It was just three weeks ago that the Packers were annihilated 38-8 by the the Cardinals. They looked like teams moving in opposite directions. The Packers had lost their offensive mojo and Arizona was looking like a well-balanced machine, with a formidable defense and a trio of dynamic wide receivers too match.
As we approach Saturday night’s NFC Divisional playoff game, the Packers seemed to have found their offensive flow in a 35-18 win over Washington in last week's Wild Card game. Arizona is trying to keep the momentum that helped them beat out two-time defending NFC Conference champion Seattle for the NFC West title.
The Packers and two-time league MVP (2011, 2014) Aaron Rodgers may be playing Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde when it comes to posting points, but Carson Palmer and Arizona have been among the NFL’s most explosive teams all season. Arizona’s offense ranks second in the NFL, averaging 289 yards in the air and 31 points a game.
The Cardinals feature a sick triumvirate of wide receivers – John Brown, Michael Floyd and Larry Fitzgerald – who all have different styles and various ways of shredding opposing defenses. Brown and Floyd are speed demons who can sprint by secondaries and beat teams deep all day. As if containing those two blazers aren’t hard enough, future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald is always a major option running short and intermediate routes, going over the middle and popping one on an unsuspecting secondary.
The big play is always in play when the Cards are on the field.
In a Wk 16 matchup, Green Bay managed to limit the Cardinals to 260 passing yards, but Brown and Fitzgerald both took one to the house and Floyd was uncoverable, hauling in six passes for a whopping 111 yards. Palmer threw for a ridiculous 4,671 yards this season and 35 TDs, and his 11 picks were his career low for a 16-game season.
Palmer's career has been filled with flashes of brilliance and befuddling inconsistency. In 2013, his first year with the Cardinals after spending two miserable seasons in Oakland and winning just 8 games, Palmer threw 24 TDs and 22 picks. Those numbers are bad enough to send a 34-year-old QB packing. His saving grace was the Cardinals' 10-6 record. He only played 6 games in 2014 and then this season it all came together at age 36 as Palmer led Arizona to a 13-3 season (he had never won more than 11 games and that was in 2005 with Cincinnati)
This is the best squad Palmer's ever rocked with, which includes rookie running back David Johnson, who accumulated 127 total yards and a touchdown as well in that game.
But Arizona isn't a one-trick pony. Their D is Top 10 too.
Green Bay's young secondary has improved as the season progressed and they have some speedsters who can cover back there, but if they are forced to play without corner back Sam Shields, who is recovering from a concussion suffered on December 13, then that raises the level of responsibility for Demarious Randall and Quinten Rollins (who is nursing an injury and has been limited in practice this week as well). Slot defenders Casey Hayward and Micah Hyde held Fitzgerald to 29 yards on four catches in their last meeting, but keeping him out of the end zone in red zone situations is another story.
Coach Mike McCarthy credits Hyde and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix with helping the Packers withstand the loss of veteran safety Morgan Burnett earlier in the season.
But this is the playoffs, and a team's flaws seem to magnify themselves in these situations. Palmer will attack the Packers youngsters, who have been known to give up a big play or two, but still finished a respectable sixth in the NFL in pass defense.
In return, the Packers D will have many opportunities to influence the game against a QB who, in a big game, can be shakier than Harlem in the summer and more temperamental than Lindsay Lohan during rehab. In his last playoff appearance as a Bengal in 2009, Palmer was a forgettable 18-37 for 146 yards in a Wild Card playoff loss to the NY Jets.
Who will crack first ? The Packers air control personnel or the clutch in Palmer's Lamborghini stat sheet?
It's on in the desert tonight.