The Washington Redskins are the 12th team over the last 13 seasons to finish last place in the division the year before, only to storm back and win the division the following year. But their story seems far more incredible than that, doesn't it?
The rise of Kirk Cousins took incredible patience from head coach Jay Gruden, especially considering that he was benching Robert Griffin III, a quarterback beloved by ownership and the subject of a blockbuster draft-day trade that plucked the Redskins of a treasure trove of draft picks. This simply wouldn't fly in other places, and it didn't fly in Washington for quite some time. Gruden and the Redskins may very well lose on Sunday, but for the first time in a long time, we're not discussing the Redskins as a surprise candidate to fire their coach and start over.
We're also talking about a massive contract extension for Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins, who has been arguably the best quarterback in football over the last eight games -- at least statistically. Ever since the run game ironed itself out and DeSean Jackson returned to the lineup, Cousins has been almost unstoppable.
"You're seeing him make more mature plays where when we're operating on different concepts," offensive coordinator Sean McVay told reporters this week. "He makes it right because he got an answer and he's recognizing where the ball should go based on where coverage dictates."
Meanwhile, the Packers have been destroyed by injuries all season long. The typical sleepwalking ease Aaron Rodgers possesses while connecting with his favorite wide receivers disappeared once Jordy Nelson was lost for the season. Randall Cobb struggled in Nelson's absence posting just one 100-yard game since Week 2. And James Jones, who the Packers luckily plucked off the street after he was cut by the Giants, churned out six touchdowns in six straight weeks ... however he was targeted on five of Rodgers' eight interceptions this season.
That has been the story in Green Bay all along. There seems to be a lingering distrust between Rodgers and the rest of his offense, including 2014 second-round pick Davante Adams, who scored just one touchdown this season and finished the season among the top six receivers in drops. That list also includes Amari Cooper, Julio Jones and Brandon Marshall, so at least he's in good company.
"I've never lost confidence in myself, and our team will be ready to play," Rodgers told reporters Wednesday. "I'm confident that there's a different focus this week. And as much as you wouldn't want this to be the standard, that you can 'turn it on and off,' I think our guys are turning it on this week. And we're going to play better."
It's tough to count Rodgers out, and in a way this road trip to Washington D.C. on Sunday afternoon will be quite humbling. The Vikings took the division, and took a little bit of the Packer mystique away heading into the playoffs. This is the first time since 2010 that Green Bay has not won the NFC North.
Packers head coach Mike McCarthy: There have been some rumblings about McCarthy being a surprise firing candidate should the Packers tank against Washington this weekend, and while it seems crazy, there is probably a real concern surrounding Aaron Rodgers' statistical slide this season. While it might be a simple anomaly -- and let's be honest, would we really not sign up to have Rodgers as our quarterback for the next eight years? -- the Packers will want to maximize the final eight or so years of Rodgers' playing career. At 32, there is plenty left for the former MVP, and that will include some Packer teams that need a massive turnover on defense. That being said, the team may look at this as a logical decision point in the trajectory of the franchise. Or, maybe the Packers will win the Super Bowl and we'll all look crazy for even thinking about this.
Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins: Cousins is in a similar situation that Jets quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was last week prior to a win-and-in game against the Buffalo Bills. A victory would likely secure a contract beyond his wildest dreams at this stage in his career, while a loss or general poor play would bring expectations back down to earth a little bit. Cousins is younger and has a much higher ceiling at this point, so we're not comparing money as much as opportunity. Beating the Packers at home would mean the world to this franchise, and it would likely mean the world to Cousins' bank account with free agency looming.
Matchup to Watch
This is the first time in half a decade that the Packers have had a better scoring defense than scoring offense. Capers has turned Clay Matthews into one of the best all-around defensive players in the NFL, and Morgan Burnett is playing great at the safety spot this year, not to mention an encouraging second year from Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
Consider also that DeSean Jackson's return has forced defenses to guard against the big play, leaving the short to mid-range zones to look like utter chaos for opponents. Pierre Garcon, who has not had a 100-yard game this season, is still more than capable of the devastating seven-catch game that includes a few clutch third-down conversions and Jamison Crowder is developing into a speed threat who can be a menace on bubble screens and quick outs. In the season finale, he caught five passes for 105 yards and a touchdown.
"I'm a fan of the game," Packers safety Morgan Burnett told reporters this week, via The Journal Sentinel. "I enjoy watching other teams and other players play. (Kirk Cousins) is a really good quarterback and I've seen him. I thought he was a really good quarterback in college and he's been doing really good."
But they also know that it isn't Cousins acting alone. There are some very smart minds behind the ascension of this quarterback.
Prior to the "You Like That!" game, Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins threw 24 career touchdowns and 27 interceptions. Since that game, he has thrown 23 touchdowns and just three picks. ... The Packers are trying to become just the third team in NFL history to win the Super Bowl after losing the last two games of the regular season. The Saints accomplished the feat back in 2009 and the Packers also managed to get it done back in 1967. ... Since Green Bay head coach Mike McCarthy took over play calling duties as head coach in Week 14, the Packers have scored 19.8 points per game and racked up 314 yards per game.
Before he reclaimed playcalling duties, the team was scoring 24.1 points per game and putting up 341.4 yards per game. ... Aaron Rodgers just finished his first season with a passer rating under 100 since 2008. ... Randall Cobb has not had a 100 yard receiving game since the second week of the season. ... Kirk Cousins has led the NFL in completion percentage and passer rating over the second half of the season. Aaron Rodgers, in that time frame, is dead last in completion percentage and 27th in passer rating. ... Since 1978, only two players have had a higher passer rating over the final eight games of the season than Kirk Cousins: Tom Brady during an MVP season in 2010 and Nick Foles in 2013. ... Only Doug Baldwin, Ted Ginn and Tyler Eifert have as many multiple TD games as Redskins tight end Jordan Reed this season. ... The Redskins have lost both games this season against teams that ended up making the playoffs. In those two games, against New England and Carolina, the team averaged 13 points per game. ... The Redskins have just one turnover over their last three games. In that time, they are 3-0, having scored more than 30 points and put up more than 400 yards in each contest.
This all seems like a mounting indictment on the media for doubting the Packers, doesn't it? The last time Green Bay snuck in as a wild card team they won the Super Bowl. The last time they had a better scoring defense than offense ... they won the Super Bowl. The last time Aaron Rodgers was doubted this significantly in his career ... you guessed it.
Washington is a good football team, and if the Giants and Eagles aren't careful this offseason with their coaching hires, the Redskins could win this division again next year. But the Packers are a better football team that is simply undergoing a crisis of identity right now. Washington has not fared well against the playoff caliber teams on their schedule this season, while Green Bay has had a season full of playoff caliber games.