Green Bay Packers running back James Starks will be joined by newcomer Christine Michael on Sunday.
Geoff Burke/Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
LANDOVER, Md. — Losers of two in a row, the Green Bay Packers had no trouble sharpening their focus on the Washington Redskins when they met in the playoffs in January.
It’s their intent to do that again to pull out of this tailspin before it’s too late.
The Packers (4-5) return to the scene of their NFC wild-card win Sunday night hoping that facing the Redskins (5-3-1) can turn their fortunes around after a three-game skid.
“This game is important because it’s the game this week, so that’s what we’re focused on: beating the Redskins,” Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy said.
“We clearly understand where we are in our season and understand how we’ve played the last couple games, so it’s about improving each and every week.”
Another loss would make the Packers’ path to an eighth consecutive playoff appearance more difficult. But the margin of error is also small for the Redskins, who could fall to last place in the NFC East with a loss and a win by the Philadelphia Eagles.
While Washington’s position is more comfortable than Green Bay’s, coach Jay Gruden said the Packers are “not far away from being the Packers that we know.”
Injuries haven’t helped, but the mere presence of two-time NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers makes them formidable.
“The fact that the Packers have lost a couple of games here really is irrelevant when you have him as the quarterback and some of the other great players that they have on defense,” Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins said.
“You realize you’ve got to come ready to go because they’re going to be hungry and they’re going to be ready.”
The Redskins are seemingly better than they were when they lost 35-18 on Jan. 10. Cornerback Josh Norman gives the defense a different look, and undrafted rookie Robert Kelley has shown evidence that he can be a capable starting running back.
“A similar scheme that they ran last year, they’re just doing a little bit better I think,” Rodgers said. “You have some guys who maybe weren’t big contributors last year who are kind of stepping up and being more of an impact player this year.”
Some things to watch when the Packers visit the Redskins:
SACKS IN BUNCHES: One reason things fell apart for the Redskins in the playoff game was that their initial pass rush on Rodgers was neutralized by Green Bay’s running game. Washington has three sacks in five consecutive games, including two big ones by Preston Smith in a victory over the Minnesota Vikings. “It’s a lot of guys trying to find ways to get to the quarterback,” Smith said. “And of course it’s a competition to see who can get more sacks by the end of the year.” Maintaining a consistent pass rush was a goal from training camp, and this is another major test.
RUN IT OUT: In the span of a few days, Christine Michael went from being the leading rusher for Seattle, to Seahawks outcast, to potential backfield savior for the Packers. Green Bay has only three rushing touchdowns this season, all from Rodgers. McCarthy wants to balance the offense, which has been pass-heavy since Eddie Lacy went down with an ankle injury. Any semblance of a consistent running game will help the Packers extend drives, which could in turn rest a defense that has been on its heels the past few weeks.
OFF TO SEE THE WIZARD: Norman relishes matchups against not only top receivers but top quarterbacks, and on a conference call Wednesday he referred to Rodgers as a “wizard.” Rodgers has Davante Adams and Jordy Nelson as targets, and Norman is eager for the challenge. “Facing definitely a cerebral assassin in that guy over there,” he said of Rodgers. “I know how he works, so I’m looking forward to it.”
STARTING STRONG: Fast starts used to be a Green Bay specialty. Lately, the Packers have been falling behind early. Last week, DeMarco Murray had a 75-yard touchdown run on Tennessee’s first play from scrimmage. The previous week, the Colts ran the opening kickoff back 99 yards for a score. The poor starts left the Packers scrambling in both games, with the offense forced to get away from the run. The Packers need to avoid another slow start. They also need to avoid the momentum-sapping late scores that have also plagued them near the end of second quarters of recent games.