GLENDALE, Ariz. - This time, there was no saving the Green Bay Packers.
There weren’t any Hail Mary touchdowns with no time left on the clock. No late rally to make things interesting. After surviving for weeks on doing enough to win, the Packers were served a cold dose of reality in a decisive 38-8 defeat to the Arizona Cardinals in front of 64,878 at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Both teams are playoff bound, but the difference between them was staggering with the Cardinals (13-2) doubling-up the Packers (10-5) in total yards (381-178). Arizona’s defense sacked Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers eight times and scored a pair of touchdowns off sack-caused turnovers.
The Packers now can do no better than the No. 3 seed in the NFC playoffs after falling to top-seeded Carolina 37-29 last month and now the second-seeded Cardinals, who ensured themselves a first-round bye with Sunday's win.
“They were clearly the better football team today,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “Offensively, we really didn’t do much at all. I think the obvious is the turnovers and particularly the turnovers that turned into points for Arizona.”
The Packers, who were trying keep their chances alive at the No. 2 seed, were dominated in every phase of the game. Green Bay’s offense was held scoreless in the first half for the second time this month despite getting the ball at the Arizona 15 after a Mike Daniels’ interception with 2 minutes left in the second quarter.
Instead of being a turning point, it was the beginning of the end for Green Bay. Three plays after Daniels' pick, Cardinals cornerback Justin Bethel intercepted Rodgers on a pass intended for James Jones in the back of the end zone.
The Cardinals charged 80 yards down the field and scored 51 seconds later on a 7-yard touchdown pass from Carson Palmer to John Brown to give Arizona a 17-0 lead at halftime.
Rodgers' pick began a skid of the Packers turning the ball over on four of their next five possessions aside from a kneel down before halftime. Green Bay started the second half with the ball, but James Starks fumbled to give it right back to the Cardinals.
It was Starks' fifth fumble and third ball he's lost this season, both single-season career highs. He didn't play on offense for the remainder of the game.
Right tackle Bryan Bulaga went down with an ankle injury on the next series. Cardinals linebacker Kareem Martin then beat his replacement, Josh Walker, for a strip sack and fumble that Cory Redding returned for a 36-yard touchdown to extend Arizona’s lead to 31-0.
Rodgers managed a 28-yard touchdown pass to Eddie Lacy with the Packers already trailing 31-0 in the third quarter, but the Cardinals forced another turnover on the next series when Dwight Freeney beat left tackle Don Barclay to force another fumble of Rodgers.
"There's been a lot of frustration in here in recent weeks, especially offensively," right guard T.J. Lang said. "We're just not carrying our weight right now. It's hard to find optimism in that, to be honest with you. If you watched the game, I don't think we were struggling because of any lack of effort. I think it was just a lot of flaws fundamentally."
The Packers’ defense has kept the team afloat during an otherwise inconsistent year for the offense. It held Arizona early but struggled in adversity situations. In addition to the two turnovers returned for touchdowns, the Cardinals’ offense scored touchdowns after Starks' fumble and Rodgers' interception.
Already playing without top cornerback Sam Shields, the Packers’ defense couldn’t get the offense the ball back again after Daniels' interception.
“I’d be pissed off at us if I was on the defense,” right guard Josh Sitton said. “They’ve played pretty damn good this year — even tonight. … We’ve just got to find a way to be good on offense. We don’t have to be great. We have a really good defense and special teams. We just need to be good on offense.”