By: Jeffrey Newholm
When I previewed the Packer-Panther game back in November, I billed it as the decisive game towards the #1 seed in the NFC. Carolina fulfilled its end of the bargain, but the Packers finished 4-4 after that game and fell all the way down to five. Meanwhile, the Arizona Cardinals fulfilled the potential that was squandered last season by streaking to a 13-2 start and clinching a bye, including a 38-8 drubbing of the Packers in week 16 where the Card’s D sacked Aaron Rodgers nine times and returned two of his fumbles for touchdowns. Granted the Cards were smoked 36-6 by Seattle the next week, but they are still considered a favorite to make the Super Bowl. Green Bay, on the other hand, was written off as dead after an overall dismal loss in the NFC North title game against Minnesota in week 17, to the point where a Milwaukee radio host told his listeners to go ahead and make plans for conference title game Sunday because surely the Pack would not be playing. But Sunday whatever mysterious ailment afflicted the Packers’ offense vanished in the second quarter when Rodgers led his team on a decisive 35-7 run against the Redskins. There are still many who can’t look past the week 16 blowout, however. In Greg Bedard’s column in SI detailing “The Case for the Packers”, he starts out with “sorry, cheeseheads, it’s just not happening this season”. Well I’m no lawyer but that doesn’t strike me as much of a case! Despite this popular attitude towards this game I’m still pulling out all the stops to give it a good preview, doing a position by position comparison and then picking a favorite (because it worked so well for me for the bowl previews.) As bad a rout as that game was don’t forget the Patriots blew out the Jets 45-3 in December of 2010 and then lost to them at home barely a month later. The NFL postseason is called the second season for a reason, and a rematch often bears no resemblance to the original game.
QB: Carson Palmer vs. Aaron Rodgers
On paper these two seem to put up very similar numbers, each completing 60% of their passes with a roughly 30 to 10 TD to pick ratio. But Palmer has 800 more yards passing while actually completing fewer passes than Rodgers. Rodgers has often looked uncomfortable in the pocket this year, his receivers haven’t made many plays and he has to put up with a patchwork offensive line. Palmer is definitely having the better year. But I still have to give the edge to A-Rod because he has a proven track record in the postseason while Palmer has never won a playoff game and hasn’t even played in one since 2010 when he was still with the Bengals. This is the seventh year in a row Rodgers will start in the playoffs and playing on the road doesn’t faze him, considering the 2010 Packers won three straight road games to get to the Super Bowl. It’s no surprise Palmer played better in week 16. But can he perform at his usual best in the biggest game of his career?
Arizona has the edge here and it isn’t close. All time great Larry Fitzgerald is having a resurgent season with 1,200 yards receiving and nine TD’s, and John Brown adds another 1,000 yards and seven TD’s. The Packers have been looking for impact receivers since losing Jordy Nelson for the year, and all they have is more injuries, with Ty Montgomery out for the year and Davante Adams probably out Saturday. Randall Cobb and James Jones are doing all right, but they haven’t been making the big plays down the field the Packers’ receiving corp is accustomed to.
Arizona took a huge blow here when Chris Johnson got put on injured reserve (although he could return if the Cards make the Super Bowl). Thankfully, rookie David Johnson had filled in admirably with 581 rushing yards and a team-leading eight TD’s. For the Pack, James Starks and Eddie Lacy share the load, but it’s hard to tell what they’ll do as there’s some games they play great, such as the wild card game, and others where the Packers have no running game at all. I have to give the edge to Arizona because even living in Wisconsin I still haven’t figured out the Pack’s rushing game this year.
Both teams average 4.2 yards a carry, but the real shocker is the Cards have given up 27 sacks vs. a whopping 47 for the Pack. And of course nine of those were in the week 16 matchup. Granted Rodgers was only sacked once against Washington, but Washington has the 28th best defense in the league while Arizona has the fifth best. With three lineman appearing on the injury report Thursday for Green Bay, the edge has to go to Arizona.
Defensive Front Seven
Arizona ranks ninth in yards a carry allowed at 3.9, while Green Bay is 29th at 4.5. Green Bay has the edge in sacks, recording 43 vs. 36 for Arizona. Ageless wonder Julius Peppers leads the Pack with 10.5 of those sacks, while Dwight Freeny leads the Cards with eight. So Arizona has the lead in rush defense while Green Bay leads in pressuring the QB. Since both teams have more than twice as many passing yards as rushing yards, pressuring the QB figures to be extremely important in this game, so I’ll give the Pack a slight edge here.
This one’s so close I have to call it a draw. There’s only 45 passing yards, .2 yards a passing attempt and three interceptions separating these two teams. Perhaps I could give Green Bay the edge if cornerback Sam Shields was cleared to return, but the latest report from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Michael Cohen is that he still hasn’t passed the concussion protocol.
Special teams can be decisive in the NFL postseason, as the 2014 Packers and 2015 Vikings found out the hard way. Green Bay has the decided edge at Kicker as Mason Crosby has made all his extra points, 85% of his field goals and best of all has the second longest streak in NFL playoff history with 18 straight made field goals. Chandler Catanzaro has made 90% of his field goals but disconcertingly has shanked five PATs and has only kicked in one postseason game in his short career. Both punters put up pretty much identical numbers, while the Cards have the better punt returner (Patrick Peterson) and both teams have capable kickoff returners (Jeff Janis for Green Bay and David Johnson for Arizona). This one’s close but the Pack get the edge because their kicker is automatic in the biggest games.
To summarize: the Packers have the edge at QB, front seven and special teams. Arizona leads at wide receiver, O-line and running back, and secondary is a draw. So I hardly think this game is a foregone conclusion or will be another 30 point blowout. But I still have to go with the Cardinals because the big difference in the first game should still work in the Cards favor. Rodgers can’t count on the run game and his wide receivers aren’t stepping up this year, so to win he has to be a one man band. But he actually needs some assistants to work his magic, and this line isn’t up to it. Even the most extraordinary play of his career, the hail mary against Detroit, almost didn’t happen because he was nearly sacked. I can’t imagine he goes down nine times again. But the Cardinals will get there enough to win the game.