since Week 11’s road victory over Minnesota and his 10.5 yards per reception is by far the worst of his five-year career.
A lift from Eddie Lacy would also be helpful. Ankle and groin injuries hindered the running back's pursuit of a third-straight 1,000-yard rushing season to start his career. Lacy has lost many carries to veteran James Starks, but he can take advantage of Washington’s overall poor performance against the run. The Redskins allow 4.8 yards per carry, the second-worst rate in the league, and let up 122.6 yards per game.
Betting Odds: Green Bay -1
Over/Under: 45 points
Prediction: Green Bay over Washington, 31-28