NFL Preview - Green Bay (10-5) at Arizona (10-5)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - As the cliche' goes, the Arizona Cardinals and Green Bay Packers can only control what they can control as they get set to meet at University of Phoenix Stadium on Sunday.
No matter what happens elsewhere around the NFC, where Week 17 matchups between the Eagles and Cowboys as well as the Vikings and Giants will have much to say about the playoff position of all six of the conference's playoff entries, the Cardinals and Packers both know that a win in their own head-to-head matchup can't hurt.
For Arizona, it could actually help immensely.
The Cardinals have a chance at the No. 2 seed and the much-coveted first-round playoff bye it would bring, but would require a victory, a home win for the Cowboys, and a home loss for the Vikings in order to seize that opportunity. Arizona, Dallas, and Minnesota would all be 11-5 under that scenario, but the Cardinals defeated the Vikings head-to-head and would own a common games tie- breaker over the Cowboys.
Ken Whisenhunt's club will be third seed if they beat the Packers and the Cowboys and Vikings both lose, and would play Dallas in the Wild Card round based on that scenario.
Arizona will be the fourth seed if the Eagles and Vikings both win, irrespective of the outcome of its own contest against the Packers, and would face Green Bay for a second straight week when the playoffs get underway based on that scenario.
Unless the Cardinals can earn the No. 2 seed, they will face either the Packers or Cowboys on wild card weekend.
Green Bay, meanwhile, already knows it is in the postseason as a wild card, but could be either the No. 5 or No. 6 seed and could end up traveling to Arizona, Dallas, or Minnesota on the opening playoff weekend.
An Eagles win over the Cowboys would make the Packers the No. 5 seed, irrespective of what happens in their own game against the Cardinals, and beating Arizona under that scenario would guarantee Green Bay a second straight game against the Cardinals. A loss to Arizona under that scenario, and a loss for the Vikings against the Giants, would have the Packers facing Brett Favre and Minnesota in the 4/5 game.
A Cowboys win over the Eagles would make the Packers the No. 5 seed if they get by Arizona, based on a superior record to Philadelphia in common games, and would make them the No. 6 seed if they lose to the Cardinals under that scenario.
The Packers have won six of their last seven following a 4-4 start, smashing the Seahawks by a 48-10 count at Lambeau Field last week to officially enter the postseason field for the first time in Aaron Rodgers' two years as the team's starting quarterback.
The Cardinals, meanwhile, moved to 6-2 in their last eight games with last Sunday's 31-10 handling of the St. Louis Rams, clinching the organization's first double-digit win season since it went 10-4 in 1976.
The Packers lead the all-time regular season series with the Cardinals, which dates back to the 1921 season, 42-22-4, including a 31-24 win when the teams last met, at Lambeau Field in 2006. Arizona won the previous meeting, taking a 20-13 decision at home during the 2003 season. Green Bay is 0-1 in Arizona since last winning there in 2000.
In addition to the regular season series, the teams have met once in the postseason, a 41-16 Green Bay win at home over then then-St. Louis Cardinals in a 1982 NFC First-Round Playoff.
Packers head coach Mike McCarthy is 1-0 against the Cardinals as a head coach, while Arizona's Whisenhunt will be meeting both McCarthy and Green Bay for the first time as a head man.
The teams also met during the 2009 preseason, with the Packers taking a 44-37 decision in Glendale on Aug. 28th.
WHEN THE PACKERS HAVE THE BALL
Just days after being named to his first career Pro Bowl, Aaron Rodgers (4199 passing yards, 29 TD, 7 INT) takes the helm of an offense that ranks fourth in the league (381.3 yards per game) and eighth in passing (262.9 yards per game). The former first-rounder has thrown an interception in just one of his last seven games, emblematic of an offense that has thrown an NFL-low-tying seven INTs on the year and is No. 1 in the league in turnover margin (+22) and turnovers (15). Rodgers has had strong chemistry with wideouts Donald Driver (64 receptions, 6 TD) and Greg Jennings (65 receptions, 4 TD), as well as blossoming tight end Jermichael Finley (51 receptions, 4 TD). Driver needs just four receiving yards to join Jennings in the 1,000-yard receiving category. Also coming on of late has been running back Ryan Grant (1202 rushing yards, 10 TD, 25 receptions), who is over 1,200 yards for the second straight year and has scored five touchdowns in his last three games. Green Bay continues to rank last in the league in sacks allowed (50), and is tied for last in the league in fourth-down conversion percentage (25.0) along with the Lions.
The Cardinals defense looking top stop Rodgers and company received substantial accolades earlier this week, as three players - tackle Darnell Dockett (51 tackles, 7 sacks, 1 INT), safety Adrian Wilson (74 tackles, 5 INT, 2 sacks) and cornerback Domonique Rodgers-Cromartie (50 tackles, 6 INT) - were honored as Pro Bowlers despite the team's middle-of-the-pack rank of 20th in NFL total defense (346.5 yards per game). Rodgers-Cromartie and fellow CB Bryant McFadden (67 tackles) will have primary responsibility against Jennings and Driver, with Wilson and fellow safety Antrel Rolle (72 tackles, 4 INT, 1.5 sacks) helping out over the top. The pass rush ranks near the top of the league with 46 sacks, with Dockett and end Calais Campbell (46 tackles, 7 sacks) tied for the team lead in that category. Dockett is also part of a run-stopping group that ranks 18th in the league (113 yards per game), with linebackers Gerald Hayes (61 tackles) and Karlos Dansby (109 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) among the main tacklers behind him. Dansby had a team-high seven tackles in last week's win over the Rams.
WHEN THE CARDINALS HAVE THE BALL
The Cardinals will continue to be an aerial-based team built around the skills of quarterback Kurt Warner (3722 passing yards, 26 TD, 14 INT) and wideouts Larry Fitzgerald (94 receptions, 12 TD), Anquan Boldin (81 receptions, 4 TD), and Steve Breaston (52 receptions, 3 TD) until further notice, but Arizona has hinted in recent weeks and achieving more balance with backs Beanie Wells (774 rushing yards, 7 TD) at Tim Hightower (574 rushing yards, 8 TD, 61 receptions). Wells rushed 17 times for 68 yards and a touchdown last week, one Sunday after posting his first career 100-yard outing, while Hightower posted his most carries of December last week (10) and finished with 32 yards in the game. Warner, who was passed over for the Pro Bowl earlier this week, comes off a day in which he completed 24-of-38 passes for 313 yards and a pair of touchdowns against his former team, with Boldin going for over 100 yards and Fitzgerald and Early Doucet (13 receptions, 1 TD) both catching his TD passes. Boldin is 14 yards shy of his fifth career 1,000-yard season. Arizona has lost the most fumbles in the league (18) as Week 17 begins.
The Green Bay defense still doesn't seem to be universally respected, though the unit enters the regular season's final week leading the NFL in rushing defense (85.7 yards per game) and interceptions recorded (27), and had two players named to the Pro Bowl in cornerback Charles Woodson (74 receptions, 8 INT, 2 sacks) and safety Nick Collins (52 tackles, 6 INT, 1 sack) earlier this week. Neither Woodson nor Collins got in on the Pack's four-INT day against Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck last week, though safety Atari Bigby (45 tackles, 3 INT) notched a pair of picks on a day in which the team also sacked Hasselbeck three times. Outside linebackers Clay Matthews (51 tackles, 10 sacks) and Brad Jones (33 tackles, 4 sacks) will look to harass the less-than-mobile Warner this week. Up front, the team has received good push from rookie nose tackle B.J. Raji (23 tackles, 1 sack) and end Johnny Jolly (37 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT), among others, with inside linebacker Nick Barnett (100 tackles, 4 sacks) and A.J. Hawk (83 tackles, 2 INT, 1 sack) doing much of the cleanup behind them. Barnett had a game-high nine tackles against Seattle, while Hawk posted six stops and his second interception of the year.
This is one of those games that highlights the reason why most fantasy championships take place in Week 16, as it is unclear how the Cardinals and Packers will approach a game in which the motivation for winning will be uncertain. You'll need to monitor the scenarios right up until the 4:15 kickoff. If the Cardinals still have a shot at the No. 2 seed thanks to a loss to the Vikings, feel free to roll with Warner, Fitzgerald, Boldin, and company. If they're locked into a wild card weekend game by then, thanks to a Minnesota win, proceed with extreme caution.
Green Bay, meanwhile, may call off the dogs at some point in this one no matter what, especially if the Packers have to see the Cardinals again in a week's time. So don't expect Rodgers, any of his main targets, Grant, or the lynch pins of the NFL's top-intercepting defense to necessarily see the fourth quarter.
Though it's anything but a certainty, the chances of the Cardinals playing to win this game look pretty good. Even if Arizona can't get a first-round bye by the time it kicks off, the Cardinals may still want to go for the No. 3 seed in the hopes that the organization might eventually be in position to host the NFC Championship for a second straight year. If this was a normal week in the middle of the season, many objective observers would probably pick Arizona at home here anyway. No real reason to deviate from that prediction, and there probably won't be much of a reason to pick against the Cardinals should they host the Packers in the playoffs either.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Cardinals 28, Packers 20
12/30 18:19:56 ET