The greatest test the Green Bay Packers’ defense will face this season awaits Sunday.
Carson Palmer is playing the best football of his career at age 35 and it has revitalized his favorite target, 32-year-old Larry Fitzgerald. Rookie David Johnson’s performance in the backfield has surpassed Chris Johnson, who was placed on temporary injured reserve after fracturing his tibia last month.
On the surface, it appears nothing can stop the Arizona Cardinals (12-2), who are averaging an NFL-best 422.9 yards per game. The 445 points they’ve scored is second only to the Carolina Panthers.
Packers defensive coordinator Dom Caper didn’t watch the Cardinals’ dissection of the Philadelphia Eagles on the flight back from Oakland on Sunday night. He was too busy working on his post-game stats after Green Bay’s 30-20 win over the Raiders, a victory his defense played a significant role in earning.
Once Capers finally turned on the film from the dominating 40-17 victory, he saw an overpowering offense that has few holes. The Packers often talk about wanting to be a balanced team. That's exactly what will be staring them in the face Sunday.
“You look at them … the way they ran the ball, they can score points at will,” Capers said Monday. "They have all the complementary phases of what you look for: an outstanding veteran quarterback, a lot of skill at wide receiver, a big, physical tight ends, a veteran offensive line. On and on and on."
Arizona is the 29th team the Packers have faced since Capers took over as defensive coordinator in 2009 that will finish inside the top 10 in both total and scoring offense. Green Bay is 17-11 in those encounters, though that record falls to only 4-7 over the past three seasons.
Overall, Capers’ defense has allowed 27.2 points, 385.5 total yards, 117.5 rushing yards and 271.5 passing yards in those previous 28 contests. The closest Green Bay has come to facing an offense as statistically dominating as Arizona was in the 2011 regular-season opener against New Orleans.
The Saints, who finished the year first in total offense and second in scoring, put up 34 points and 477 total yards that day. The Packers escaped with the victory after a near-perfect performance from Aaron Rodgers (27-of-35 for 312 yards and three touchdowns) and a defensive stop with no time remaining on the Green Bay 1.
The Cardinals pose an even larger threat because they also feature a defense that’s allowing only 19.2 points and 329.6 yards per game this season. The defense lost arguably its best player, defensive back Tyrann Mathieu, to a torn anterior cruciate ligament Sunday, but is experienced and deep at most positions.
“They’re loaded,” cornerback Casey Hayward said. “I think they’re the No. 1 offense in the league. We have to find a way to slow those guys down. You just don’t stop their offense. You want to slow those guys down and get some turnovers, stop them on third downs and get our offense back the ball. That team has a good defense, as well. They have one of the top five defenses in the league.”
A win over the Cardinals would keep the Packers’ chances alive for the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs and a first-round bye. The outcome very well could come down to how much Capers’ unit is able to keep Arizona at bay given the offensive struggles the Packers have endured throughout this season.
It starts by matching wits with Cardinals coach Bruce Arians, who previously served as Pittsburgh’s offensive coordinator when the Packers beat the Steelers 31-25 in Super Bowl XLV.
“He has a scheme and you can see a lot of the same things that he did at Pittsburgh,” Capers said. “He knows that the balance of the run game, the pass game, making them look the same, the physical part of the game, how much it helps the quarterback play, you know they aren’t afraid to take shots and get big plays, and they’ve got people that can make big plays. That’s why they’re scoring so many points, but yet they can run the ball and things are well blocked and they know what the number game is and they can try to outnumber you.”
Defensively, the Packers feel like they’re playing at a championship level again after falling into a midseason slump against San Diego, Denver and Carolina. They picked off Oakland quarterback Derek Carr twice in the first 10 minutes to stake Green Bay to an early 14-0 lead.
The Packers rank 17th in total defense (351.7 yards per game) and have again climbed inside the top 10 in passing yards allowed (235.1 ypg). Several times over the past two months the Packers’ defense has made stops to either seal a win or give the offense a late shot at a comeback.
There’s a big difference between the likes of Detroit and Arizona, though.
“Every step you take, when you’re playing the real top teams, you’ve got to be able to win with any phase of your team,” Capers said. “I feel like our defensive guys are confident we can do that. We’re always searching for more consistency. … I think from the start of the season through — I like the way the first six games went in terms of the scoring defense — and then we had a couple of tough games where we inconsistent, but I think we’ve come back the last five or six games and played pretty consistent football.”
The next two games will determine where the Packers stand going into the playoffs. Even if it finds a way past Arizona — the Cardinals are 3½-point favorites — Green Bay may wind up playing for the NFC North championship in the regular-season finale like it has the past two years.
The Packers lead Minnesota (9-5) by one game, but a Vikings’ win over the New York Giants (6-8) this weekend would set up a winner-take-all matchup for the division crown regardless of whether the Packers win or lose Sunday.
“Obviously, Arizona is a hell of a team this year,” right guard T.J. Lang said. “It's going to be tough to go out there, two back to back West coast trips is never easy. We understand what's at stake. That's our first goal, winning the division, and these next two games are going to determine that. I think everybody understands that. That's part of the reason nobody's satisfied.”