Mike McCarthy was prepared to step in front of the meeting room last Wednesday and sell his football team on the underdog story of the 2015 Green Bay Packers.
The speech was geared to rally an offense that many had left for dead and a team that largely was written off after dropping six of its last 10 games entering the playoffs. Before McCarthy finished making his point, however, the Packers’ 10th-year coach abruptly altered his course.
The reason for the change of heart was rooted in McCarthy's long-standing notion of the Packers being “nobody’s underdog.” It’s one of the pillars of McCarthy’s coaching philosophy and a catchphrase he synthesized near the end of the 2010 season when the Packers were readying to play the New England Patriots without injured quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
The altered message hit home with the team. The Packers overcame a slow start and dominated Washington 35-18 in a wild-card playoff game Sunday to earn another shot at the second-seeded Arizona Cardinals, who routed Green Bay 38-8 on Dec. 27 at University of Phoenix Stadium.
As you might expect, the fifth-seeded Packers enter Saturday night’s divisional playoff game as seven-point underdogs. Just don’t tell McCarthy that.
“I got halfway through it and I dumped it. I mean, that's not us,” said McCarthy recalling his message to the team last week. “I get what people are saying. We're not going to be an underdog. We're no underdog going to Arizona. I don't care what people think or how we're picked or things like that. We're going out there to win, and we expect to win.”
At first glance, it’s easy to see why the Cardinals are so heavily favored. Arizona (13-3) fashioned one of the NFL’s most complete seasons in finishing with the league’s top offense (408.3 yards per game, 30.6 points per game) and the fifth-best defense (321.7 ypg, 19.6 ppg). MVP candidate Carson Palmer led all NFL passers with 8.7 yards per attempt this season, while Rodgers averaged a career-low 6.7.
The odds for Saturday night’s game may have been slanted even more toward the Cardinals if the follow-up to their decisive win over the Packers hadn’t been a bone-jarring 36-6 loss to Seattle. Arizona used its bye week to lick its wounds and prepare for any of the three potential opponents.
When the Cardinals watched the video from the Green Bay game, coach Bruce Arians should have liked what he saw. Arizona’s offense was fast and efficient, while its defense capitalized on the Packers’ depleted offensive line in forcing four turnovers and sacking Rodgers eight times.
Undeniably, there’s more optimism about the Packers’ offense now than there was two weeks ago. After habitually going dormant in the second quarter this season, Green Bay’s offense reversed its fortunes in that period against Washington by scoring 17 points and producing 160 total yards.
The second-quarter passing game helped set up the run in the second half with Eddie Lacy and James Starks combining for 107 and two touchdowns on 17 carries (6.3 yards per attempt) in the final two quarters to put the game away.
The flow and rhythm of a balanced offense enabled Rodgers to get the no-huddle back on track. He got the ball out of his hands quickly and orchestrated five consecutive scoring drives between the second and fourth quarters.
Comparatively, the Packers had scored on only four of their last 27 meaningful series dating to the loss in Arizona. It was the perfect medicine for an offense that has been grasping at straws in search of an identity. Now, the Packers know it's up to them to sustain that level of play.
“You build momentum moving forward,” offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett said. “I think our guys going into it, there’s a certain level, a certain standard that we have set around here. … That’s really what it’s all about, I think certainly playing at a high level (Sunday), it helps in knowing that again, we’re capable of playing at that high level every single time we step on the field.”
As gratifying as Sunday’s win was, Washington is not Arizona. The Packers won't have mediocre defensive backs such as Will Blackmon, Cary Williams and Dashon Goldson to prey upon this Saturday. Instead, it’ll be their charge to find separation and yardage against the likes of all-pro Patrick Peterson.
That’s something Green Bay and its receivers struggled to do last month. James Jones, Davante Adams and Randall Cobb amassed only 107 yards on 11 catches against the Cardinals, while Rodgers finished with a 66.2 passer rating. Meanwhile, Arizona's Palmer sliced through a depleted Green Bay secondary.
The Packers face many of the same injury questions that dogged them in the last encounter. Left tackle David Bakhtiari (ankle) and cornerback Sam Shields (concussion) have yet to return. Cornerback Quinten Rollins (quad) and Adams (knee) left Sunday’s win and didn’t return, though Adams indicated his injury isn’t believed to be serious.
The Packers probably won’t have to prepare for a litany of unscouted schemes from the Cardinals like they’ve had to do in the past with Seattle’s Russell Wilson and San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick. The Cardinals’ offensive structure is based around the 35-year-old Palmer maximizing the speed of his skill-position players.
“I don’t know how much they’ll change, because they’ve been so successful,” Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “I’m sure they’ll have some new wrinkles. Almost every week you get that. You might get a few more with that amount of time, but they’re not going to make drastic changes, I don’t think. They’ve been too successful with what they do.”
If history has taught McCarthy anything, it’s that late regular-season outcomes don’t have any bearing on the playoffs. The Packers dominated Arizona 33-7 in the 2009 finale only to lose a 51-45 shootout to the Cardinals the next week. The same scenario played out in 2011 against the New York Giants.
Both teams went on to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
A 4-6 record after the bye week has kept the Packers under the radar, but the life the offense showed against Washington is why McCarthy believes his team has a realistic chance at avenging their 30-point loss a little more than two weeks ago.
“Frankly, I think you could see it coming just when the schedule came out,” McCarthy said. “I felt the stretch in the second half, particularly the third quarter of the season, was going to be rough. Frankly, I was hoping it wasn't going to be as rough as it was.
“Those are all good things. Those are good experiences that you can draw from. And the fact of the matter and the reason why it felt good to us as a football team was all three phases played well, and when we do that, we win. That's the way we approach it.”
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