After yesterday's look at the early game between likely opponents Seattle and Minnesota, today we shift our focus to the late game. If Minnesota pull off the upset then we will face the winner between the hot Washington Redskins, and the rapidly cooling Green Bay Packers.
Green Bay Packers @ Washington Redskins
If you were to tell an outsider that going into this game, one offense was being led by a quarterback in blistering form and the other was led by a man who is seemingly lacking all confidence you would reasonably expect them to guess which was which incorrectly. Aaron Rodgers, the five time Pro Bowler and former Super Bowl MVP would be the obvious choice, when compared with relative newcomer Kirk Cousins. Yet it is the latter who has been lighting up the league recently.
Since his comical 'YOU LIKE THAT' outburst back in week 8 after leading his side to a 31-30 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, overturning a 24 point deficit in the process, Cousins has a 72.4% completion rate with 23 touchdown passes and just 3 interceptions. This streak led him to finish the regular season as the leagues completion percentage leader, and set a number of franchise records along the way. Cousins can't do it all on his own however, he needs his offensive weapons, but he has two good ones in DeSean Jackson and tight end Jordan Reed.
Reed has 952 yards and 11 TD's this season from tight end, and the Packers don’t play tight ends too well. Seven different players have recorded scores against Green Bay from that position, including our very own Greg Olsen, whilst linebackers Julius Peppers and Mike Neal have allowed passer ratings of 100+ each and no interceptions or passes defended when up against tight ends. If the Reed option (get it?) fails, then Cousins could always use plan B. Just fling it deep to Jackson. All of his touchdowns this season have been from deep passes and his 392 yards from targets of 20+ yards are the second most in the league.
Whilst this all sounds good for Washington, the Packers defense has been playing better than their offense. It may be a challenge to stop Cousins' offense but Green Bay are allowing 20 ppg average and virtually shut down the Vikings in week 17. They held Adrian Peterson to 67 yards on 19 carries and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to a measly 99 yards passing. Unfortunately their efforts were negated by an underwhelming and toothless offense.
It's strange to talk about an offense containing Aaron Rodgers, Randall Cobb, and Eddie Lacy as a struggling unit, but there is no denying the cold, hard facts. Cobb was sensational last season recording nearly 1,300 receiving yards and 13 TD's, though he has been unable to replicate his form this year, with 50% of the touchdowns and 500 yards less - and that was without the other major wideout Jordy Nelson to swallow up some of his targets. 2013 Rookie of the Year Lacy has struggled with fitness, performance, and, most of all, his weight all season, and Rodgers has been getting hit more frequently than Manny Pacquiao's punch bag. 14 sacks in the last two games is laughable. The injuries on the O-Line have been unfortunate, but the good news is that they are hopeful of having left tackle David Bakhtiari back for Sunday. His return should help solidify the line and give Rodgers more time in the pocket to do his thing, he just needs his receivers to get some separation.
If Lacy can lay off the donuts this week and get himself in shape, he could be the key to a Packers victory. The Washington run defense is poor, ranking 26th in the NFL, so if he and James Starks can get 25-30 touches and initiate some form it could be profitable for the team. A solid run game tires the Washington D out and gives the wideouts better opportunities to get open for Rodgers to find them.
It's such a touch game to call. On one hand the Redskins look the much better team heading into it. Their defense is good enough, and their offense is firing on all cylinders and has weapons that could hurt the visitors. On the other, it's hard to have any confidence in this Green Bay offense, but can you write Rodgers off in the post-season? If the defense can keep the Packers in touch with the 'Skins, and keep the score close, then I feel Rodgers will pull some of the magic he showed in September out of his locker. Remember they did start 6-0.
Prediction: Green Bay Packers 24-21 Washington Redskins
Regardless of who wins, if we do end up meeting the winner in Charlotte the following week, you have to be confident of success. We've played both of them this season and outscored the 81-47, and most of that came during the nervy finish against Green Bay after holding a sizeable lead.
All's that's left for us to do now is sit back, relax, and enjoy the games, because next week it's going to be a whole lot more stressful...
By Dan Rawlinson
Follow this Panthers fan who lives across the pond @DanRawly