The road to the Vince Lombardi Trophy couldn’t have started at a better place, or at a better time, than in FedExField on Sunday. Not only did Green Bay and Washington, the two franchises Mr. Lombardi helmed as a head coach in his illustrious career, square off on Wild Card Weekend, the Packers clinched victory the way Lombardi would have preached over and over to his team ad nauseam.
Green Bay’s running back duo of Eddie Lacy and James Starks helped the team rush for 124 second-half yards, sealing a Packer 35-18 win over Washington to advance in the 2015 NFL Playoffs, though, with the way Green Bay put the game away, it might has well have taken place in the 1960s.
You know the famous line from Lombardi that’s almost synonymous with the halcyon days of the National Football League: “What we’re trying to get is a seal here…and a seal here…and try to run this play in the alley.” On Sunday, Lacy played the role of Jim Taylor, bruising his way to 56 second-half rushing yards, mostly on runs to the left side of the formation and following Pro Bowl guard Josh Sitton. Starks morphed into Paul Hornung, taking toss sweeps, as well as inside handoffs, for 50 second-half yards.
Each scored a touchdown in the second half, with Starks’ four-yard run off the right side gave the Packers a lead they would not relinquish at 24-18, and Lacy’s fourth-quarter bullrush up the middle from two yards served as the death blow.
One can only think of the dynamic duo of Hall of Famers Taylor and Hornung when seeing a pair of present-day running backs in green and gold dominate the way they did today. If anything, any current running back must be cognizant of the greats that came before him to play the position, right?
“Nah, I never thought about it,” Lacy said, when asked if he was ever indoctrinated in learning about the greats who came before him in the backfield.
Well, maybe not everybody thinks about those predecessors. But at least they channeled them, and that’s what mattered for the Packers, and it was needed after a very uneven start in the first quarter. Three of Green Bay’s first possessions, all in the first quarter, ended in punts – two of those three coming in the three-and-out variety. The one that didn’t result in a punt resulted in the first points of the game: Rodgers was sacked by defensive lineman Preston Smith in the end zone. 2-0 Washington.
On the ensuing drive after Green Bay’s free kick, Washington took just six plays to reach the goal line, with DeSean Jackson catching a crossing route from the 15 and racing to the pylon. Initially ruled a touchdown, the call was overturned as Jackson, with the ball on his outside hand, did not break the plane of the goal line with the football, though his foot and other parts of his body did.
That proved to be one of the turning points of the game, as Alfred Morris was stuffed on two runs, followed by an incomplete pass on third down. Dustin Hopkins field goal from 25 yards gave Washington a 5-0 lead, but it would have been worse.
It got worse later on.
Green Bay punted again, and Washington drove down the field again. This time, they got six, with Kirk Cousins lofting a perfect pass down the middle to tight end Jordan Reed on a third-and-10 for a 24-yard score and an 11-0 lead. (The extra point was missed.)
For the first 15-plus minutes, most of Green Bay’s struggles was due to one of their glaring weaknesses all season long: their inability to keep Rodgers upright. Along with the safety, Rodgers did not have much time to look down the field and find his targets, with Washington’s pass rush getting home on many occasions. Coach McCarthy then employed an attack that emphasized short, quick passes in the second quarter, and the offense finally looked like what we have been accustomed to in the McCarthy-Rodgers era.
Green Bay scored 17 unanswered second-quarter points, with Rodgers going 14-for-20 in the quarter alone. Two of those passes went for touchdowns, with the first coming to Randall Cobb on a scramble drill from 12 yards to put the Packers on the board at the 9:09 mark of the second quarter. After a field goal cut Washington’s lead to 11-10, the Packers’ defense, which forced a Cousins fumble that set up the field goal, forced a three-and-out and called their final two timeouts after the first and second-down plays, wanting Green Bay’s newly-found confident offensive unit to get back on the field.
They got back on the field after the Washington punt, and were in the end zone nine plays and 1:54 later. Rodgers went 6-for-8 on the drive, accounting for all of the yards gained on the drive through the air. His 10-yard pass to Davante Adams on a corner route gave Green Bay its first lead with 33 seconds remaining, 17-11.
Washington, one of the best home teams in the NFL with a 6-2 record at FedExField, retook the lead on the first drive of the second half and regained momentum. Cousins started the half with a 21-yard pass over the middle to Pierre Garcon, and the drive was kept alive on a 4th-and-1 completion to Reed for 17 yards to take the ball to Green Bay’s 7. Three plays later, Cousins called his own number, scoring on a quarterback draw to give Washington an 18-17 lead.
The biggest turning point came on the next drive, when the Packers answered that drive with a touchdown drive of its own, with Green Bay calling upon the ghosts of the past to carry them to the end zone. Even with Rodgers in a groove throwing the ball, Green Bay made its most headway on the ground, including converting a 4th-and-1 from Washington’s 45 yard line. Lacy ran off of left tackle for 11 yards on the fourth-down play, then ripped a 30-yard jaunt on the next play, running to the left again. On the next play, Starks took a toss sweep to the right to the pylon, giving the Packers a 24-18 lead.
Green Bay’s defense also settled into a groove, and it stymied the Washington offense cold after its second-half opening score. It forced a three-and-out after taking the lead, and the Packers took advantage once again on the offensive end. Randall Cobb, who was Mr. Everything while at the University of Kentucky, playing quarterback, running back and receiver, lined up in the backfield and started the drive with two runs which gained seven yards. Two plays after a third-down conversion to James Jones, Cobb caught a 15-yard pass at midfield to end the third quarter.
Forty-five of the final 50 yards of the drive were gained on the ground. Starks carried the ball three consecutive times for 21 yards and two first downs. After an offsides penalty, Starks broke a 22-yard run, again to the left side, to Washington’s two-yard line. Lacy bowled up the middle from two yards out to give Green Bay a 32-18 lead with 12:27 left in the game, all but turning out the lights on Washington’s first playoff game in three years.
Green Bay’s 35 points was the most it had scored since Week 3, and they were aided by a Packers’ pass rush that sacked Cousins six times, including forcing two fumbles and recovering one.
The Packers knew that a win would send them into a game against a team that had beaten them in the regular season, and, after Seattle’s 10-9 win in Minnesota earlier in the day, Green Bay will take on Arizona in the Divisional Round. Arizona dealt the Packers their worst loss of the season, 38-8, just two weeks ago at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale.
[Cover photo (James Starks) courtesy of Patrick Smith/Getty Images]