With Carolina realistically locked into the top seed, the race for the other first round bye in the NFC will be decided by Sunday’s game between Green Bay and Arizona. The Cardinals clinched the NFC West last week, but have higher ambitions. The Packers need every win they can get to stay ahead of the Vikings in the NFC North, so likely won’t have the second seed spot on their minds. Green Bay has struggled this season after looking ready for a Super Bowl run in the preseason. Aaron Rodgers and the offense have struggled, while the defense isn’t good enough to pick up the slack. With the Vikings surging in the NFC North, the Packers need to prove they can still hang with fellow playoff contenders. The Cardinals have been one of the league’s best teams this season, winning their first NFC West title since 2009 and proving that they are ready to take on the NFC’s established powerhouses. Carson Palmer is a legitimate MVP candidate, while the defense has been as ferocious as it is deep.
Three Keys to the Game:
1. Have Green Bay fixed their flaws?
Mike McCarthy reclaimed play-calling duties from offensive coordinator Tom Clements a couple of weeks ago and has seemingly fixed several problems. However, dig deeper and it’s clear that serious problems still remain. Yes, Eddie Lacy had a great game against Dallas after several struggles. But he regressed once again against Oakland, averaging just 2.1 yards per carry with 23 total yards. Against one of the league’s best defenses in Arizona, don’t expect him to have a strong performance. The Cardinals have allowed just 86.7 yards per game this season, fourth in the league. Aaron Rodgers and the passing game also struggled against Oakland. The Packers didn’t play well for much of the game, only coming alive in the final 20 minutes or so to escape with a win. Rodgers completed just 56.4% of his passes for 204 yards and a touchdown and an interception. If he plays like that against the Cardinals, it won’t be enough to win.
2. Can the Packers stop Arizona’s offense?
The Cardinals have the league’s best offense, averaging 422.9 yards per game. Carson Palmer has been one of the best quarterbacks in the league this year and has a potent stable of weapons to throw to. Rookie David Johnson is primed for an electric breakout game and is a potent dual-threat; he had 229 total yards against the Eagles. Frankly, Green Bay does not have the pieces on defense to deal with Arizona.
3. How much will the Cardinals miss Tyrann Mathieu?
Prior to his season-ending ACL tear with barely two minutes left in the game against Philadelphia, Mathieu was a leading candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. Mathieu plays a unique hybrid safety/linebacker position for the Cardinals, helping to overcome their lack of a true pass rusher while also being a ball hawk in the secondary. Mathieu will not be easily replaced, but the Cardinals have enough depth to compensate as much as possible. Regardless, Mathieu’s absence will be felt, especially against Green Bay. If there is one quarterback you don’t want to face after a setback like this, it’s Aaron Rodgers.
Match-up to watch: Green Bay secondary vs Arizona receivers
Arizona’s three top receivers; Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown, and Michael Floyd, have 202 receptions for 2786 yards and 19 touchdowns between them. That’s barely 600 more than all of Green Bay’s 13 receivers combined. Green Bay’s secondary doesn’t have the talent to deal with those three, and that’s leaving out tight end Jermaine Gresham and breakout receiver Jaron Brown. It’s a match-up that the Packers cannot win.
Prediction: Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals are one of the best teams in the league and have more than enough to beat Green Bay. Even if McCarthy and Rodgers do get the offense working at last, the Cardinals have enough firepower to win a shootout.