FanHouse Preview: Packers at Cardinals
The Cardinals dialed everything back after they saw the Vikings throttling the Giants -- which eliminated any chance the Cards had to gain a bye. Thus, they knew they were locked into playing the Packers and decided to keep everything close to the vest. Kurt Warner and Beanie Wells only played a few series. Other starters were held back, as well as the scheming. They did play guys long enough to get pretty banged up, though. A handful of players, headlined by Anquan Boldin and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie were held out of practice early this week. The good news is that Antrel Rolle and Rodgers-Cromartie have gotten back on the practice field and it appears they'll be ready to play come Sunday. In fact, the only player who missed practice Friday was Boldin, and he'll be a game-time decision.
The Packers appeared to go all out for the victory, as they won big last Sunday. Many starters played most of the game, but they did hold back in terms of the game-plan on both sides of the football, according to head coach Mike McCarthy. They weren't blitzing near as much as usual on defense, Aaron Rodgers didn't take as many chances down field as he usually does, and starting running back Ryan Grant only carried the ball 11 times. They really just wanted to win to maintain their momentum, and they did so. No one in the NFC had a better record in the second half of the season than the Packers (7-1). They do have an injury concern in Defensive Player of the Year candidate Charles Woodson, but he's been dealing with the banged up shoulder for a while and claims he's ready to go.
Three Key Questions
1. Do the Packers have a psychological advantage because they just blew the Cards out (and also blew them out in the preseason)? Or do the Cardinals have a psychological advantage because they went to the Super Bowl last year and know Rodgers has never played in a playoff game -- much less on the road?
2. The Cardinals haven't played well against a quality opponent in just over a month. Can they simply flip the proverbial switch to negate the Packers momentum?
3. Can the Packers top-ranked (in the NFC) defense handle the Cards' prolific passing attack when it's going full-throttle?
Player in the Spotlight: It's gotta be Rodgers. He sat behind a Green Bay legend for three seasons before taking over. Last season, he was maligned when the team went seven wins backward, despite a great statistical season. This time around he's been even better and his team is among the best in the NFL as things currently stand. But he's never played in a playoff game and he's got to start by doing it on the road in a hostile environment against the defending NFC Champs. The defense needs to show up and the line needs to protect him, but if the Packers lose, the contingent of Brett Favre fans (a.k.a. fans who claim they are Packers fans but root against Rodgers) will be there to remind everyone Rodgers failed the team. And he knows it. We'll see how he handles the pressure.
Green Bay's Path to Victory: If Rodgers has enough time to throw, he will be able to find holes in the Arizona secondary. Even if Rolle and Rodgers-Cromartie play -- and expect them to do so -- they are banged up. The Packers have enough offensive firepower to pick them apart. Keeping him clean and comfortable in the pocket will be the task of the offensive line. Defensively, the Packers must force the Cardinals to take underneath routes and limit the big play. They do not want to get caught up in a shootout with Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald.
Arizona's Path to Victory: The Packers are probably the most effective blitzing team in the NFL, so the Cards' offensive line and running back tandem need to keep Warner off the deck. If they can, he'll likely find Fitzgerald in single coverage on blitz plays and be able to exploit it. They also need to run the ball enough times to keep the defense close to the box, because that opens up the big plays that we saw from Fitzgerald last year in the playoffs (when he caught seven touchdowns in four games). Defensively, they should blitz the hell out of Rodgers. The Packers offensive line had issues earlier in the season (Rodgers was sacked 50 times this year, after all), and causing those to resurface would be a huge step toward winning the game. Bryant McFadden, Adrian Wilson, Rolle and Rodgers-Cromartie can stick with Donald Driver, Greg Jennings and company for less than four seconds (in the case of a blitz).
Prediction: Yes, the Packers do have a great defense, but this one still feels like a fun one with loads of offense and yardage. Hey, someone's gotta pick up the slack on a weekend when the Bengals and Jets are playing a snooze-fest. It seems like nearly everyone believes the Cards are too banged up and the Packers have too much momentum for an Arizona victory. Also, it admittedly does appear the Packers ended the season the better team. But I just can't shake the feeling that the Cards have something to prove. When you're at home and have the Warner-to-Fitzgerald combo, that's really powerful. Oh, one more thing: if the game is as close as I think it is, the sizable advantage in coaching goes to Ken Whisenhunt over Mike McCarthy. That matters more than ever in the postseason. Cardinals 34, Packers 31.