A three-game losing streak for Green Bay? During head coach Mike McCarthy’s tenure, such a slump was once deemed unthinkable. But that’s their reality in 2016, a Packers team that seems to be struggling with issues as basic as motivation. A 4-5 record through nine games has critics warming to the idea one of the NFL’s longest-tenured coaches could find his job in jeopardy.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers even hammered his teammates, claiming there was a lack of enthusiasm and encouragement after a loss to Indianapolis earlier this month. Last week, there was little in the way of improvement; the team was down 21-0 to Tennessee by the end of the first quarter. The loss dropped the Packers to 9-12 in their last 21 games, a record made worse by the fact the NFC North appears ripe for the taking this season. A reeling Vikings team, a Lions group that has been inconsistent and the horror story known as the Bears have kept the Packers in it – if they could only get their act together.
Compare that to the Redskins (5-3-1), a team that stumbled to start 2016 but has been gelling as of late. Quarterback Kirk Cousins is back on track as a clubhouse leader, the offensive weapons around him are improving and Washington currently owns the second wild card spot entering tonight’s game. The hold is tenuous, just a half-game over NFC East rival Philadelphia but divisional tiebreakers could keep the Redskins on top if they win games at home they’re supposed to win. This reeling Packers team, at least on paper, counts as one of them especially with a Thanksgiving Day tilt against the Cowboys four days later. A record of 5-5-1 entering Week 13 seemingly would be a tough road to navigate to get back to the playoffs.
Series History: Packers lead 20-14-1 and have won six of the last seven meetings.
Green Bay at Washington
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 20 at 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NBC
Spread: Redskins -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Which quarterback will have the better game?
Early this season, Aaron Rodgers was the reason Green Bay was struggling. Not anymore. While his yards per pass attempt numbers are off (6.5, 29th in the NFL) he’s picked up the pace considerably over the last three games. With 914 yards, nine touchdowns and three interceptions, two during last week’s blowout loss to Tennessee, you shouldn’t be pointing the finger in his direction at this point.
Rodgers’ rise also has coincided with a jump in Jordy Nelson’s performance. Nelson has 314 receiving yards and three touchdowns in his last three games, as it appears he is fully recovered from last season’s torn ACL. Davante Adams also has had some breakout performances during the losing streak, peaking with 156 yards last Sunday.
But while Rodgers may be back to normal, Cousins has gone step-for-step on the field with one of the game’s best quarterbacks. In fact, one could argue he’s been even better than two-time MVP over the last three games. During that stretch, Cousins has thrown for 1,021 yards with five touchdowns and just one interception, leading Washington to a 1-1-1 record. He has avoided the type of red zone mistakes that dogged him in the first two games of the season while relying on pleasant surprises like tight end Vernon Davis to come through in the clutch.
Each team relies heavily on its signal-caller. The quarterback that plays better (and makes fewer mistakes) could be the difference between these two evenly-matched opponents.
2. Can Green Bay’s defense get it together?
No question, Marcus Mariota is one of the talented young quarterbacks in the NFL today. But the Packers made him look like the league MVP. Mariota went 19-for-26 for 295 yards, four touchdowns and didn’t throw an interception. His QB rating of 149.8 was a season high and bested only by his perfect 158.3 mark he posted in his pro debut last season against Tampa Bay.
What is wrong with this Packers D, giving away points at the alarming rate of 26 per game (24th in the NFL)? For one thing, Green Bay is not forcing turnovers. The team has a minus-4 differential this year and has recovered three fumbles. The only teams with fewer are the Browns, Jaguars, and Giants. It’s also perfectly fair to say that Rodgers was spot on in his assessment of a lack of energy or even urgency by the team as a whole. Take last week against Tennessee, a team that is clearly rebuilding, who basically took control of the game in the first quarter and put the supposed Super Bowl contenders in a hole they couldn’t get out of. And two weeks ago in Atlanta, the Packers didn’t offer much resistance against Matt Ryan and the Falcons’ offense even after Rodgers had staked Green Bay to lead with less than four minutes remaining. In the end it really comes down to a talented team that’s full of playmakers not answering the bell or rising to the occasion.
3. Can DeSean Jackson have an impact?
The Redskins’ offense, ranked fourth in the NFL, has been succeeding in large part without its deep threat. Jackson, who missed last week’s game with a shoulder injury, is listed as questionable on the injury report. He is reportedly on track to play, but could be a game-time decision. Whether he starts or not hasn’t made much of a difference all season; the veteran wide receiver has scored just once and hasn’t totaled more than 55 yards in any game since Week 3. He is averaging less than 14 yards per catch, a career low, and his longest play of the season is 44 yards.
Is Jackson healthy enough to get separation and break off a long one? Green Bay’s pass defense is about as good a matchup as he will probably see. With three consecutive road games (at Dallas, Arizona, Philadelphia) on tap for Washington, it’s important to get Jackson involved in the offense. Tight end Vernon Davis has overachieved this season, while fellow tight end Jordan Reed and wide receivers Jamison Crowder and Pierre Garcon have done their part. But no one on the Redskins possesses a healthy Jackson’s big-play ability.
Momentum seems to be against Green Bay right now. But Aaron Rodgers, who has shown signs of life in recent weeks, won’t let his team go down without a fight. A loss tonight to Washington would make the Packers’ road to the playoffs that much more difficult, so hopefully Green Bay will finally play with some of the fire, passion and urgency that have been missing. These Packers are just too talented to not have some success in topsy-turvy NFC.
Prediction: Green Bay 21, Washington 17
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.