It has been a magical season for the Arizona Cardinals, one in which almost every positive franchise record was broken. While they have accomplished so much already, the team knows that all of those records will be forgotten if the Cardinals don’t win a single playoff game. The Cardinals’ goal was and still is to win the Lombardi Trophy, but the unpredictability of the one-and-done format of the postseason means anything can happen. That being said, exiting without a single playoff win would be unacceptable. So the Cardinals look to achieve that first goal this Saturday when they host the Green Bay Packers. This week I’ll recap what has changed for both teams in the three weeks since they last played and how those changes will affect the rematch. I hope you enjoy and if you do make sure to follow me on Twitter @QTipsforsports or just search the hashtag #Allinthecards for in-game thoughts and analysis. Now let’s preview the Cardinals playoff match against the Packers.
Green Bay Packers @ Arizona Cardinals
Last Meeting: W 38-8 vs. Green Bay (12/28/15)
Having played each other only three weeks ago, you would think that this week’s matchup between the Cardinals and Packers would go roughly the same way? While there are definitely more similarities in this rematch in comparison to say the Seahawks-Panthers rematch (those teams played back in October), this weekend has no chance of being a repeat of the Cardinals dominating 38-8 win.
Let’s take a look at what has changed for both teams, both positive and negative:
Green Bay changes:
- The Packers have a functioning offensive line: It’s no secret by now that part of the reason behind the Packers’ blowout loss last time they played in the desert was because their offensive line was in shambles and got gradually worse when other linemen left partway through the game with injuries. This time around the Packers could possibly have all starting five linemen back if left tackle David Bakhtiari (who didn’t play the first time) is able to play. While Green Bay’s starting offensive line is only average by NFL standard, it will still be a huge improvement over the disastrous group they played the first time.
- Aaron Rodgers is playing much better: I’ve written about Rodgers’ body language during the previous matchup more times than I’ve probably needed to, but it’s a fact that Rodgers was not himself during the second half of season. Over his last six regular season games, Rodgers had thrown an interception in all but one of those games and only tossed multiple touchdowns twice. Against the Redskins last week, Rodgers threw two touchdowns and no interceptions. He still completed less than 60% of his pass attempts (something he did in three of his last six regular season games) but the performance was still a net positive, giving Packer fans hope that Rodgers is beginning to play like himself again.
- Defense is creating pressure: While the Cardinals’ offensive line is much better than the Redskins’ front five, you can’t ignore that the Packers’ defense looked much sharper last week. Against Washington, the Packers sacked Kirk Cousins six times and hit him 13 times. Compare that to what they did in week 16 in Arizona (two sacks, four QB hits). The big difference between the two games was the play of Clay Matthews. Matthews got 4 tackles and 1.5 sacks against the Redskins but was held without a single tackle against the Cardinals. Don’t expect another donut from Matthews this time around.
- Cardinals were humbled by the Seahawks: Coming off a blowout win over Green Bay and a Carolina loss, the Cardinals (winners of nine straight) became the talk of the league as possibly the Super Bowl favorite. Then the Seahawks slapped the Cardinals in the face, shoved them in a locker, and took their lunch money. How else do you explain being down 30-6 at halftime in your own building? Obviously the Cardinals are still very confident that they can win a championship, but at the same time it was a reminder that all it takes is one bad game and your season is over. This is both a good and a bad thing. It’s good because Arizona can learn from its mistakes and that playoff success isn’t guaranteed, but it’s bad in that opposing teams now fear the Cardinals less.
- Pass rush shakeup: Over the playoff bye week, Cardinals outside linebacker Alex Okafor found himself on the non-football injury list with a toe injury. While Okafor’s production can easily be replaced since his level of play was way down from last season, what it does cause is a depth shakeup at Arizona’s weakest position. Second-year pass rusher Kareem Martin will likely start but it may also mean more snaps for Dwight Freeney and newly-signed Jason Babin. While not the end of the world, the Cardinals would prefer to only play them in situational roles so as to maximize their impacts.
- Rashad Johnson is back: He missed the first game against Green Bay and if Rodgers is really back, the Cards will need Johnson in the secondary. Besides Tyrann Mathieu, no other player means more in the defensive huddle for Arizona, as Johnson is basically the quarterback of the defense. He’s also played extremely well, intercepting five passes to tie Mathieu for team-high. Whether or not he’s able to perform at a high level could be the difference between whether or not Rodgers can pass downfield on this defense.
Yet at the same time there are quite a few things that haven’t changed. Green Bay’s receivers still have a hard time creating separation. The Packers were able to manufacture some separation against the Redskins by running the ball effectively, but against Arizona’s sixth ranked rush-defense that’s tougher said than done. What happens if the Packers can’t get the running game going? Also the Packers still have a lot of trouble converting on third down. Green Bay went 3 for 11 (27.3%) on third down against Washington, which actually isn’t that far off from how the Packers did during the regular season (33.7%, fifth worst in the NFL). Arizona has only allowed its opponents to convert on 35.7% of third down attempts (eighth best in the NFL) so that remains a huge hurdle for the Packers.
Meanwhile for Arizona, forcing turnovers still dictates team success. In 13 wins, the Cardinals forced 33 turnovers, but the team didn’t force a single turnover in any of their three losses. While Arizona did generate four Green Bay turnovers during the teams’ first game, that looks more like an anomaly than trend as the Packers have only allowed 17 turnovers all season (fourth fewest in the NFL). Can the Cardinals still win if they can’t force any Green Bay turnovers?
The point I’m trying to make is that you shouldn’t expect a repeat of what happened during week 16. That game was a perfect storm for the Cardinals where everything went right and represents the best-case scenario for Arizona in this matchup. However, I really doubt things will go so smoothly this time around. Both Carson Palmer and Bruce Arians still have to get the “first playoff win” monkey off of their backs. The Cardinals as a team will have to deal with being the playoff favorite for the first time after living in the underdog role for so long. Also, Rodgers has experience taking the Packers to a Super Bowl title when Green Bay was a wild card team, like the team is this season.
I still think the Cardinals will win but it will be dogfight, with the Cardinals possibly needing a fourth quarter comeback to win. Yet the Cardinals know that after the season they have had, losing this game is not an option.
Game Pick: Arizona 34, Green Bay 27
My Wild Card Game Picks:
- Kansas City 23, Houston – Correct (KC 30-0) (1-0)
- Cincinnati 27, Pittsburgh 24 – Incorrect (Pit 18-16) (1-1)
- Seattle 20, Minnesota 17 – Correct (Sea 10-9) (2-1)
- Washington 31, Green Bay 23 – Incorrect (GB 35-18) (2-2)
My Other Divisional Round Picks:
- New England 20, Kansas City 16
- Carolina 24, Seattle 23
- Denver 24, Pittsburgh 13
Regular Season Record: 159-97 (.621)
Playoff Record: 2-2 (.500)
Total Record: 161-99 (.619)
Perfect Score Predictions: 2