The Redskins carry an NFC East Championship and a four-game winning streak into their first playoff game since 2012. In addition to momentum, they’ll have the benefit of home-field advantage. Second-year Coach Jay Gruden also has a reasonably healthy roster, led by quarterback Kirk Cousins, who last weekend set the Redskins’ single-season passing record (4,166 yards) and became the team’s first quarterback to play all 16 regular season games since Jason Campbell in 2009.
The Green Bay Packers ended up second in the NFC North, finishing with a 10-6 record after late-season stumbles followed a 6-0 start. The Packers offense has battled myriad challenges, hampered by the loss of top receiver Jordy Nelson to a knee injury in the preseason and an offensive line ravaged by injuries throughout the season. But they have a Super Bowl MVP quarterback in Aaron Rodgers, who has a knack for extending plays that seem hopelessly broken, and veteran coaching staff led by Super Bowl winning Coach Mike McCarthy.
1. Home-field advantage: The Redskins’ long-suffering fan base is expected to turn out full force for Sunday’s game, blanketing the FedEx Field stands with white rally towels emblazoned with Cousins’s now famous outburst, “You Like That?!” Simply making the postseason at all, after this season’s 2-4 start, is plenty of reason to cheer. But Redskins fans have been an asset to their team this season, which posted a 6-2 record at home. In those six victories at FedEx Field, Cousins threw 14 touchdowns and no interceptions. It has been a decade since Washington won a playoff game, defeating Tampa Bay in a first-round game on Jan. 7, 2006. No doubt, FedEx Field will erupt if the Redskins toppled the Packers Sunday and earn a divisional matchup at either Arizona or Carolina.
2. Protecting Kirk Cousins: The stout play of Washington’s young offensive line has been a key ingredient in the Redskins’ surprising success this season. The line allowed just 27 sacks — down from 58 last season. That’s encouraging because Green Bay’s pass rush is something to be feared, led by Julius Peppers, who has accounted for 10.5 of the Packers’ 43 sacks this season. And though Clay Matthews now lines up at middle linebacker, he still poses a threat to quarterbacks, second on the team with 6.5 sacks. On Sunday, the Redskins’ eight-year NFL veteran Kory Lichtensteiger will reclaim his starting job at center after missing the last 11 games with neck and shoulder injuries. Gruden believes the transition from backup Josh LeRibeus to Lichtensteiger will be seamless, given the veteran’s familiarity with the offense and rapport with Cousins. “He’s like another quarterback on the field,” Gruden said of Lichtensteiger this week. “Very, very intelligent. Not to say Josh isn’t, but he’s got a great handle on the offense.”
3. Starting fast, avoiding turnovers: Many factors contributed to the Redskins’ surge down the stretch, but fast starts are among them. Washington bolted to an early lead in all four victories that closed the season, jumping out 14-0 over Chicago, 21-0 over the Bills, 13-7 at Philadelphia and 21-0 in the first quarter alone over Dallas. The strong starts buoyed the team’s confidence, enabled Gruden and offensive coordinator Sean McVay to call a nice balance of plays and provided a cushion when opponents tried to rally. Another significant shift has been the turnover differential: The offense quit giving the ball away, while the defense started taking it away. Cousins enters Sunday’s game against the Packers’ imposing pass rush having thrown 232 consecutive passes at FedEx without an interception, a streak that dates to the Sept. 13 season-opening loss to Miami.
4. Defending the run: Green Bay’s passing game has struggled from the moment Jordy Nelson tore his anterior cruciate ligament in the preseason. The Packers’ other receivers, chiefly James Jones and Randall Cobb, have had trouble getting separation to make Rodgers’ life easy. Meanwhile, Green Bay’s two-pronged running attack is averaging 115.6 yards per game (12th in the NFL), with big-bodied Eddie Lacy and speedy James Starks each averaging 4.1 yards per carry. It’s hardly a lights out rushing attack, and Starks has had fumbling issues. But the Redskins’ run defense has struggled, allowing 122.6 yards per game (26th). Its defensive front boasts veteran experience, but those veterans can get gassed if they’re on the field too long. “I’d be lying to you if there aren’t guys that are banged up and sore,” said defensive coordinator Joe Barry, “but you get that natural juice — that natural burst of energy — when you’re playing for a playoff.” Ideally that extra burst will be enough to turn Green Bay into a one-dimensional offense. Of course, putting the game in the hands of Rodgers presents its own problems.
5. Containing Aaron Rodgers: Green Bay’s Super Bowl MVP quarterback may be having a sub-par season by his standards, but it’s one that most NFL quarterbacks can only dream about, with 31 touchdowns and just eight interceptions. Harassing Rodgers will be the top priority for the Redskins defense, particularly given the Packers’ patchwork offensive line, which has allowed 47 sacks this season. The expected return of left tackle David Bakhtiari, sidelined by an ankle injury the last two games, should help. Still, Redskins linebackers Ryan Kerrigan and late-blooming rookie Preston Smith, who has notched five of his eight sacks in the last three games, need to make their presence felt. Meanwhile, the defensive line must stay sharp; Rodgers is a master at drawing defenders offside. At 32, he’s also a master at extending plays after they’ve broken down and is dangerous anytime the ball is in his hands. “He does a great job of putting exactly the right amount of touch and putting the ball in a location where only the receiver can get it,” Gruden says. “That’s what probably separates him from a majority of other quarterbacks.”
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