NFL Playoff Preview - Green Bay (11-5) at Arizona (10-6)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Arizona Cardinals should be well-rested as they begin defense of their NFC title. The Green Bay Packers showed last week that they'll be ready when these two teams get together once again at University of Phoenix Stadium for this Sunday's Wild Card Round of the 2009 conference playoffs.
The Cardinals and Packers held what was essentially a dress rehearsal for this all-important elimination game last weekend in Glendale, with the clubs having been locked into a second straight meeting after NFC North champion Minnesota won its regular-season finale earlier in the day. As a result, Arizona treated the contest as such, with head coach Ken Whisenhunt opting to sit the majority of his regulars early on and utilizing a vanilla game plan on both sides of the ball.
Green Bay's Mike McCarthy took a different approach. Wanting to ensure his team would be sharp for the upcoming second season, the fourth-year sideline boss kept most of his starters in well into the second half, and the Packers responded by handing the undermanned Cardinals a 33-7 defeat. The loss was Arizona's most lopsided at home since Whisenhunt took over in 2007.
That authoritative victory capped a strong second-half surge that propelled Green Bay back into the postseason following a one-year hiatus. The fifth- seeded Packers prevailed in seven of their final eight regular-season tilts to finish with an 11-5 record, with the lone blemish being a one-point setback at Pittsburgh in which the Steelers scored the go-ahead touchdown on the game's final play.
Finishing strong doesn't always guarantee playoff success, however, as the 2008 Cardinals proved. Arizona closed out last year's regular season by dropping four of its last six games and was blown out in three of those losses, but regrouped to rip off three straight impressive postseason wins to advance to the franchise's first-ever Super Bowl.
The Cardinals, who were also seeded fourth in last year's NFC Playoffs, come in limping once again this year. Whisenhunt's cautious methods couldn't prevent Arizona from sustaining injuries to three key players in the finale, including standout wide receiver Anquan Boldin and Pro Bowl cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
Boldin suffered a high ankle sprain and a sprained MCL in his left knee during last week's loss and appears doubtful to suit up for Sunday's rematch, while Rodgers-Cromartie may be a game-time decision after being carted off with a bruised left knee on the opening series. In addition, starting defensive end Calais Campbell underwent surgery on Monday for a fractured left thumb he incurred in the game, but is expected to play after being fitted with a cast.
Arizona is healthy at the critical quarterback position, however, and possesses a proven playoff performer in two-time NFL MVP Kurt Warner. The 38- year-old has guided his teams to the Super Bowl three times in four previous postseason appearances and owns an excellent 8-3 record as a starter in the playoffs.
Green Bay triggerman Aaron Rodgers will be participating in the postseason for the first time of his blossoming career, but still brings some outstanding credentials into this matchup. The longtime understudy to Brett Favre ended a terrific 2009 campaign with 30 touchdown throws and 4,434 passing yards, just 26 shy of matching a team single-year record.
The Packers' last playoff voyage occurred in 2007, the last of Favre's 16 seasons with the organization. Green Bay went 13-3 that year and reached the NFC Championship Game as the conference's second seed, but came up just short of making the Super Bowl after falling to the New York Giants in overtime.
Sunday's winner advances to next weekend's NFC Divisional Playoffs and will visit either the top-seeded New Orleans Saints or the Favre-led Minnesota Vikings.
The Packers and Cardinals have met just once in the postseason, when Green Bay scored a 41-16 rout of the then-St. Louis Cardinals in a 1982 NFC First-Round Playoff. That game ranks as the most recent Green Bay playoff victory to be started by someone other than Favre, as the Packers were quarterbacked by Lynn Dickey that day.
The Packers lead the all-time regular season series with the Cardinals, which dates back to the 1921 season, 43-22-4, including last week's 33-7 triumph and 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.
McCarthy is 2-0 against the Cardinals as a head coach, while Whisenhunt is 0-1 against both McCarthy and Green Bay 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
A Green Bay offense that ended the regular season third in scoring (28.8 ppg) and sixth in total yards (379.1 ypg) has its share of weapons, with slashing running back Ryan Grant (1253 rushing yards, 11 TD, 25 receptions) placing third in the NFC in rushing and wide receivers Greg Jennings (68 receptions, 1113 yards, 4 TD) and Donald Driver (70 receptions, 1061 yards, 6 TD) each eclipsing the 1,000-yard mark. But most of all, the Packers rarely hurt themselves with costly mistakes. The team's 16 giveaways in 2009 were the fewest in the league, and Rodgers (4434 passing yards, 30 TD, 7 INT) enters the playoffs on a streak of 133 consecutive passes without an interception and hasn't turned the ball over in three straight games. The 26-year-old is also an elite playmaker, having compiled 316 rushing yards and five touchdowns on the ground in addition to completing nearly 65 percent of his throws. That mobility has certainly come in handy, considering Rodgers has been sacked an alarming 50 times and frequently had to run for his life early in the season. The Packers seem to have their protection issues somewhat resolved, however, now that steady left tackle Chad Clifton is back healthy from an ankle sprain and veteran Mark Tauscher was brought back in midseason to play the right side. Rodgers was sacked only 13 times over the final eight weeks, a contributing factor to Green Bay's 7-1 record in the second half.
The Packers' improvement in safeguarding Rodgers will be tested by an aggressive Arizona defense that's adept at pressuring the passer. Led by Campbell (48 tackles, 7 sacks) and Pro Bowl end Darnell Dockett (51 tackles, 7 sacks), the Cardinals amassed 43 sacks, the team's highest total since moving to Arizona more than two decades ago. That ability to generate heat will help out a secondary that has some injury concerns at the moment, with Rodgers- Cromartie (50 tackles, 6 INT, 25 PD) a question mark due to his knee problem and free safety Antrel Rolle (72 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 4 INT) dealing with a bruised quadriceps that kept him out of last week's finale. Campbell's effectiveness could be limited as well with his fractured hand in a heavy wrap. There's still plenty of impact talent on hand, though. Strong safety Adrian Wilson (74 tackles, 2 sacks, 5 INT) is a noted enforcer who earned a third career Pro Bowl nod this season, while inside linebacker and leading tackler Karlos Dansby's (109 tackles, 1 sacks, 1 INT) superb coverage skills should be an asset in dealing with Green Bay's potent short passing game.
WHEN THE CARDINALS HAVE THE BALL
Like its opponent this weekend, Arizona employs a pass-first offense that boasts an embarrassment of riches at wide receiver, where the hard-nosed Boldin (84 receptions, 1024 yards, 4 TD) and glue-fingered All-Pro Larry Fitzgerald (97 receptions, 1092 yards, 13 TD) form one of the league's premier pass- catching duos. Warner (3753 passing yards, 26 TD, 14 INT) doesn't have Rodgers' legs, but the battle-tested old pro's knowledge, accuracy and playoff pedigree -- his 98.9 postseason quarterback rating is the second-best in NFL history -- are tough to match. Fitzgerald has made a name for himself on the big stage as well, with the star wideout racking up seven touchdown catches while surpassing 100 receiving yards in each of the Cards' four playoff games last season. Boldin's likely absence will be a tough blow but not a devastating one, as the team has been able to win without him in the past and third-year man Steve Breaston (55 receptions, 3 TD) is a very capable No. 2 target. Arizona only ranked 28th in the league in rushing yards (93.4 ypg), but rookie back Chris Wells (793 rushing yards, 7 TD, 12 receptions) demonstrated he can be a physical factor when given an expanded role in the second half. The first-round draft choice figures to get the bulk of the carries on Sunday, with sophomore Tim Hightower (598 rushing yards, 8 TD, 63 receptions) used primarily on passing downs.
Green Bay's switch to a 3-4 scheme under esteemed coordinator Dom Capers was a smashing success, with the club yielding a league-low 83.3 rushing yards per game and finishing second in total defense (284.4 ypg). The Pack also topped the NFL in both takeaways (40) and interceptions (30), with shutdown cornerback Charles Woodson's (74 tackles, 2 sacks, 18 PD) nine picks tied for the most among individuals this year. The Defensive Player of the Year candidate played sparingly last week due to a nagging shoulder strain, but that won't keep him from shadowing Fitzgerald on Sunday. Free safety Nick Collins (53 tackles, 6 INT, 13 PD) is also an accomplished ballhawk who garnered Pro Bowl honors, while corner Tramon Williams' (55 tackles, 4 INT, 15 PD) strong play opposite Woodson helped offset the season-ending loss of well- regarded veteran Al Harris in November. The front seven is pretty darn good as well. Inside linebackers Nick Barnett (105 tackles, 4 sack) and A.J. Hawk (89 tackles, 2 INT) and nose tackle Ryan Pickett (33 tackles) anchor the team's rugged run defense, while rookie Clay Matthews (51 tackles, 10 sacks) quickly emerged as a top-flight pass rusher from his outside linebacker spot. The Packers surrendered only 187 total yards in last week's win, albeit against mostly Arizona second-stringers.
The Cardinals seem to have the edge in this often-overlooked area. Punter Ben Graham turned in a terrific season in which he averaged a club-record 47.0 yards per kick and placed a league-best 42 balls inside the enemy 20-yard line, while trusty kicker Neil Rackers made good on 16-of-17 field goal attempts and appears to be over a groin problem that caused him to miss two games late in the year. Rookie return man LaRod Stephens-Howling (24.2 avg.) took back a kick 99 yards for a touchdown in a late-November loss at Tennessee, while Breaston has a good track record on punts despite averaging a modest 6.7 yards per runback this year.
Green Bay has a pair of solid returners as well in Williams, who averaged better than 10 yards on punts, and reserve wide receiver Jordy Nelson (25.4 avg on kick returns). Kicker Mason Crosby was extremely erratic, however, hitting on only 75 percent (27-of-36) on three-point tries and missing over half his shots from 40 yards or beyond, while punter Jeremy Kapinos' 34.3 net average was the lowest in the league.
It's obviously hard to put much stock in last week's result, with the Cardinals treating the finale like a preseason game. Still, it's hard to deny the Packers' impressive play in all facets down the stretch of this season, and the confidence and momentum gained by their most recent performance should serve McCarthy's troops well on Sunday. While the Cardinals have demonstrated a flair for being able to flip the switch and rise up under the bright lights in the past, Green Bay is better on defense and has more offensive balance between these two teams. Add in Arizona's troubling injuries at a number of key positions, and a repeat of last season's magic may be a hard task to accomplish. In what very well could be one of the more entertaining games of the season's first playoff weekend, the Packers' advantage on defense and knack for winning the turnover battle could be the difference.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Packers 27, Cardinals 20
01/07 17:01:28 ET